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Michael McDonald:

Monday, July 14, 2003 by


Chief, Acting Chief of Staff

By Keith Sennikoff One of the busiest men in the City of Austin these days has to be Michael McDonald, who wears the two heavy hats of Acting Chief of Staff and Assistant Police Chief. As Assistant Police Chief he is responsible for a unit at the Police Department and at City Hall he is an assistant City Manager.

In his acting Chief of Staff position, McDonald reports directly to City Manager Toby Futrell, and supervises five city departments: Health and Human Services, Libraries, Parks and Recreation, Community care (the clinic system) and Housing. The heads of those five departments report directly to him. In addition, he is in charge of the accreditation and inspections section of the Austin Police Department.

McDonald was born in Bastrop, but has lived in Austin all of his life. He has a BA in Criminal Justice and an MA in Ethics and Leadership from St. Edward’s University. He is married; he and his wife Sharon have two sons: Marcus, 18, and Michael Jr., 13.

Becoming an officer “When I was a kid one of my top role models was my great-grandmother. Her parents and their brothers and sisters had been slaves. She passed away in 1980, but she was very, very coherent up until ’78. Some things you could tell it hurt her to talk about, but others it did not. One of the things she always did, in fact I can still see her doing it, was she would always watch the news and she liked shows like “Adam-12” and “Dragnet.” As a kid I would sit down and watch those shows with her. So, early on I had a fascination with policing and being a cop. But it didn’t last very long because until I was nineteen years old just about every contact I had with a police officer was negative. And I had not done anything wrong; I was not a bad kid; I didn’t get in trouble. But you could simply be walking down the street, going home, and officers would pull you over for no reason at all. Of course, I had relatives who told me to expect that: being an African-American male, that was something that was going to happen to you.”

“When I was going to college, I had to work to put myself through. And it was one of those days when you’re taking twelve to fifteen hours and you’re working forty hours, and I had just worked all night, and I was sitting at the intersection of East 11th and I-35—I remember being exhausted—and a police unit pulls up next to me. I look over and wave at the officer and he waves back. And so when I was driving down I-35 on my way back to my apartment, that’s when I started reflecting and thinking how I used to like law enforcement. Then I would revert back to the negative experiences I had and kind of going back and forth in my mind, and by the time I got to my apartment, I thought, ‘I wonder what it would take to be a police officer.’ When I got in the apartment I called the police department and asked some general questions about what it would take to be an officer and they explained to me that they accepted applications just one month out of the year and this happens to be the month.

“By the time I got off the phone I had talked myself out of it again and didn’t think anything about it until a couple mornings later when I was at 7th and I-35 and I look up and, of course, the Municipal Court and police department is right there and thought about what I had reflected on a couple days before that and decided to just go in. And it so happened that when I walked into the recruiting office I ran into Captain Louis White—who was really a trailblazer among African-Americans in the police department, one of the first to get promoted to each of the ranks. I talked to him about things and he explained that he had had some of the same thoughts before he joined the department. But he said this was one of the ways you could try to make a change. So had I not run into him I’m not sure I would have continued in law enforcement; him talking to me definitely had an impact.”

He’s been with the city for almost twenty years now, having joined the police department in 1983, in a pre-cadet program, an offshoot of the neighborhood watch program. He then went into the Police Academy, graduating in August of ‘84.

“One of the great things for me growing up in East Austin was the (first) assignment I received. I started out as a patrol officer in the neighborhood that I grew up in. It was really an honor because there were so many people I knew out there. That was one of the most enjoyable parts of my career.” Over the next sixteen years, McDonald worked his way up through the ranks, assigned to details covering white-collar crime, repeat offenders, narcotics, homicide, assault and gangs and neighborhood storefronts. “Then, I was placed on a special six-month assignment that then Chief of Police Elizabeth Watson put together to take a look at organizational structure . . how the organization was functioning on both efficiency and effectiveness.” During that time he was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to training. After about six months in that position, in 1995, Watson promoted him to assistant chief. “I was the first African-American assistant chief for the department. I’ve been assistant chief since then.”

Making the department better “When I was growing up, I had some very negative experiences with the police being an African-American male, very bad experiences. That was part of the reason I wanted to become a police officer: to make a difference. I think policing is a lot better than it was before, but we still have issues that we have to address. It’s not a foolproof system. You’re still going to get people that get into this profession that have no business being police officers and don’t care about people’s rights. As an administrator, that was part of my responsibility to make sure that we had police officers that were about making things right and making things safe. That portion of it, you know, getting involved in changing recruiting policies and operational policies to ensure that things were safe. I was involved in the Meet-and-Confer negotiations that created the police monitor system, and which I support. And I support that not because I don’t think we have a good police department, because we have a great police department. I think we have the best police department in this country. I really do. I’ve seen a lot of departments, and I think we do. But so much of our relationship with the community is built upon trust, and it’s difficult to obtain that trust unless you have citizens that have a stake in any this, involved in overseeing some of the decisions that we make. So that’s part of the reason I support it: in case you don’t have a good police administration in place—like some of the things that happened to me when I grew up—the citizen has some recourse.”

The most disappointing aspect of his job is that he can’t change all the inefficiencies and problems that in his roles he sees all too clearly. “You come to a realization that you do everything that you can do, and I think you still strive to try—there’s nothing wrong with having a vision that may seem to some impossible to accomplish, but I think if you ratchet up your goals then I think your results may exceed what some of the community may expect. I just believe in setting high goals. What’s been disappointing is that you’re not always able to do everything you’d like to do. No matter how strict your recruiting procedures are every now and then you’re going to get an officer through the door that’s not going to do the right thing. You ask yourself ‘What is it I could have done policy-wise to prevent that from occurring?’ But the public sector is not the private sector; there’s not an infinite amount of resources available . . . That’s part of public government.”

What McDonald most enjoys about his work is giving back to the community. “I’ve lived in this area all my life; and when you’re able to be a part of a city—when you knew you were making decisions, doing things that made the community safe, or when you found a child that was missing from home, all those, the small and the large decisions . . . the small decisions I made as a patrol officer that directly impacted someone, and the policy decisions that I’ve made as an administrator in the police department—it’s all about giving back.”

Reducing the budget to the core With his other hat on, the budget provides McDonald with his biggest challenge. “The economy is not doing well. There are three ways in which a municipality supports a revenue stream. One is property tax, another is sales tax and then you have fees and transfers. Fees include such things as parking tickets, and transfers are from the electric utility and water departments . . . It’s ideal for a city to rely primarily on property taxes, because they’re not as volatile, along with fees and transfers. But during the boom years when this economy was doing so well we would predict that we were going to make x number of dollars in sales tax, then it would come in and all of a sudden we’d have an extra million and a half that month. And that continued for years. I think what happened is that we became too dependent upon it. Then, of course, everything changed. Outside of the core services that we provide, you know, when you’re having years like that, you can do all these extra things that you would like to do. For example, from the Parks and Recreation department you create after school programs; you can give extra money to the farmer’s market. It’s not to say that these programs we’re giving to are not important, because they’re very important. But they’re not ‘core’.” “We started last (fiscal) year with a $77 million gap. When you take a look at the General Fund, which I primarily supervise, they aren’t revenue-generating departments. They rely on the property taxes, the sales taxes. You have your police, fire and EMS, your public safety, and then you have my departments. When that money is not coming in, if you back out public safety—and this community has made a commitment to assuring that we maintain public safety—that means any cuts are primarily going to take place in some of these others areas, some of the areas that I manage. Which means you really have to go back to identifying those core operations that you’re supposed to provide, outside of the extra programs. We feel confident that we’re still going to be able to provide the core services, but these other services are going to be tough to make decisions on. Remember, anything we do would be (in the form of) recommendation to Council.”

“It’s all a cycle. What your parks and recreation, your libraries, all your social fabric programs do impact how many people the police have to deal with. The more successful you are on the front end; you don’t need as many resources on the back end. So I think there has to be a balance.”

“I wish we had double the number of clinics that we have—although we do a fairly good job getting people in there in emergency situations. But someone that’s poor that is utilizing our clinics for a regular checkup may have to wait 45 to 60 days to get in.”

“I also wish we had a new state-of-the-art central library. With Austin being such an educated community, when you compare our central library to central libraries across the country, there’s really no comparison. I think that those that are affluent sometimes lose track of that because they have access to the PCL at UT or have the Internet in their homes. People that are poor don’t have that; that’s why a really good library system is important. Now, one of the areas we have done a good job in is that we have quite a few branch locations; we have twenty branch locations. That’s a lot for a city this size.”

“Whether we like it or not, parents are just one component in the socialization of a kid. There’s the school system, and there are outside activities. If you have four park technicians in a recreation center instead of two, that’s two additional people that can spend one-on-one time and really get to know the kids, versus just being there to distribute equipment. That’s what you would do in an ideal situation; it would be great to have those types of resources.”

“Last year was a tough year, and what we’re planning for is the next three years to be tough. We put in quite a few one-time fixes, such as delaying purchasing certain equipment or certain vehicles, pushing them out an additional year to see if the economy gets better. We didn’t do that exclusively; there was also a virtual budget, where you are budgeting for a certain number of positions, but year after year you never really funded those positions. We did away with those, so we trimmed the fat in that way. But they’re going to have to settle on a new norm for at least the next three years.”

When not working, McDonald loves to spend time with his family. He also loves to play golf. “And not so much because I’m a good golfer . . . As much as I love what I do, it’s difficult to hit that golf ball and think about anything else. It takes my mind off things.”

Planning Commission recommends

Options for neighborhood planners

Residents of older neighborhoods want more tools to preserve character

Members of the Planning Commission last week voted to give neighborhood planning teams new options for infill development. The unanimous decision came after conversations between city staff and Central Austin residents revealed a desire for additional tools to regulate development in older neighborhoods and preserve existing neighborhood character.

A Planning Commission subcommittee made recommendations in four areas: parking spaces for single-family lots, front yard setbacks, the placement of garages and the placement of front porches. The subcommittee also studied proposed changes to regulations for building heights on lots with single-family zoning, but decided not to recommend any changes in that area.

Under the guidelines recommended by the full commission, neighborhoods would have the option to adopt a rule that no more than 40 percent of a property’s front yard may be impervious cover. The commission also voted to allow neighborhoods to adopt a system of averaging to determine the required front-yard setback. “The setback averaging was meant to impact the situation where the house to one side of you is just 15 feet away from the curb . . . and the house on the other side of you is 20 feet away from the curb,” said Commissioner Maggie Armstrong. “If you’re ready to build a new house in an older neighborhood, why should you have to set back 25 feet?” Allowing the builder of a new home to split the difference of the setback of adjacent homes, city staff told commissioners, would be an appropriate way to make sure those newer homes would blend in with the surrounding area. “A lot of older neighborhoods might have been constructed with greater setbacks than they have right now, but with right-of-way widenings, we have setbacks of less than 25 feet,” said Thomas Bolt with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department. “The ability to average setbacks maintains the curb appeal of streets by allowing them to mimic what’s on adjacent lots.”

Neighborhoods would also be allowed to put additional regulations on the placement of garages to minimize their visibility from the street and to permit front porch swings within 15 feet of the property line. A proposal to let neighborhoods limit the height of new buildings on SF-3 lots to 28 feet was rejected by city staff, the Planning Commission subcommittee and the full commission. Staff told commissioners that the city had other regulatory measures to address the problems that some central-city residents had thought this measure would solve.

The new tools, if approved by the City Council, will be strictly optional for neighborhoods working on their neighborhood plans. “These are tools to be used within a neighborhood plan, not city-wide code amendments,” she said. “These would be looked at within boundaries and hopefully looked at as a way to continue the existing character of a neighborhood, not start something that wasn’t there already.” Neighborhood activist Jeff Jack also urged support for the new options. “When neighborhood planning started, the fundamental idea was to give communities opportunities to shape their future the way they wanted to. One of the concepts was to give them tools to do that. What I see before you is a continuation of that commitment the city made back in 1997.” Commissioners approved the new tools on a vote of 6-0, with Commissioners Cynthia Medlin, Rhonda Pratt and Niyanta Spelman absent.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Convention Center seeks taller sign . . . The Sign Review Board will hear a request this evening from the Austin Convention Center for a variance allowing a sign 29 feet tall and 137 square feet in area. Under city regulations a freestanding downtown sign is allowed to be only 6-feet tall with the size varying according to building frontage. In this case, the maximum would be 120 square feet without a variance. Sign Builders of America is representing the convention center. The Sign Review Board and Board of Adjustment will meet at 5:30pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . Redistricting hearing . . . The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear comments on redistricting beginning at 9am today in E1.004 of the Capitol extension . . . Government reorganization . . . The Senate Committee on Government Organization will take up two bills by Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) at 1pm today in the Betty King Committee Room of the Capitol. Senate Bills 19 and 22 both relate to the reorganization of state government and giving the Governor more power over agencies and commissions. Ellis is chair of the committee . . . Gravel plant planned near Ruby Ranch subdivision . . . Hays County residents expressed consternation last week about plans for new gravel/asphalt plant to be built near Ruby Ranch, located on FM 967, close to RR1826. A member of the Ruby Ranch Homeowners Association told members of the board of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Thursday night that an air quality permit for the business had been requested of the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Such an operation would involve disturbance of the aquifer and use huge quantities of water, a spokesman for the association said, resulting in possible pollution of Onion Creek and nearby wells . . . Oops . . . In Fact Daily reported on Friday that a new rule proposed for City Council meetings would prevent any speaker from signing up to speak on more than three unrelated items. It turns out that the rule has been hidden in legal verbiage in the past, but will now be made explicit: The mistake was corrected at midday, but many readers are early birds.

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