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For Austin’s City Manager, change is a constant

Thursday, February 19, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

This week, Marc Ott celebrates his seventh anniversary as Austin’s city manager. The Austin Monitor sat down with him to talk about his tenure, the future and how his office is tackling the myriad changes proposed by the new City Council.

Ott told the Monitor that he was hired just prior to the Great Recession of 2009. That, he said, had an immediate impact.

“Coming in here, at the beginning, was really about change and challenging assumptions in ways that we hoped would enable us to come out on the other side stronger and better — I think we did that,” said Ott.

As for the transition from the former at-large system to the new single-member Council, Ott said, “My whole journey here has been about change.”

If he was surprised by anything, it was how quickly the new Council members got started.

“In the range of my career, I’ve not seen that kind of launch — so fast, with such exuberance,” said Ott. “All of that was just very positive energy and intense, and that has not subsided at all.

“This mayor and Council started right away, even though they weren’t seated. They started working on stuff. A lot of this stuff, that’s the subject of conversation today — whether it’s Council Committee structure or the idea of bringing in additional donated services … they were having those kinds of conversations early on, right after the runoff election,” Ott continued.

Essentially, said Ott, he and his staff were responsible for working with the newly elected Council members and the sitting Council, as well as running the “$3.5 billion operation” that is the City of Austin simultaneously.

“That combination of things was unusual,” said Ott.

Since then, as reported by the Monitor, the new Council has continued moving forward with changes at a decent clip.

Though Council approved changes to its structure and operations, it did so without a full fiscal analysis or implementation strategy. The next day, said Ott, his staff got to work on drafting both of those things, but as late as Tuesday, they remained in draft form. Ott said that it’s a complex logistical puzzle, with a lot of variables to pin down.

Today, Council will take a stab at working out its schedules. Costs, said Ott, were still being determined. As for staffing, Ott explained that Council’s charge was “to really push hard to minimize cost impact” in that regard.

“My first reaction won’t be to add additional staff,” said Ott. “I think that is the right approach … not out of fear of being criticized or those kinds of things, but because we are Austin and we believe in the ideal of best management. Best managed, that ideal, doesn’t mean a typical response to a set of circumstances that entails vastly more work.”

In figuring it out, said Ott, part of the challenge has been strategizing how to shift resources from where they are currently applied, while not compromising what they are currently doing.

“It will clearly touch every member of my executive team,” said Ott. “It will touch every service group that we have in the organization. And when I say ‘touch’ — it’s not a light touch. It’s a heavy touch.”

Some of this became clear Wednesday evening, when preliminary Council Committee staffing details were released. (Council will discuss the proposal today.)

As it stands now, each of the 10 committees will have an Executive Lead and a Committee Liaison. In general, department directors will serve as the Committee Liaisons, and Assistant City Managers will be Executive Leads. Sometimes these roles will be filled by the same person. City Auditor Corrie Stokes and Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart will each fill the positions for the Audit and Finance Committee, and Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano may fill both roles for the Public Safety Committee.

In addition, ACM Robert Goode could be Executive Lead for the Mobility, Public Utilities and Austin Energy Committees. ACM Bert Lumbreras could be Executive Lead for the Health and Human Services Committee and the Housing and Community Development Committee, and ACM Sue Edwards could be Executive Lead for the Economic Opportunity; Open Space, Environment and Sustainability; and Planning and Neighborhoods Committees.

This will be in addition to their normal workload.

And, of course, while all of the details of the new structure and procedure continue to be hammered out, Ott’s staff has already started work on next year’s budget. It will be passed in a yet-to-be-determined climate in which words like “affordability,” “revenue caps” and “homestead exemptions” are on everyone’s mind, and by people who, largely, have never gone through the budget process before.

Revenue caps, as proposed by the Texas State Legislature, “could be devastating,” according to Ott. And he wondered whether the city could withstand a 20 percent property tax exemption. If it can, as some Council members are betting, what will be cut?

“Those challenges are out there,” said Ott. “That will be a big deal.”

Ott notes that, like the Great Recession that welcomed him, city managers could go through their whole career without encountering something like the shift currently taking place at City Hall. However, he emphasizes his prior experience working within a district-based system and is careful to characterize the change as one in legislative governance structure to prevent any misunderstanding.

“The form of government, per the Charter, is still a council-manager form of government, and notwithstanding us being district-based today, there is no ambiguity in the Charter about what form of government this is,” said Ott.

“Obviously, the dust hasn’t settled yet on the district-based (system) and everybody is still trying to find the balance. And that’s going to take some time. It’s going to take some time for staff, and obviously, it’s going to take some time for the newly elected,” said Ott. “But I think it’s all good, frankly.”

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