Highly paid executives hiding their faces from the public or ducking in and out of doors at the Hilton Austin Airport Hotel. Reporters and photographers conducting stakeouts to catch glimpses of applicants for the job of Austin city manager. Concealing candidate interviews by moving them to an undisclosed location at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in a conference room blocked from the public by airport security.
We have arrived at this absurdity — grown-up professionals engaged in a child’s game of hide and seek for the city’s most powerful position — because the Austin City Council voted to conduct a secret search for a new city manager.
The council’s clandestine move from the Hilton to the airport on Thursday raises a legitimate question about whether it is violating the state’s open meetings law, which requires public notice of where and when meetings will be — even when the meetings are in closed session.
Incredibly, the council’s decision to conduct a secret search was unanimous, representing a low point for the city’s first council elected in a 10-1 system that was supposed to yield council members more in tune with public interests. No one should have to tell them that transparency ranks at or near the top of Austin values.
But the City Manager Search Advisory Task Force did spell that out in its profile for selecting the next city manager, stating that the right candidate should be one who “embraces Austin,” supporting “an environment of transparency, community, innovation and open-mindedness.”
The city manager job became vacant more than a year ago, when Marc Ott left the post for a job in Washington, D.C. Elaine Hart has served as interim city manager.
Candidates who have insisted on or complied with shielding their identities from the public are thumbing their noses at Austin values. That is no way to start the job of city manager in a community as civically engaged as Austin.
More troubling is the warped maneuvering by the city’s legal department, with apparent support of Mayor Steve Adler and other council members, to use a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling to justify circumventing the Texas Public Information Act.
Instead of turning over the names of applicants when asked by the American-Statesman and other entities, the city of Austin sought an opinion from the Texas attorney general’s office to withhold them, using the Boeing v. Paxton case, as the American-Statesman’s Elizabeth Findell recently reported.
The 2015 ruling by the state’s high court ordered Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to block the release of some lease provisions in a contract between Boeing and the San Antonio Port Authority, based on an argument that the details could hurt the aerospace giant competitively. Unfortunately, that ruling has been used — abused really — by Texas public entities to withhold all sorts of information, such as how much taxpayer money they pay for entertainment, how their contracts to feed schoolchildren are structured and how many drivers permits they issue.
The city of Austin similarly is engaged in contortion of the Boeing ruling. That is a huge rub from a city that boasts of its transparency and prides itself on advancing progressive positions.
Adler and some council members justified decisions to keep the public in the dark until there is just one finalist – the person the council picks for the job — with the nonsensical explanation that doing so would yield a bigger and better pool of applicants. The mayor described the competing issues as a “forced choice” between “mutually exclusive” goals of transparency and luring the best possible applicants for the job.
Adler and council members are following the advice of the city’s hired search firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, which has told them that top candidates might be put off if their names are made public because their current employers would become aware they are seeking work elsewhere.
Seriously? Are we to believe that their employers are naïve to the common practice of head-hunting for skilled executives to fill jobs for city managers, school superintendents, police chiefs or other top administrators?
Adler said that if the semifinalists — four or five candidates selected from interviews — agree, their names might be made public. This newspaper is not waiting for agreement from job seekers or city officials.
On Wednesday, the Statesman sued the city of Austin to gain access to the names of candidates.
Statesman Editor Debbie Hiott stated: “Whether the City Council agrees or not, the legislative intent of the Texas Public Information Act has always been clear, that this is the type of information the public is entitled to know. If the city doesn’t want to inform the public, the newspaper will.”
City officials would have us believe that Austin is in competition with 16 Texas cities — most of them a fraction of Austin’s population — searching for qualified people to fill city manager and administrator jobs in Texas, referencing a list by the Texas Municipal League. Findell reported that the group’s website listed Sachse — northwest of Dallas, population 25,039 — as the largest city, other than Austin, seeking a city manager.
Consider that Austin has a population of about 950,000, pays its interim city manager $306,233, employs 14,000 people and operates a $3.9 billion annual budget.
By continuing to keep Austin residents in the dark, Adler and the City Council are creating a huge hurdle for the man or woman who ultimately is hired and who first must deal with the lost trust, goodwill and confidence squandered by the city’s secret search. Better to reverse course now and release names.