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Council votes for more study of Adler staff plan

Friday, February 27, 2015 by Jo Clifton

On a 6-5 vote, City Council postponed action Thursday on Mayor Steve Adler’s plan to add five staffers to his office, sending the question to the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee.

Those voting for the postponement included Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Ellen Troxclair, Greg Casar, Ora Houston, Don Zimmerman and Delia Garza.

Adler, along with Council Members Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, Pio Renteria and Sheri Gallo, voted against the postponement.

Since the mayor first proposed it, the additional staffing plan has undergone several changes. After receiving considerable complaints about his initial proposal to hire up to 15 new staff members through the Mayor’s Better Austin Foundation, Adler abandoned that idea and created a new plan that might be more appealing to his colleagues and the general public.
Adler was still refining it Thursday, just hours before Council considered the matter.

The most recent change Adler presented made clear that the new staff positions would support Council committees and major initiatives. Perhaps more importantly, the mayor added a clause stating that budgetary authorization for employing the new staff members would expire at the end of the 2015 fiscal year, Oct. 1.

Adler noted that he had heard various concerns from both the public and his colleagues, and he was trying to address them through the amendments. However, those changes were not quite enough to prevent the postponement.

Adler also sent out an email blast shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday, calling on his campaign backers to email their district Council members about supporting the staffing plan.

That email said, “I need your help to remind our City Council that you chose change! On the campaign trail, I talked about inertia being one of the biggest threats to enacting change. The forces of the status quo would prefer to keep things as they are, with us continuing to fall behind on our biggest challenges. We can’t let that happen.”

That did not sit well with everyone. Council Member Delia Garza seemed to be the most offended. Garza said she had been worried about the concentration of power in the mayor’s office, but has received assurances since the work session Tuesday that made her feel more comfortable with the idea of the new staff.

Garza said, “I received emails and calls throughout the week, ‘Please vote no on this,’ from citizens not liking this proposal, saying that it was too much power in the mayor’s office. Then around 5 o’clock, we all got a huge influx of emails [saying], ‘Vote yes on Item 40.'”

Garza said she received more than 200 of these emails. Then she checked her personal email account, where she saw the letter from Adler urging his constituents to contact their Council members.

“After seeing that,” Garza said, “I feel that that is Exhibit A for how one office could possibly influence access and push an agenda — with all due respect, Mayor: a paid-for email distribution list, pushing an agenda item and creating this perceived support of an item that flooded our email inboxes … I feel that that is the example of a possible shift in power from those of us who don’t have access to expensive email lists to send out emails to gain support for issues, and I don’t think that’s the change that Austinites asked for. I don’t think they asked us to push our agendas through email lists.

“I can’t support putting more power in your office,” Garza concluded. “I’m very concerned about this, and I hope you can restructure this so [the employees] are indeed independent and can report to all the Council.”

Council members gave themselves one month, until the March 26 meeting, to answer lingering questions, some of them related to whether the five new staff members would enhance the mayor’s authority to the detriment of his colleagues.

In the meantime, City Manager Marc Ott will report to Council on where he will find the additional money for those staff members, as well as $25,000 for each of the 10 Council offices.

Only a few speakers showed up to talk to Council about the staffing plan. Austinite Alan Pease said he was opposed to the plan. He told Council, “Except for Mayor Pro Tem Tovo, all of you are new to the job. Perhaps … I would ask you all, all of you, to take your time. Don’t rush into adding staff to the mayor’s office. You’re new, it will take time. You’re going to do fine.”

Zimmerman then told Pease what happened when he voiced his opposition to the mandatory 2 percent arts spending at the city airport. Zimmerman said three members of the city manager’s office met with him to try to convince him that it was a good idea. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, Zimmerman said, it was an example of staff power.

“I don’t think the public understands that there is a tremendous amount of incumbency power in the city manager’s office,” Zimmerman said. “It’s just the nature of our Council. And so I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people like yourself, who are concerned about the mayor concentrating power in his office. I don’t see that. I see a tremendous imbalance of power between your elected Council, all of us and the incumbent city manager.”

Houston was also worried about the precedent and said she “felt very disincluded or excluded … from choosing the staff members.” She asked Adler if she could be part of choosing the next group of staff members, and he said yes.

Troxclair presented an amendment along with Zimmerman that would move the new staff into the office of either the city clerk or the city auditor. Her amendment also proposes that the staff members be called “committee coordinators.” That idea may very well come back, but there was no actual vote on it Thursday.

Tovo, who is chair of the Audit and Finance Committee, has been skeptical of the plan since the beginning. She said she would do her best to schedule a meeting of that committee in order to move the process along.

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