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Profile: Lisa Gordon, Assistant City Manager

Monday, August 25, 2003 by

By Keith Sennikoff

Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon is a remarkably representative Austinite: she’s from out of state; she’s multi-talented, energetic and very skilled at what she does; she loves the city and works to make it a better place to live . . . and she can take the heat. These qualities are undoubtedly why the city recruited her from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida as part of its succession planning for assistant city managers.

Hailing originally from North Babylon, New York, Gordon spent 12 years in South Florida before making the move to Austin. She worked her way up from management intern to assistant to the Broward County Manager. Gordon came to Austin in December 2000 with her husband Rick, a professional golfer, and their two children, Armani and Aliyah.

“I’ve been doing government for a very long time.” She began in junior high school doing volunteer public service at non-profit community centers. “I did lots of direct active work, which is what got me into public administration. At the time I didn’t know it was a field; I just knew I liked helping people.” And government, Gordon says, “is where I feel I can make the most difference with the skills that I have.” Her education includes a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University, a master’s from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and a master’s in accounting from Nova Southeastern University. She is a licensed CPA in the state of Florida.

As assistant city manager she oversees operations for city departments that relate most directly to development. Those include the newly-reorganized Watershed Protection and Development Review Department (WPDR), Neighborhood Planning and Zoning, Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services and Transportation, Planning and Sustainability.

Watershed protection, Gordon notes, revolves around environmental issues such as water quality and streambed erosion. Combined with reviewing and permitting new development, the departments under her affect a multitude of “quality of life issues and how the policies and regulations we have help us to maintain that or rebuild it. You know we have lots of flooding, and that’s because we have infrastructure in place that can’t handle the demand on the ecosystem. So we have to go back and do streambed stabilization; we have to do a lot of investment into those watersheds, the urban watersheds, and then there are other watersheds we’re still studying.”

“I have neighborhood planning and zoning, which is land use and neighborhood planning: how are we going to develop and where are we going to develop; what is the zone for it; and what’s going to be in your neighborhood and what’s not. Our process is more inclusive as the neighborhood helps to design what that neighborhood’s going to look like.” Contrasting the situation here with her experience in Ft. Lauderdale, she says, “In Florida, you have a comprehensive plan by the state and that dictates what the land use and zoning is. There’s a public hearing component of developing that plan, but it’s really more driven by professional planners.”

“Transportation is a hot issue for the city and the whole Central Texas region . . . We have capacity limits in the way we’ve developed and now the number of people that are here. That’s probably the simplest way to say it. We have constraints in the downtown when you look at solutions to mobility or solutions to beautification because everything’s on the ground already and you’re not going to take out stores or buildings to add lanes or even add lanes for light rail or bike lanes. So you’re only dealing with what you have, and that’s where I think a lot of the debate comes in because there’s not a consensus on which way people want to go: is it a walkable, pedestrian-friendly downtown, or is it a downtown you can get through in a very short time? Those are really differently balanced issues. Do you have a parking garage for all your parking, no matter where you’re visiting downtown, or do you have on-street parking? Do you have valet service? That still takes up a lane.”

She broadly sums up her economic development duties as “attracting growth to Austin, retaining growth and continuing to make sure we’re economically viable.”

Gordon says a critical part of an ACM’s role on any given issue is stepping back and looking at the big picture. “How is this affecting the long-term policy for the city? How do we make the tough decisions about balancing some of the interests that are being brought to the table by different people in the community?” The staff contributes by researching and coming up with suggestions and options, but the ACM must balance those options and deliver the final recommendations.

At the same time, Gordon says the ACM has to be knowledgeable and flexible enough on any given issue—particularly a controversial one—to be able to articulate its process and progress on several subtle levels: to the public, the media, staff, other civic bodies and not least, with the other ACMs.

All of her departments have high levels of activity. “In the last two months, redevelopment services, which is a smaller department, has had three major issues: the Domain Project, the hospital at the RMMA site and the economic development policy.” And, of course, there are always a steady stream of development plans coming in, as well as subdivision review and neighborhood planning and zoning issues. But she notes, “I only get involved if it becomes controversial, or if there are some issues that require higher level intervention.” She has spent a lot of time recently working with the proposed Lowe’s store in Southwest Austin.

In those situations, Gordon says her job is primarily to listen, to be objective and to look for solutions. And very often, she says, by the time those issues get to her the solutions are already there. “It’s just helping everybody get to something we can agree to that’s mutually beneficial.” Other times, it’s her duty to point out that “the city’s recommendation is not going to go beyond this point . . . Sometimes there’s a perception that if we have codes or rules they can just be waived.” There are, naturally, good reasons why most codes and rules can’t be waived.

“And there’s a fairness element and equity among people developing or people having businesses. That’s really important to keep in mind. When people come to see you sometimes they think you’re being arbitrary; you’re just holding them to the standard, you’re not holding everyone else to it. So sometimes when I’m in a meeting I can bring that perspective and I can give them other examples.

Take a load off the City Manager

“I feel my role is to provide the City Manager with good information, with solid recommendations, so that when things get to her she has all the facts and figures. And part of my job is keeping issues from getting to her. The ACM’s get to work on the day-to-day operations, and it’s trying to manage the issues so that they don’t escalate to the City Manager. They always will; they always do, but I mean that’s kind of a goal: to make the City Manager’s job easier because the City Manager has to be out there leading the organization, operationally making tough decisions about the budget, about the direction we’re going to, about recommendations to Council, about how we’re going to have reinvestment in the city, meeting with political leaders, meeting with state leaders, with local leaders. A lot of that takes time and development, so if there are day-to-day issues that can be handled at my level, then I try to handle them, so that they don’t escalate.” “When you’re in this role . . . you know there are issues that the City Manager needs to make the call on. Meaning, you know what you’d recommend, but there are issues that have a more long-term effect on how we do business and why we do business. So the City Manager needs to weigh in. I think it’s a balance. If there’s an issue that has the potential to be precedent setting . . . that’s something the City Manager needs to be aware of.”

Essentially, Gordon sees herself as a diplomat. “That’s what I always tell my husband, ‘I should have been a foreign diplomat.’ That is kind of how I see my job and that makes it enjoyable for me.”

A solution-oriented approach

In defining her own management style, Gordon says, “I like to get to implementation. I don’t feel that something’s done if we just do a study, or if we just make a recommendation. I want to see something completed, or implemented, or finished, a complete product . . . I think my approach is solution oriented and I want people to have a pleasant experience when they deal with city government. So if they’ve had a difficult experience dealing with everyone else when they get to me I want them to have a positive experience . . . It doesn’t always happen that way because of the issues we’re in. But I always have that as my operating premise.”

Gordon is very generous in her praise of city staff and will not speak long without acknowledging their contribution. “There are a lot of good people that work for the city and I like to make sure those people are noticed and acknowledged. We have a lot of hard workers. We have a great city; we’re in the top five of cities around the country. You don’t get that way because you have people who don’t care about the city or people who don’t do a good job. I think that’s a message that we miss sometimes. How can Austin be in the top five best cities to live, or the number two city or number one city in all these different polls if the city government is not working?”

“I have some of the most hotly debated issues, and I deal with a lot of activists and a lot of people who are very passionate about their views, and so it’s helpful to be able to balance those things and know that what we do is really going to make a difference in Austin. Austin is great because it has so much citizen participation and people really care about this city. And that’s different than other cities where, you know, people just complain about the city, but they don’t really care about it,” she says.

Regionalism lacking

There is, however, one aspect of the Austin area Gordon has yet to get used to—its lack of regionalism—at least compared to Florida. “The identity is by city, by county, by organization. When I was in Florida the identity was regional, so all the groups that were in a regional area like in Broward County, they worked together very collaboratively. We had a very strong relationship with the Florida Department of Transportation. If we were trying to work on a street or maintenance plan, everything, the planning, was arm-in-arm; the funding was arm-in-arm. The Florida Department of Transportation, the county and the cities, and we had thirty cities in the county. But all of that was seamless . . . Even in attracting and recruiting businesses, there was more of a regional approach. Dade County, Broward and West Palm Beach competed against each other, but if one county was losing a business prospect they still were trying to keep that business in the region, because they knew people lived in that area or they would travel and do things along that corridor. I think there was more of an understanding of how the regional policy affects the local policy, and how much you can gain by working together . . . It’s really leveraging resources and issues. Here it’s more independent; so it’s harder to get regional collaboration. That’s very different; I didn’t notice it until I got here. Meaning, I was just accustomed (to doing things a certain way). I took it for granted. We’re moving towards regionalism. Envision Central Texas is a move towards that . . . but we have a ways to go. We can’t leverage our resources, our talents and our money when we look at it from how it affects me individually instead of how it affects our region.”

Since taking the job of ACM Gordon hasn’t had much time to participate in the sport in which her husband makes a living. “I like to golf. I used to be in a ladies golf league.” In her downtime she reads and spends time with her children.

City seeking ways to improve cost tracking

Members of the Austin City Council may look to new computer technology to improve their ability to track costs associated with different city activities as they search for ways to keep costs down and save taxpayers money. While the city already has an elaborate cost-tracking network, Council members were told during last week’s meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee that it’s not always easy to find the exact data that Council members may request as they attempt to shape city policy.

“We do, for all of the direct costs of an activity, have a very sound accounting system, and people can go and track their direct costs,” said Financial Services Director Vicki Schubert. However, staff in the City Auditor’s office told Council members that other costs, such as lawsuits or workers comp claims, are not routinely tied to each activity.

Having access to base-level data about the costs associated with routine functions of city government such as pothole repair or sewer line installation, said Council Member Brewster McCracken, could help the city’s bottom line. “With at least one more tough budget year ahead, this is pretty critical in terms our ability to asses how to improve the delivery of services and control costs,” he said. “I know that we do have a lot of challenges in oversight and accountability . . . My sense is that it’s not in a format that, at least for us as policy makers, is very easy to track.”

Mayor Will Wynn agreed that easier access to the reams of data tracked and collected by the city would be useful. “Not only during very difficult budget years do we need to have as much control as possible . . . it’s in these times that we’re going to have more change in how we deliver service to our citizens,” he said. “These are critical times for this function.”

City Auditor staff has done a cursory review of other cities’ efforts to manage their data, including the CitiStat program in Baltimore that McCracken mentioned during his campaign. However, tackling that in a more in-depth fashion would likely be a major project. It would also require staff consensus about which information to collect and who should be able to access it. “If Baltimore has a better way to do it, that’s great, and I’d love for us to follow that example,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. “Of course, budget does come into it. We’ve been trying to get our IT (information technology) system together and state-of-the-art for a number of years now. If we can at least start out on that path, I think it would do a lot for our image as a city and our city management as well. In my opinion, it’s time for us to make (the budget) more easily understandable and accessible to the average citizen.”

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

The “total hardball position” on Wal-Mart . . . Political consultant Mike Blizzard is urging those who oppose the Wal-Mart at Slaughter and MoPac, over the Edward’s Aquifer, to also oppose Wal-Mart’s request for a zoning change at a store planned for I-35 and Slaughter. The matter will come before the Zoning and Platting Commission this week. Blizzard says, “Our argument is not that there should be no Wal-Marts or no Wal-Mart at I-35 and Slaughter . . . The argument is that zoning is a discretionary power of the city, and hence its citizens, so until Endeavor and Wal-Mart agree to respond to the community will and move their proposed Supercenter off the MoPac/Slaughter site and off the aquifer, then we should not be approving any Endeavor/Wal-Marts, no matter what the proposed location or possible merits . . . It is a total hardball position, which is exactly what we need when we have so little leverage on the other site.” Not everyone in the environmental community agrees with Blizzard, however. Longtime Environmental Board member and activist Tim Jones says, “I refuse to ‘support’ Wal-Marts anywhere. I don’t think I’ll be out to fight tooth and nail against one over on the Interstate, however.” The ZAP is scheduled to hear the case Tuesday . . . Honoring peacemakers . . . Austin’s Disputer Resolution Center will be honoring people or organizations in the community that helped peacefully resolve conflict during the 2002-2003 year. Those wishing to make a nomination may call the DRC at 371-0033 and request a Peacemaker nomination form or visit http://www.austindrc.org . The deadline for nominations is August 31, 2003 . . . Today’s meetings . . . The Capital Metro Board of Directors will meet at 4pm. The Council committee on women-owned and minority-owned businesses is scheduled to meet at 6pm at 4100 Ed Bluestein Blvd., Training Room 1. The Human Rights commission is scheduled to meet at 5:30pm at One Texas Center, Room 325 . . . Commission approves survey plan . . . The Downtown Commission has endorsed the City of Austin's contract with the Downtown Austin Alliance to survey downtown retail. The city is plans to contribute $50,000 to the DAA's $120,000. The survey will give the city more tools to encourage retailers to move downtown. The matter is on this week's Council agenda.

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