Packed town hall showcases finalists for Austin Public Health director

A town hall Wednesday night showcased the two finalists running to become Austin Public Health’s next director.

Stephanie Hayden, the current interim director, and Dr. Philip Huang, with the department’s Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Division, are the two remaining candidates vying to lead the department that manages a variety of health-related issues in the city, including immunizations, restaurant inspections and emergency preparedness.

Hayden has worked for the city for 17 years as a supervisor, manager, assistant director and deputy director. Huang has split his 20 years in public service at Austin Public Health and the Texas Department of State Health Services. In his current department, he is the health authority/medical director and assistant director.

Austin’s assistant city manager, Sara Hensley, is expected to make a final recommendation to the city manager by March 1. Part of her decision will be based on the written feedback received from Wednesday’s town hall.

The room of the town hall at Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center was packed with Austinites, including health care professionals, Public Health employees and concerned citizens.

During the town hall, Hayden highlighted her managerial experience in Austin. 

“The great thing about working for the city as long as I have is I know the shortcuts,” she said. “The city is a very complex organization. I know people in a lot of places, and I'm always nice. When someone says, ‘You're always so nice,’ I say, ‘I'm priming the pump for later. Because I'm gonna be back. Because I'm gonna need a favor.’”

By serving as an assistant director in a division of Austin Public Health, Huang also has experience managing staff and budgets. 

Hayden also emphasized her desire to engage regularly with medical professionals,  activists and people working in social services.

“It's key to meet with the community, with community leaders,” she said. “When you're somewhere, and a community leader doesn't know who you are, you've got a problem. As a public servant in a leadership role, if you've been here long enough there shouldn't be any community leaders who don't know who you are.”

Huang also stressed the importance of community outreach. 

“We need to go to the events the community is having rather than making the community come to our events. ... We (Austin Public Health) convene these events, but the people are too busy to come to our events,” he said.

Huang highlighted his understanding of not only how the city functions but how the state functions as well.

When he transitioned from the state department to Austin’s, “I was struck by how vulnerable city positions are to grants. Our city has often stepped up to the plate when these positions go away and found a way to fund them, but the director also has to make that case for the importance of these positions.”

Sumit Dasgupta, an Austinite who attended the meeting, said he thought both candidates had strengths and weaknesses. 

“I think Dr. Huang has more training in medicine and public health, and Stephanie Hayden has more training in social work and has more managerial skills,” Dasgupta said.

Huang is a medical doctor who completed his residency training at Brackenridge Medical Center in Austin and obtained his master’s degree in public health from Harvard University. Hayden is a licensed social worker who, before she worked for the city, worked as the director of clinical services at the Alternative Learning Center for the Austin school district and was the assistant director at the Williamson County Mental Health Center. She received her master’s degree in social work from Our Lady of the Lake University.

“I think he has stronger connections within public health, and she has stronger connections within the city,” Dasgupta said. “Ultimately, it’s a matter of deciding what kind of director you want.”

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