- Deborah Sengupta Stith American-Statesman Staff
Don Pitts, music program manager for the city’s Music and Entertainment Office, resigned Tuesday morning after a month on paid administrative leave. Pitts, whose city salary was $95,180.80, was placed on leave Jan. 13, pending completion of a city auditor investigation.
“I didn’t follow exact city protocol on an incident that I handled,” Pitts said Tuesday afternoon. He declined to go into more detail, but he said it was related to failure to discipline one of his employees.
“As a music industry person, I realize I work differently. I understand why protocol is important in the life of a city bureaucracy, and I realize it is time for me to not work within a bureaucracy any longer,” he said in his letter of resignation to Alex Lopez, deputy director of the Economic Development department. Neither Lopez nor a spokeswoman for the Economic Development Department returned phone calls or emails Tuesday, which included questions about how the office is handling South by Southwest-related duties in Pitts’ absence and whether his position would be filled.
In his time at the music office, Pitts advocated for policy changes such as a one-stop permit for venues and agent of change measures that would, if ever passed, provide relief to the music venue owners who say their venues are getting squeezed. He played a central role in commissioning a first-of-its-kind census of the Austin music industry in 2015. Recently, he helped develop a pilot program for extended curfews in the Red River Cultural District. An amended version of the proposed program was approved by City Council in late January, while Pitts was on leave.
Pitts, whose long history in the music industry includes working in venue and artist management in Nashville and Austin, was hired to run the office when it was created in 2010. The mission of the office was to focus on the economic development of the Austin music industry, but it quickly became mired in mitigating sound complaints and noise ordinance enforcement. Pitts said he found himself frequently working 15-hour days.
“For the past three or four years, I became a sound fix-it guy,” he said, calling these duties a determining factor in his decision to resign. “That’s not why I spent 25-30 years in the industry.”
Supporters of Pitts included Mary Ingle, former chairwoman of the Austin Neighborhood Council, who called it “a tragedy to lose this guy.”
“He worked on building trust all over the community, and you can’t build trust overnight,” she said. “I was really upset to find out he was put on leave. I don’t know what transpired, but I can’t imagine it was that bad.”
Ingle said that when no one at City Hall responded to complaints from neighbors far north of bars on Red River Street that loud music was traveling up Waller Creek to them, Pitts would not only respond to text messages but would jump in his car and investigate.
Jennifer Houlihan, former director of the music advocacy organization Austin Music People, said Tuesday that those late-night runs left Pitts feeling overtaxed. “I don’t see how a city can call itself ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’ with a straight face while making the person in charge of economic development for a $2 billion creative industry serve as a hall monitor for 2 a.m. concrete pours,” she said.
Four new positions were added to the music office this year to cover some of Pitts’ duties, including an evening shift to help with nighttime noise complaints.
Pitts said he plans to continue working on music in Austin. “My passion is music development and I think I’m a better fit for the private sector,” he said. “(It’s) a different shade of red in the tape.”