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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Monday, February 8, 2016 by Jo Clifton
Appointee evaluation plan sparks conversation
City Council weighed in on a plan for evaluating the city manager, city clerk, municipal court clerk and city auditor on Thursday. Part of that plan, as laid out by Acting Assistant City Manager Mark Washington, includes submission of standardized forms to each person being evaluated and a discussion in executive session with the appointee about that self-evaluation. Those evaluations will likely take place in March, with the last one currently scheduled for an executive session on March 29.
Council Member Don Zimmerman immediately expressed dissatisfaction with the proposal, saying that appointees should not provide input about themselves. Furthermore, Zimmerman said he would like to place an item on a city ballot for voters to signal their approval or disapproval of city management.
“When we talk about these high-level appointments … the opinion that matters is the community’s opinion. It’s complicated to assess that, but that’s the only opinion that matters. … So, unless I’m reading this incorrectly, I would be opposed to that,” Zimmerman said. No other members of Council expressed support for Zimmerman’s position.
Washington responded that it is a typical practice to include this type of self-evaluation as well as evaluations from others who interact with the appointees.
Council members Greg Casar and Leslie Pool and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo all expressed their appreciation for how city management has facilitated the difficult task of changing over from the old Council system to the new 10-1 system of representation.
Casar said that it was particularly important to look at future performance issues and let the appointees know what Council’s expectations would be.
“As we transitioned into the 10-1 form of government, there was so much going on, I think we really needed our staff’s support and help,” Casar said. “And we’ll probably be going through years more of transition as we settle into this form of governance, but we never had the time as a group to set those expectations for each of our officials. While it will be important for us to go through this process, I think it will be even more important once we have had that conversation, to say what it is that our expectations are.”
Casar added a counterpoint to Zimmerman’s disapproval of the process, saying he was looking forward to it. Underscoring his support for City Manager Marc Ott and other members of city management, Casar continued, “I’m very pleased with the way our administrators have helped us get through to this point. I know it’s been a very challenging time of transition for all city staff.”
Mayor Steve Adler said that future goals for city management would relate to transportation and affordability, among other things.
Council Member Ora Houston stressed the need to remember equity when evaluating the appointees.
Zimmerman concluded, “What sense does it make to have a weak mayor and Council and then have a citywide vote, but when it comes to the more powerful executive figure, which is the city manager, to have no vote of the people?” He suggested a nonbinding referendum every two years to see if the voters were happy with the city manager and then asked whether there was any legal reason that cannot be done.
City Attorney Anne Morgan told Zimmerman that the city charter does not provide for nonbinding referenda. She said, “You would be in essence electing a city manager. I don’t think that’s done anyplace. So you would be electing your city manager as a city official in addition to the City Council, the policymakers.”
Zimmerman argued that that was not what he was proposing, but rather suggested changing the charter to have a nonbinding referendum on city management. “We could write that into the charter,” he said.
It seems unlikely that Zimmerman’s idea will be on the ballot anytime soon since no other Council member indicated support and the only other way to put something on the ballot is by petition.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Auditor Corrie Stokes: Stokes was appointed City Auditor in 2015.
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
City Manager Marc Ott: Ott was hired by Council members in 2008 and served in that position until his 2016 departure.
Office of the Austin City Clerk: This city department provides access to city documents, ensuring compliance with records-retention laws, and facilitating City Council's legislative process.