Austin’s top civil service official is on the job through the end of October, but the City Council put its search for Marc Ott’s replacement into gear Tuesday.
Under the process recommended by city staffers, the council would first select an interim city manager to run the day-to-day operations of city government after the departure of Ott, who announced Friday he is leaving to run a government managers’ association in Washington, D.C. Then the City Council would begin the process of searching for a new city manager.
In their early comments about the process at a work session Tuesday, Council Members Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool expressed a desire to have the public involved in the process. Council Member Ora Houston added that city employees should be included as well.
Assistant City Manager Mark Washington, who recommended the city enlist a firm to coordinate the search, said the process could take six to nine months.
The job is huge, overseeing the day-to-day operations of a city which, with a nearly $1 billion annual budget and about 13,000 municipal employees, does everything from policing the streets to running the airport, libraries and parks as well as providing electricity and water to more than 800,000 people. And the city manager has 11 bosses: the mayor and 10 City Council members elected from districts around the city.
“You really have multiple bosses,” said former Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who voted to hire Ott in 2008. “It’s very difficult to walk that line and be responsive and collaborative with all of the council members and keep their support.”
Much has changed since Austin’s last city manager search netted Ott nearly a decade ago: The city ditched its previous at-large City Council for district-based representation. The city also has grown by more than 100,000 people and struggled to cope with a wave of growth that has sent housing costs soaring.
It’s a set of challenges that Ott said Friday could seem daunting.
“Austin is the 11th-largest city in the country with a rapidly growing population. It’s a complicated organization made up of a citizen population that practices what I like to call ‘advanced citizenship,’” Ott said at a Friday press conference, where he spoke about decision to leave Austin to become executive director of the International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C. “For any manager, no matter how skilled … they’re going to find that both challenging and rewarding.”
While City Council members are still hammering out the process for replacing Ott, some potential clues as to how it might unfold can be found in the searches that made him city manager. It took months and involved the city hiring an executive recruitment firm to comb the country for candidates. Ultimately, that process produced two finalists: then-San Antonio Deputy City Manager Jelynne Burley and Ott, then an assistant city manager in Fort Worth.
“That would be the traditional thing to do,” said Peck Young, a longtime Austin political consultant, of the national search option, adding it was far too early for any names to have emerged. “We ought to have a search.”
That call for a national search was echoed by former Council Member Sheryl Cole, who voted to hire Ott in 2008.
“I think they should be looking for a city manager who has some experience with some of the more pressing issues facing the city,” she said, listing transportation, gentrification and Austin’s stark economic divide as some of the city’s most pressing challenges. “It’s going to be important to have a city manager that can reach out to new Austin,” referring to the technology money that has flooded in.
Some longtime activists are pushing to put a citizen-led committee in charge of the hunt. One proposal, floated by longtime elections attorney Fred Lewis, would include just two council members, the interim city manager and six citizens representing a variety of interests such as affordable housing, developers and the neighborhoods.
“I want it to be a public hunt, where the public has some input, since they’re going to pay for the salary and live with the management,” Lewis said. “I just want the best city manager we can find because we have a big, complicated city.”
Visit this story online to see an interactive timeline of key moments in City Manager Marc Ott’s Austin tenure.