Austin’s city manager search lagging behind others

Austin City Hall (KXAN Photo)
Austin City Hall (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It has been nearly 11 months since Marc Ott announced he would resign his position as Austin’s city manager. So far, the city council has not interviewed a single candidate to fill the most influential office at City Hall.

“I think it’s going really well,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo of the search for a city manager.

Going well and going quickly are two very different things. Austin’s search has moved at a snail’s pace compared to the five major cities that have hired a manager in the past five years:

  • Charlotte, North Carolina: 8 months, 23 days
  • Fort Worth: 8 months, 4 days
  • Dallas: 6 months, 15 days
  • San Jose, California: 5 months, 21 days
  • Phoenix, Arizona: 5 months, 19 days

The city manager is like the CEO of the city. And because the city council wants Austin’s next manager to make their own hires, the chief of police and other high level positions are stuck in limbo. In fact, more than 25 percent of the city’s 55 executive positions are being filled on an interim basis.

So, what’s the hold up? It took the city council five months to decide on a search firm. Russell Reynolds Associates then suggested the city appoint a task force to find out what the residents, employees and others want to see in the next city manager. That task force is wrapping up public meetings this week.

When asked if that’s something council members could have handled on their own, District 10 Council Member Alison Alter admitted, “Probably, yeah.”

But Alter, who joined the council in January, is one of the only council members interviewed for this story who admitted the search might not be going as quickly as it should.

She said she was “frustrated” with the process and “certainly hoped that we would have hired someone by now.”

Council Member Leslie Pool seems to see it differently. At the June 8 city council meeting, she suggested the city pump the brakes on the process after finding out the task force expected each council member to hold a district-wide public meeting on the city manager search during the month of June.

“I’m thinking we need to take a little bit of time to think through the plan as it affects our offices,” said Pool.

She said she only holds two town hall meetings a year — in May and September — and that she wouldn’t be able to hold one in June. Pool also expressed concerns that people might be unlikely to attend a public meeting in the summer. In the end, city council decided to keep moving forward.

Pool declined our request for a comment. In a text message, one of her staffers said Mayor Pro Tem Tovo “covered all the points [Pool] would have made.”

Tovo said the timetable was less important than “having a really solid process and attracting some stellar candidates.” But a protracted search could scare away top candidates.

In February, before his firm was hired by the city, Russell Reynolds consultant Steve Newton told the Austin Monitor that high profile job openings can be like housing listings. If they sit on the market for too long, people start to wonder what’s wrong with them. But during a phone call last week, Newton said Austin’s city manager opening hadn’t become stale because it’s not officially “on the market” yet.

District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who also joined the council in January, isn’t worried about potential candidates being scared off. “It’s a premier job for anyone who wants to be a city manager.”

Every council member who agreed to be interviewed for this story stressed the importance of public input. And Newton said Austin has a more thorough process than any city Russell Reynolds has worked with, but when it’s time to make the hire, residents will be in the dark. At Newton’s urging, the city council has agreed to keep the list of finalists a secret. Newton warned candidates might be turned off by having their names made public.

The city council hopes to hire a new city manager by the end of the year, which would be 16 months after Ott announced his resignation.

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