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City manager reviews 2015 as transitional year

Wednesday, January 6, 2016 by Jo Clifton

After nearly eight years as Austin’s city manager, Marc Ott remains the most powerful man in city government. But he keeps his hands on the wheel, rarely making public comments about his job or what he sees in Austin’s future. He did, however, agree to sit down with the Austin Monitor for this review of 2015, the first year of operation for the single-member district City Council system.

Ott praised Council for getting through the budget, the single most important job it has to do. “When I think about the fact that we had this major transition from at-large to district-based 10-1, when I think about the fact that there was only one incumbent on the Council and only one other person who had held public office, and so, we’re talking about nine people who are holding public office for the first time, early within their tenure, having to come to terms with, and ultimately adopting, a $3.5 billion budget, fiscal plan, for the ninth-largest city in the country – I think that is really significant, and they deserve credit for that.”

As for other aspects of the new system, change has not been uniformly easy. Clearly, having 11 bosses instead of seven would make a difference for anyone. But Council’s decision to implement a committee system, with each Council member the chair of a committee, has had a much greater impact on the staff, including Ott, than a switch to single-member districts would have had.

Ott said, “I think the most significant change is we have had to shift a lot of staff capacity to staff Council committees.” There are 11 committees, he noted, “and for us, staffing a Council committee is not unlike – I guess I would characterize it as almost a mini Council meeting.”

He continued, “When the staff is doing that, we have to go through a lot of the steps that we do to prepare for a Council meeting or a work session. There are things that we have to do in advance to get prepared for them, we attend them, and oftentimes there is follow-up work that staff does, and so, compared to the previous Council,” there is more work on committees. “That has shifted a lot of our capacity” to the committee process, he said.

“In addition to that, we still staff various boards and commissions, as you know, and then we have our regular Council meeting and work sessions,” he added. Ott points out that the previous Council always ended the Tuesday work sessions by noon, but this Council often makes those work sessions stretch out for many additional hours.

For city staff, the work session and the Council meeting can eat up two full days in a week, in addition to the work they do getting ready for those meetings and the committee meetings. “It does take a lot of work for us, and I suspect for the Council members, because each one chairs a committee and sits on other committees in addition to that,” he said.

Asked how the committee system might be improved, Ott said that Council is currently talking about that in the transition committee, “as they said they would when they set it up. They said they would come back during the course of the first year and assess the extent to which that was working effectively. I think that conversation is going on right now.”

Ott explained that with the previous, seven-member Council, he met with each Council member as regularly as once a week and more often with the mayor. After Council started having work sessions, Ott started meeting with Council members every other week.

But now, because of the increased number of members and the increased number of meetings and committee meetings, he has instituted a change. Ott schedules a meeting with each member once a month, except for the mayor. He said he is scheduled to meet with Mayor Steve Adler every Monday, but due to scheduling conflicts on both sides those meetings don’t always happen.

Unlike with prior Councils, each Council member is assigned a single point of contact – or colloquially, a SPOC (pronounced spock) – an assistant city manager whom the Council member may contact if he or she has an inquiry or needs something, Ott said. “I think that’s been fairly effective,” he said. “It’s also been my way of keeping them more connected to my office because I couldn’t on a weekly basis meet with each of them” given time constraints. So it made sense, “but it’s another shift in allocation of the staff. Assistant city managers have less time to oversee their departments because of these assignments and the extra meetings they have to attend,” he noted.

Even though there have been some disagreements between Ott and Adler over who is in charge of policy and who is in charge of carrying out those policies, those arguments rarely reach the public. One exception was the exchange among Adler, Ott and Council Member Ora Houston regarding Ott’s establishment of the new office in charge of sunset reviews of city departments and programs.

Overall, Ott remains optimistic about Austin’s future while stressing the need to address a growing inequality among its citizens.

Ott lives south of the river, and sometimes, he said, when he looks at the city from that vantage point, “It’s hard for me to believe that we all – and that I – have had the opportunity to be a part of what that (downtown) looks like.”

He concluded, “I feel like we are blessed to be in Austin. Having said that, there is work to do – serious work. I think that we have an obligation to address what is a significant divide – inequality – here. And in order to get it right, we have to make sure that people aren’t disenfranchised and not part of all the good stuff that I just pointed to. And it isn’t right until we are successful at that.”

Photo by Anne Swoboda made available through a Creative Commons license

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