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Strains show between Council, City Manager over Auditors’ office

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Tensions continued to mount Tuesday between City Manager Marc Ott and a number of Austin City Council members. At immediate issue is where to relocate the office of City Auditor Ken Mory as City Hall is reconfigured to make room for additional Council members under single member districts.


During Tuesday’s work session, there was a particularly testy exchange between Ott and Council Member Bill Spelman as Spelman told Ott he should have at least consulted Council members before making a final decision about Mory’s relocation.


Mory’s offices are currently right across the hall from the six Council offices on the east side of City Hall’s second floor. Ott has made it clear that he plans to move the audit group across the street to make way for new Council offices.


Two relocation possibilities for the Auditors’ office have been discussed publicly. The first would move Mory and company down the hall to where the office of Economic Development currently sits. The other would move the auditors across the street to space newly leased in the Silicon Labs building.


At the work session, Council Members Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo, Sheryl Cole and Spelman – all members of the Audit and Finance Committee – continued to press the point. They were joined by Council Member Chris Riley.


Riley asked Ott to answer a question about whether he felt that management and the Auditor’s office had cooperated effectively over the issue. That ended with Ott expressing concern that Riley was trying to put words in his mouth.


Meanwhile, Mayor Lee Leffingwell continued to support Ott’s authority to locate the office wherever he chose. Tovo fired back that the decision was ultimately up to Council, because it could chose whether or not to fund the move.


Things became more testy as Spelman and Ott went back and forth over who objected to what when. Spelman said that Ott should have at least consulted Council members before making a decision about another of Council’s direct reports.


“It seems to me there is a really important constituency that was not consulted at all and that’s the City Council,” Spelman said. “The City Auditor reports to us, not to you. He’s not your staff, he’s our staff, and it seems to me that it would have been at least polite for you to have engaged us in that conversation before deciding where our direct report was going to go.


“Why didn’t you do that?”


Ott responded that he “did have conversations with a number of Council members” over the issue. Ott further noted that he’d heard that conversations had extended beyond Council offices to the City Auditor.


The manager then cited memos that go back to August 8, 2013. That memo detailed an initial intent on the part of management to keep the Auditor’s office at City Hall. “We concluded that that was not the most…viable course of action,” he said.


Ott’s initial memo would appear to be in line with direction management got as part of instruction delivered by the Audit and Finance Committee on June 11, 2013. There, Cole appeared clear, adding direction to management that Morey “remain close to the Council or on the same floor.”


Between the Aug. 8 memo and another issued on Nov. 8, management’s mind changed. In that document Ott cites concerns over costs and space. “Leaving the Economic Development Department in their current location will reduce the number of relocations from two to one, and avoid an estimated $200,000 in make-ready, renovation and moving costs for the west side of City Hall,” Ott wrote, adding that, “The existing space occupied by the Auditor is at maximum occupancy. The west side of City Hall has slightly different geometry and is a tighter fit for the Auditor than their current space.”


The announcement took some by surprise. At a Nov. 20 meeting of the Council’s Audit and Finance committee, Cole, Morrison, Tovo, and Spelman all raised concerns about the move. “Many of us don’t feel very much different about the City Auditor than we do about the City Manager,” Cole said at the time. “It seems as preposterous to us to move the City Auditor out of City Hall as it is to move the City Manager. I’m not sure that fact is being communicated to city management.”


Whatever the end result of the dispute over the Auditor’s office, it is clear that Ott believes the decision is legally his to make. City legal officials appear to support him on that, as does the Mayor.


Leffingwell also told his colleagues that he had some concern over the close working relationship that many of his colleagues had described as existing between Audit staff and Council offices. He suggested that a move across the street for that office could be beneficial for the Auditor’s role.


After the meeting, Spelman was blunt. “This is not your building,” he said, speaking about Ott. “This building and everything that happens in it is the shared responsibility of the City Council, the City Manager, all the department heads, all of our direct reports, and for us to do a good job of providing good services to the citizens, we all have to be willing to collaborate with one another, and that means that nobody gets Kings X over what happens in the building, nobody gets Kings X over where the Auditor sits or where Economic Development sits, or anybody.”


For his part, Mory continued to call for a Council ruling about where he and his office should sit. In a Dec. 5 memo, Mory indicated that proximity to Council offices is a key factor. “Close proximity and direct access to Council offices has allowed us to deliver timely and effective services to Council, citizens, and management,” he wrote.


In a separate memo, Mory also raised doubts over the costs assigned to the move of his department. “My staff met today with Building Services staff and learned that while the cost is currently estimated to be $200,000, this estimate does not include possible savings resulting from reuse of furniture, lighting and other materials which we fully intended to leverage . . .  we believe the $200,000 estimate is somewhat overstated and some of the cost may not be appropriately assigned,” he wrote.

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