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Finalists Burley and Ott meet with the public

Wednesday, January 16, 2008 by Austin Monitor

A Who’s Who of Austin political leaders – particularly those from the African American community – squeezed along with other interested citizens into a meeting room at the Palmer Events Center last night to meet and greet the two finalists for City Manager.


A standing-room only crowd of several hundred people packed into the room to hear Fort Worth Assistant City Manager Marc Ott, and San Antonio Deputy City Manager Jelynne Burley speak about 15 minutes each to introduce themselves to the crowd. Following that, the candidates mixed with the crowd, often meeting one-on-one with members of the group.


Ott and Burley were chosen by Council members last week from a group of seven finalists to be the top two candidates for City Manager. Since both candidates are African American, whoever is chose will become Austin’s first black City Manager.


In their talks, both candidates praised Austin as a great city, and discussed their management style.  Burley talked about her extensive experience.


“I have done just about everything there is to do in San Antonio except be named city manager, and this is certainly a great city and I am just thrilled with the opportunity to be the next city manager,” she said. “I’m very successful working with other jurisdictions, other agencies to address issues. I have a lot of success working with community groups and neighborhoods on their issues. So I think collaboration, working with staff, all of those are special skills that you bring to resolve the issues. It’s really about working together.”


Ott said he has spent the last 26 years preparing for this opportunity.


“I have held essentially every class of assistant that there is in the city manager’s office. I have been a city manager and a city administrator,” he said. “I would characterize myself as a facilitative manager. I do believe in collaboration, certainly with the Mayor and Council, certainly with staff. And I believe in citizen input. I think that is absolutely important. I think that . . .  with all of those participants and that conversation . . . at the end of the day – and I’ve learned this through experience – that you get better outcomes, and that’s what it’s all about.”


Both candidates outlined their vision of the role of a city manager. Burley said it is important for a City Manger to implement policy and not make it.


“The role of the City Manager is to support the Mayor and Council and understand their policy initiatives and implement those goals and objectives of the Council,” she said. “As a professional public administrator, it is my duty to raise those policy issues for their consideration, those issues that are affecting the city either from its education standpoint, or its neighborhoods, its environment, development policy. It would be my responsibility to bring those issues forward and seek their direction.”


Burley added, “I’m a collaborative, very results-oriented person. I like to get my staff very involved in growing and learning. I’m an effective listener; I’m an effective communicator. I think it’s important to communicate with the community and the city organization as well. I have the ability to absorb large amounts of information very quickly.”


Ott said in addition to implementing city policy, he sees a city manager’s job as making sure city departments run smoothly.


“The elected officials are in fact the policy makers, and from my standpoint as a city manager, my job is, to the best of my ability, in partnership with staff to carry out their policies,” he said. “That’s the principal role and responsibility of the city manager. Beyond that, I want to create an environment inside city hall with respect to the employees that encourages their greatest potential, that they bring that to work every day and work to do their best in all things at all times when it comes to the public interest. That will be my mission to carry out the Council’s vision, their priorities, and make this city staff even greater than they are today.”


Ott added, “One of my top priorities would be to get out into the community, to make sure that people had access to the city manager. By having access to the city manager, certainly you have access to city hall and the business that we undertake on behalf of the people that live in this community.”


There was criticism of the hiring process Council members used to arrive at the two finalists. Debbie Russell with the Austin office of the ACLU said the Council did a poor job of involving the public in the process.


“The City Council and Mayor have called for a public forum –finally – after six months of the public asking for a process by which they could be involved in the selection of arguably the most important person in our city government, the city manager,” she said. “We’re very interested in the fact that we get to meet the candidates and we get to have some input. We’re glad to have that opportunity, but it wouldn’t have come about if one council person wasn’t running for office and wasn’t responding to the public pressure that Better Austin Today put on them.”


Mayor Will Wynn defended the city’s process, saying he was confident it would result in hiring the best possible candidate.


“We have spent parts of three days with them. Remember, four months ago we hired Arcus with some specific directives to go find that relatively smaller pool of candidates and the work that our search firm has done in advance of us meeting any of our semi-finalists was really, really well done,” he said. “I believe I can speak for my colleagues that we are comfortable with the information we have received to date. We’ve liked the process, we like the fact that we have maintained discipline throughout the process in order to create the largest appropriate field of candidates we could.”


When asked which candidate they preferred, the majority of people who answered the question said both candidates seemed extremely qualified and it was going to be a tough decision.


Cards were passed out for those attending last night’s session to make comments on the candidates. Those comments will be made available to Council members, who will have a final round of interviews with the candidates today. Mayor Wynn said the Council is posted to name a new City Manager today or during Thursday’s Council meeting. Council Member Mike Martinez said he expects action on the matter Thursday morning.

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