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Committee reaches few conclusions on new staff

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 by Jo Clifton

The City Council Audit and Finance Committee had a wide-ranging discussion Monday about the possibility of hiring more staff to help Council, but arrived at no conclusions. The conversation was sparked by an attempt by Mayor Steve Adler to add as many as eight new employees to his own staff.

However, as Adler acknowledged during the Feb. 26 meeting, Council members pared down his original number to include perhaps three to five new employees shared among other Council offices.

In addition to the committee, chaired by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, Council Members Delia Garza and Don Zimmerman participated in the discussion. Other members of the committee include Council Members Ellen Troxclair, Leslie Pool and Pio Renteria. Therefore, those attending the meeting represented a majority of Council, but it was difficult to discern a majority among those present.

Pool said she wanted help setting up a community engagement task force as well as assistance with her Committee on Environment and Open Space, while Renteria said he wanted the new staff to help on “big-picture items,” such as housing and transportation.

Garza said, “Each one of us has articulated what we thought was a different role. Each one of us has articulated what we deemed that role should be. … It sounds to me like what would really be helpful is an additional staff person in each one of our offices that answers to us. Making that equal is something that I strongly support — or leaving it as it was, because I also have concerns about the impact” on the city budget.

Garza noted that one of the concerns about the 10-1 Council has been the increased burden on taxpayers resulting from more Council members and more staff.

Garza also said the discussion had highlighted the many questions about what role the new staff members might play.

Zimmerman said perhaps there would not be a need to spend additional money if the funds came out of the existing budget. City Manager Marc Ott has suggested that he could find the money by not filling some vacant positions.

Under questioning, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo explained the difference between using a staff position that is currently vacant for a temporary employee and permanently reallocating the position. He noted that there might be funds to create new positions in the next budget cycle if Council wanted to continue use of the temporary employees.

There was also a discussion about whether they would assign the new staff members to either the Office of the City Auditor or Office of the City Clerk. Acting City Auditor Cory Stokes explained that while her office could be the home of the new staff, her current staff is available to do research on various questions when Council members request it. Stokes said her staff has an internal limitation of 200 hours per question and added that they would not be comfortable giving only one side of an issue because of their role as auditors.

Pool said she would not be in favor of placing the new employees in either the auditor’s or the city clerk’s office. Troxclair was concerned about open-meetings questions created by the staff member who was working for several offices.

Following the meeting, Jim Wick, spokesman for the mayor’s office, sent the Austin Monitor a written statement: “It was good to see the committee move forward the discussion on increasing the Council’s capacity to tackle our city’s biggest challenges. Traffic congestion, lack of affordability, permitting and other concerns seem to get worse daily and if we are to act proactively to address such challenges, the Council need for more staffing and bandwidth is urgent.”

Tovo said the committee would take up the matter again at its March 25 meeting.

In the meantime, Council Member Greg Casar has already hired a temporary fourth staff member. Braden Latham-Jones is Casar’s community outreach coordinator. Casar said, “We don’t have enough money for an extra FTE, and I budgeted as conservatively as I could to hire him on as a temporary hourly person through this fiscal year.”

 

 

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