As Austin nears a full year since former City Manager Marc Ott left for a job in Washington, D.C., the lack of an official replacement has led to a pileup of vacancies in City Hall’s most senior positions.
It has led to more than a quarter of the city’s top executive positions — department heads, assistant city managers and the police chief — being staffed by interim or acting leaders. And the city is actively recruiting for very few of those openings.
While it might raise concerns of affected city services or the speed at which the city operates, Mayor Steve Adler said having seemingly temporary replacements still in those positions is by design.
“It’s not just happenstance,” Adler told the American-Statesman. “What we are trying to do is — to the degree that we can without impacting the delivery of city services — put the anticipated new city manager in a position where that person can create his or her own team.”
All said, 15 out of the 57 highest-level executives at the city of Austin are either “interim” or “acting” positions. Those people lead influential departments such as the Parks and Recreation Department, the Code Department and the Public Health Department.
And while interim City Manager Elaine Hart has stepped in to perform Ott’s old job, it’s meant that her previous job as the city’s chief financial officer is also being filled on an interim basis by her former deputy, Greg Canally.
Business as usual?
Hart told the Statesman that despite the numerous vacancies, the city has had little trouble soldiering on with regular city operations and has managed to move forward on several major initiatives, such as the rollout of Austin’s $710 million mobility bond and the massive rewrite of the city of Austin’s land use code known as CodeNext.
“We have the bench strength to keep the work going,” Hart said.
According to Adler and other officials contacted for this article, there is broad agreement on holding most of those positions open. Many outside city government agreed — even if the decision ends up gumming up the works.
“The longer it goes on the more problems it is going to cause,” said Mark Littlefield, a local political consultant and lobbyist. “But frankly and unfortunately, I think it is the right decision.”
Allowing the next city manager to assemble her or his own leadership team will ensure smooth sailing, Littlefield said. Directly appointing department heads now — considering the council might hire a city manager with a different vision for that department at the end of the year — could be counterproductive.
Littlefield recalled legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells’ departure from the New England Patriots after squabbles with the team’s owner.
“Like he said, ‘If they want you to cook the meal, you’ve got to let me buy the groceries,’” Littlefield said.
Rick Cofer, a lawyer at the Travis County attorney’s office and member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Board, agreed that waiting is the right decision, though it would have effects.
“It definitely slows down business to have a bunch of acting or interim officials,” Cofer said.
Austin’s city manager is the most powerful position at City Hall. The post holds many of the powers reserved for mayors in strong-mayor governments, where a city’s highest elected official might have a larger say in the hiring of department heads. In Austin, most of those hires are made by the city manager.
Hart has served in the position on an interim basis since Ott left in August. On Thursday, the City Council bumped her pay to $300,804.
The wait for Ott’s replacement will be felt most notably at the Austin Police Department. It has had an interim leader since former Police Chief Art Acevedo left to be the top cop in Houston in November. Acevedo’s chief of staff, Brian Manley has served in the position, since then.
“The city manager and the police chief have to have a strong relationship,” Hart said.
Hart said those positions require an immense amount of input from the City Council and the public, adding she would leave the lengthy process of finding the Police Department’s permanent leader to the next city manager.
But Hart hasn’t waited on some positions.
The mobility bond was too important to have it helmed by an interim director at the Public Works Department. In December, she hired former Atlanta commissioner of public works Richard Mendoza to lead the department.
Hiring a new city manager
The group tasked with whittling applicants to the city’s top job has just begun to pick up speed, with the group recently setting up a basic framework for how they will trim down the several dozen applicants to a handful of finalists. Adler said he hopes to hire a new city manager by the end of the year.
The City Manager Search Advisory Task Force will work with the executive headhunter group Russell Reynolds Associates over the next several months to create a profile for candidates by submitting surveys to 861 managers employed at the city of Austin, focusing on input from people more likely to work directly with the city manager instead of all of the city’s 13,000 employees.
The public is also submitting feedback on the search through a website and various meetings. The deadline for input is July 11.
“This is moving so quickly,” said task force member Julio Gonzalez Altamirano during a recent meeting. “I am surprised how far along we are. Mostly pleasantly surprised, but I want to make sure we do our job to get input from those that we don’t typically engage.”
After receiving applications and screening them, the task force plans to pare the group down to as many as 10 top candidates. Those will then be reviewed by the City Council and the advisory group based on initial interviews and then the group will be trimmed to a few finalists. All of this will happen outside of the public’s eye until the City Council selects a sole finalist, a departure for the city of Austin.
“We are not sitting around waiting for people to apply for the job — there may be those people — but we are at the same time actively soliciting people who we are hearing about that are actively doing this job very well,” said Stephen Newton, Russell Reynolds’ manager for the Texas area.
Status of vacant city of Austin senior positions
Marc Ott left in September 2016 to become executive director of the International City/County Management Association.
Interim: Elaine Hart
Status: Search firm hired in February; advisory task force formed in April.
Art Acevedo left in November 2016 to become Houston’s police chief.
Interim: Brian Manley
Status: Selection process for the next police chief won’t begin until new city manager is hired.
Director of Code Compliance
Carl Smart left in August 2016 to become an assistant county manager in Alachua County, Fla.
Interim: Cora Wright
Status: The city isn’t actively recruiting for this position.
Director of Austin Public Library
Brenda Branch retired in December 2016 after 25 years as director.
Interim: Toni Lambert
Status: One of the few positions for which the city is now actively recruiting.
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