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Council gives Ott written criticism, pay raise

Friday, October 3, 2014 by Michael Kanin

As part of an item that also gave City Manager Marc Ott a raise on Thursday, City Council members took what Mayor Lee Leffingwell characterized as the unusual step of offering a set of written criticisms of Ott.

The criticism, offered via a document penned by Council Member Bill Spelman, summarized a “frank but cordial conversation” that took place during the June 26 executive session.

Though the letter leads with praise for Ott’s management, things quickly take a more critical turn: addressing concerns that staff fears making mistakes; that routine projects can move slowly or not at all, especially when they are controversial or not supported by staff; and that it has been difficult to get Ott to intervene when necessary.

“Despite our city’s capacity to rise to the occasion in situations like the Hallowe’en flood, some of us remain concerned that staff move much more slowly on projects or issues they disagree with or fear will be controversial,” wrote Spelman. “Several Council members perceived that staff were unwilling to volunteer information on controversial or potentially embarrassing issues. This may be an indication that staff fear making a mistake or taking an unpopular position. You agreed that your job was to make sure the Council is provided with objective information, and with the benefit of staff’s perspective and recommendations.”

Spelman continued, “Some Council members expressed frustration that even routine projects sometimes move slowly or get stuck, and that issues remain unresolved, sometimes for months. When a Single Point of Contact is assigned to a project, this often solves the problem, but there is often a delay before the problem is recognized and someone is assigned. The heart of the matter may be our cumbersome regulations and procedures, but some of us are concerned that the City Manager’s Office is overtaxed.”

“Council recognizes that your management style — staying at a high level, avoiding micromanagement, delegating the authority to deal with most details — is appropriate for your position and can be very effective so long as you retain the ability to intervene when necessary to get closure or move things along. Nevertheless, some of us have found it difficult to bring your attention to cases where intervention was necessary. We agreed that a closer working relationship, including more frequent meetings with individual Council members, would go a long way to dealing with those concerns,” wrote Spelman.

The letter also makes pointed reference to ongoing contract negotiations that remain tense, noting, “We are pleased that your relationship with the City Auditor has improved, and look forward to similar improvements in your ability to work productively with AFSCME and other employee unions.”

Council members approved inclusion of the letter on a 4-2-1 vote. Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole voted against the idea. Council Member Kathie Tovo abstained.

Council initially voted to approve the raise without the letter attached. After a brief period of confusion, members reconsidered the action.

Council Member Mike Martinez, who would have been the only person on the dais to vote against Ott’s raise without the letter attached, explained the value he put in the document. “The only reason I wanted this to be brought forward was plain and simple: We discussed it in executive session, and it was presented in executive session, therefore it was made subject to public information request,” he said. “I wanted us to be completely transparent in everything that we’ve discussed that’s subject to the public’s notice.”

Cole — as did the rest of her colleagues — noted that Spelman’s letter was well-written. Still, she couldn’t get behind it. “It’s a very well-written document, and I think it’s a good summary of some of those discussions, but I will not be voting to add it to the evaluation for a couple of different reasons,” she said. “One: I think we do have transparency in that we are taking the public vote about the document, and it is a public document that can be requested by the public or media as they so wish. And, also, I share the sentiments of the mayor in that we are departing from the policy that we have been doing with all of our direct hires.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo also noted that she supported the contents of the letter. “I abstain because a ‘no’ suggests that there is something not quite accurate about the letter, and I think it did accurately capture our discussion in both the … successes here as well as some of the issues that were identified as opportunities for the city to improve,” she said. “But I didn’t feel strongly that it needed to be attached to the resolution.”

Spelman’s letter was not entirely unexpected. At Council’s Aug. 28 meeting, he moved to postpone compensation items for each of Council’s four direct reports — the city auditor, the municipal court clerk and the city clerk, in addition to Ott — with instructions that staff repost those items in a manner that allowed for written attachments.

Austin Monitor Editor Elizabeth Pagano contributed to this report.

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