Austin’s finally looking to hire. Does the city need new rules for it?


About a quarter of city’s highest-level executive position are vacant.

Council to consider telling staff to create a “consistent and transparent process” for appointing executives.

After 17 months without a permanent city manager, 14 months without a permanent police chief and with more than a dozen other top city leadership positions unfilled, brain drain and uncertainty have touched various corners of Austin operations.

Now, City Manager Spencer Cronk is officially at work and may begin filling some of those jobs. The Austin City Council wants to tell him how to do it.

The council will weigh a proposal Thursday from Council Members Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter, Delia Garza and Ora Houston directing the city’s staff to work with human resources and the city’s equity officer — a post created in 2016 to identify disparities in city programs and services — to create a “consistent and transparent process” for appointing executives in the city.

It’s unclear whether that wording is meant to indicate a shift towards more transparent hiring for top positions. During the city manager search, the city went to extreme lengths to try to stop candidates’ names from becoming public and tried to withhold public information revealing them. Records later revealed that of the 44 applicants for city manager, eight were women, four were black, and seven were Hispanic.

ALSO READ: From 44 to 1: Did Austin get a good city manager applicant pool?

As several top-level employees have left the city and jobs underneath them have gone unfilled, some departments have seen complex shifts of roles as people move to interim posts. Eighteen of the city’s director and assistant director level positions are vacant, including about a quarter of Austin’s highest-level executives.

They include two of five assistant city managers and the directors of aviation, economic development, animal services, resource recovery, police and public health. They also include all three assistant directors of code compliance and five other deputy directors.

“Wow,” said Carol Guthrie, business director of Austin’s employee union, as she heard the titles read aloud. “No wonder things are the way they are. … It’s huge at the executive level to have that many vacancies. I’ve been around 40 years, and I’ve never seen it like that.”

Even if she didn’t tally the technical vacancies, Guthrie has heard from city employees for a while about vacancies and interim directors slowing work at the city.

PREVIOUS: City manager search leaves several top city jobs in limbo

“There has been a feeling from the employees that no one is in charge,” she said. “These people are in acting roles, nobody’s there permanently, so they’re not committed to ‘This is my job,’ because they’re going to get moved again. It hasn’t been very productive.”

The resolution up for a vote Thursday instructs the staff to research best practices to create a standard process for appointment. The union supports that move.

There have been concerns, lately, about some appointments being made unfairly, Guthrie said. Some departments treat appointments differently than others, and some have resulted in appointments of people who fell outside of the normal application process. She sees the resolution coming before the council as a way to set standards for competition and to make sure everyone is vetted in the same way.

Even if putting those standards in place takes a little more time, it might be worth it, she said.

“It’s just to bring a uniform approach to those level of positions because it’s been all over the place,” she said. “We’ve been suffering for two years with no leadership, so another six months (of weighing the process) isn’t going to hurt anything.”

BACK STORY: After lengthy search, Austin council picks Cronk for city manager

She added that she hoped the move wouldn’t be seen as a lack of confidence in Cronk, who started as city manager Monday and is responsible for all city departments and employees.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan raised questions over whether the council was directing the staff too much on hiring.

“I’m always concerned when we tread a line that may or may not be in conflict with the charter, and the charter is pretty clear about the manager being responsible for staff,” he said.

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