Austin hasn’t yet selected a search firm to bring in candidates for city manager, but already the selection of the selectors has drawn second-guessing.
Should city leaders be looking for career city managers or private-sector executives? Should they be advertising for a wide pool of applicants or headhunting for particular candidates? Should they pick a traditional government-job search firm to find people or spend more money to find different kinds of candidates?
Former City Manager Marc Ott left the city in October to lead the International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C. Austin advertised the need for a search firm to find his replacement by notifying more than 600 companies — including such names as Mobile Nerds and Nurses Etc. Staffing that were unlikely to bring in a city manager.
Ten companies applied for the gig. Staffers ranked them based on references, applicable experience and personnel qualifications and then recommended the selection of Ralph Andersen & Associates, a firm specializing in municipal hires, for a cost of up to $65,000.
The whole process has drawn fire from such critics as Mike Levy, former Texas Monthly publisher and Public Safety Commission member, and Fred Lewis, a lawyer and activist. They argue the entire process is amateurish and unlikely to draw top candidates. Instead, they argue, Austin should target people who haven’t been city managers before by spending more money for a corporate headhunter.
“What a search firm does is, first of all, a huge amount of research to see who out there is right for the job,” Levy said. “Somebody good isn’t reading the professional journals” where Austin would likely post ads for the city manager job.
While Austin City Council members won’t make a decision on how to move forward until Thursday, several sounded amenable during a discussion Tuesday to widening the consideration of potential search firms.
“The question is, why didn’t we send the RFQ (request for qualifications) to, in particular, these four firms?” asked Council Member Leslie Pool, referring to companies Levy and Lewis found on lists of top corporate recruiters.
Staff members responded that the city hadn’t looked to high-level corporate recruiting firms in the past and had thought their fees to be above the city’s targeted budget.
Council Member Ellen Troxclair said she would support redoing the request for proposals to get a wider array of potential search firms. Council Member Don Zimmerman suggested hiring two search firms: One to focus on applicants with government experience and the other to find applicants in the private sector.
Mayor Steve Adler also indicated he would support widening the pool of search firms and perhaps hiring one traditional city manager firm and one to look at nontraditional candidates.
“While some people in the community have suggested four firms in particular, you shouldn’t feel bound by that,” he told staff members. “They’re just additional ones to consider.”
When Fort Worth hired a new city manager two years ago, its contract with search firm Whitney Smith Co. stipulated a payment of 25 percent of the new city manager’s base salary. That ended up being $78,750, plus up to $3,000 in expenses.
This year, Dallas, which has five city manager finalists in town this week for interviews, paid $30,000 for its national search — even less than the $40,800 it paid in 2013 when City Manager A.C. Gonzalez was hired. Dallas has tended to promote from within for its city managers, and Assistant City Manager Mark McDaniel is considered a favorite for the job now.
In a blog post criticizing Dallas city leaders for the current search, D Magazine suggested it put Dallas at a competitive disadvantage against Austin for candidates.
“Let’s talk about the rivalry between Austin and Dallas,” the D Magazine post said. “Austin, with about 375,000 fewer people than Dallas, will likely spend $90,000 searching for its next city manager. At the very least, it is going to spend $40,000.”