Advocates: Lack of Latinos shows flaws in Austin city manager search

Dec 18, 2017
Spencer Cronk, left, and Howard Lazarus, right.

As the Austin City Council is set to pick the city’s next top administrator Tuesday, many from organizations representing Austin Latinos are crying foul about the selection process because none of the six finalists was Hispanic.

The two remaining candidates to be Austin’s city manager are Minneapolis City Coordinator Spencer Cronk and Ann Arbor, Mich., City Administrator Howard Lazarus.

Paul Saldaña, co-founder of Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin, also questioned the experience of Lazarus and Cronk, given that the cities they now lead have far fewer Latinos per capita than Austin.

Census numbers from 2010 show that 35.1 percent of Austinites are Hispanic, compared with 10.5 percent of Minneapolis residents and 4.1 percent of those living in Ann Arbor.

“If they have no experience dealing with a very diverse community, then that is a problem,” said Saldaña, a former member of the Austin school board.

The council will probably make its decision behind closed doors Tuesday during an executive session slated to begin at 2 p.m. at City Hall. No public comment will be taken.

Austin has been without a city manager for more than a year after Marc Ott left the position for a job in Washington. Since then, interim City Manager Elaine Hart has led the staff at City Hall. Hart was not considered for the permanent city manager job in a hiring process that was conducted in unusual secrecy for a top-level municipal post.

READ: Austin vs. Watauga? City claims competition to keep candidates secret

The public was not made privy to who was being considered for the job until Statesman reporters began unmasking semifinalists for the job on social media during their first round of interviews Oct. 31 and Nov. 2. The council did eventually opt to release the names of some still being considered for the job, reversing course from its original intent to only release the name of a single finalist.

At last week’s regular City Council meeting, the District 7 director of the League of United Latin American Citizens questioned the hiring process.

“The selection process has been flawed with lack of transparency, lack of inclusiveness and lack of consideration that Austin is a minority majority city,” Frank Ortega told the council. “We are deeply disappointed in our City Council and especially our Latino council members, who have not shown any responsiveness to our concerns about city employment and underrepresentation.”

Public comment from residents was limited to discussion of the city’s timeline for trying to fill the position. Austin residents had five days to familiarize themselves with Cronk and Lazarus before the city conducted its only public forum with the candidates.

That forum generated 100 written comments that the city made available to the public Monday. If there was any theme that emerged from that input, it was whether experience with Austin city government should be considered a strength or a weakness.

Cronk’s job in Minneapolis, where there is a strong-mayor system, is much more limited that the city manager position in Austin. Several said his relative lack of experience would bring fresh eyes to the job and perhaps break the bureaucracy of any bad habits that have festered. Conversely, many said Cronk’s relative youth might make the city manager job a little too much.

“He’ll bring fresh eyes and energy to the role,” one person from the South and Southeast Austin District 3 said of Cronk. “I feel like he’ll really help in this huge time of transition and growth in the city.”

What makes Lazarus an attractive candidate for some is a résumé that includes eight years as director of public works for the city of Austin and thus familiarity with the city’s problems. At the same time, many of those same commenters feared that his existing relationships might make him unwilling to clean up inefficiencies.

“Lazarus’ strengths are that he knows Austin,” a resident from the North and Northeast Austin District 4 said. “He was poised and articulate and looked at the audience. He gave great answers that got to the point.”