No-show by City Manager Marc Ott rankles Austin City Council

Frustration over the city’s hunt for a new Austin Energy boss spilled over at City Hall on Thursday, as City Council members openly voiced their discontent with the list of finalists selected by City Manager Marc Ott.

Ott — who was scheduled at least a week ago to brief council members on the search for the utility’s general manager — wasn’t present at the meeting, notifying the City Council the prior evening that he and his top staffers would be attending a “department head training and planning session” in Bastrop instead.

“As you can tell, that seat is empty up on the dais,” said Council Member Sheri Gallo, who chairs the council’s Austin Energy Committee, explicitly pointing out Ott’s absence. “I apologize to the council members, because I know there were some questions that some council members did want to ask.”

The committee, she noted, had been asking Ott since March to provide a briefing on the search for a new general manager at the billion-dollar utility.

“The retreat had been in the works for some time,” said city spokeswoman Alicia Dean, who added that planning for the event had been underway since February. She added that the public and council members received the most recently available information on the Austin Energy search this week when the finalists were announced.

Dean said she couldn’t comment on why council members and the mayor weren’t notified of Ott’s trip until Wednesday evening, when Ott and his staff sent two emails to the council a half-hour apart.

Ott’s no-show added to mounting frustrations over the search for Austin Energy’s new boss. Some council members are so displeased they are considering a resolution that could reopen the hiring process — raising new questions about the city manager’s standing at City Hall.

The resolution would create a citizen’s committee that would not only have the power to review the candidates on Ott’s shortlist, it would also be able to “do outreach and review other candidates who are not,” according to a draft obtained by the American-Statesman. It was unclear how much support the resolution had.

“I think we just want to have a sense of what we’re missing,” said Council Member Leslie Pool, who said she would circulate the draft resolution for feedback. “These are asks from the council, and so we have asked the mayor to work with the city manager. None of this is official.”

The Austin Energy headhunt drama is the latest controversy to envelop Ott this week. Some community leaders slammed his decision to punish Police Chief Art Acevedo, docking the chief’s pay for five days for repeatedly speaking out about the death of 17-year-old David Joseph, who was fatally shot by an Austin police officer. Both episodes have arisen as the council works on its evaluation of Ott’s job performance.

The city launched its search earlier this year for a new Austin Energy leader after the last general manager, Larry Weis, left in January to run Seattle’s electric utility. Some longtime Austin Energy observers have been critical of Ott’s four finalists: One is an Austin Energy executive overseeing conservation and green-building programs, while the other three candidates come from communities smaller than Austin, one of which has fewer than 60,000 people.

During the Thursday hearing, council members echoed those concerns about the finalists and raised new issues about the hiring process.

For instance, Pool’s office was only told this week that an open house for the public to meet the finalists will take place Monday.

“My guess is that the community has not had sufficient time to hear about the evening sessions,” Pool said, adding that the late notice meant she and other City Council members would be unable to attend.

Council Member Kathie Tovo said she wondered if the post’s salary level was too low. Weis made $315,000 a year.

“I look forward to talking with our city manager about how the individuals, the finalists, were selected,” said Tovo, noting that she, too, was unaware that Ott and his entire executive staff would be out of town Thursday.

Tovo closed by telling Gallo: “Thank you for making space for this on the agenda. I’m disappointed we can’t really have a useful discussion about it.”

Gallo responded: “I’m disappointed, too.”

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