City manager search: Lazarus looks to return to Austin

Howard Lazarus is the closest thing Austin has to an internal applicant to be the next city manager.

With eight years as the city’s director of the Public Works Department, Lazarus, 61, would be a familiar face at City Hall, having been away for only a year and a half.

Lazarus is a soft-spoken man who is reliable and able to lead the city, former Mayor Lee Leffingwell and former Council Member Mike Martinez said. Leffingwell called Lazarus a “straight shooter” whose background as an officer in the military, plus his service in the public and private sectors, gives him an enviable résumé.

“I would give him a high grade,” Leffingwell said. “He has that blend of experience from other places but also a lot of familiarity with the peculiarity of Austin.”

Lazarus told the American-Statesman that the job would be a return to a city that became his home.

“When we moved to Austin, Austin became home,” Lazarus said. “The decision to leave was really hard. Over the course of eight years, we developed deep roots, but I needed to make a decision to grow professionally.”

THE OTHER GUY: City manager finalist Spencer Cronk touts ability to build bridges

Lazarus became city administrator of Ann Arbor, Mich., in June 2016, heading a workforce of about 1,000 and a budget of $400 million. A jump to lead the city of Austin would mark a considerable increase in the number of employees managed as well as the size of the city’s budget. Ann Arbor has 120,782 residents, compared with Austin’s 947,890, according to 2016 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I am delighted with his service here in Ann Arbor and understand why they would be interested in interviewing him,” Mayor Christopher Taylor told the Ann Arbor News last month after Lazarus went through the first round of interviews for the job. “I hope to have the opportunity to work with him here for years to come.”

If he is selected for the Austin job, he’d be skipping a rung on the ladder of the city’s bureaucratic latticework, leapfrogging the assistant city managers to whom he once reported to become their boss after less than two years away from the city.

“From an experience standpoint, I have never been better prepared to take on the challenge of the city manager job,” Lazarus said. “I have experiences in all aspects of community government.”

Lazarus and Minneapolis City Coordinator Spencer Cronk are the final two candidates under consideration. Both will be in town this week for continued interviews with the city staff and the Austin City Council and at public forums.

RELATED: Diversions and disguises: Behind Austin’s city manager search

Lazarus’ career has centered on engineering and public works. His current job in Ann Arbor is his first role leading an entire city.

Lazarus served on active duty for the Army Corps of Engineers from 1978 to 1992, first as an engineer deployed to various locations before becoming a professor of environmental engineering at West Point from 1987 to 1990, when he began managing installations and programs at Army posts in Colorado. In 1992, Lazarus became a reservist, and he retired as a major in 2000.

He is a graduate of West Point, has a master’s degree in engineering from Johns Hopkins University and is a graduate of Harvard University’s senior executives in state and local government program.

After becoming a reservist, Lazarus’ career took him to Newark, N.J., where he was director of engineering for the city and then became director and later vice president of a private infrastructure firm.

As director of Austin’s Public Works Department for eight years, Lazarus headed a department of about 720 employees and a capital improvement program of more than $2 billion. The department builds and repairs roads, bridges, water lines and trails, and it handles major construction projects such as the Waller Creek Tunnel and the recently completed new Central Library.

The city hired him in 2008 with a salary of $162,000. In Ann Arbor he made about $215,000, according to the Ann Arbor News. It is unclear how much he would be paid if hired, but interim City Manager Elaine Hart’s salary is $306,233.

“Austin deserves the very best that there is in that they should be looking for somebody that understands the community, has a breadth of experience and cares deeply about the community,” he said. “I hope I measure up.”

Lazarus and his wife have two daughters who live in New York City.

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