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Big question for Council: Who will replace Ott?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016 by Jo Clifton

When City Manager Marc Ott announced his resignation last week in order to take the job of executive director of the International City/County Management Association, he set in motion a chain of events that will affect Austin for years – possibly for the next decade.

With an effective resignation date of Oct. 30, Ott will be able to oversee the budget process as well as adoption of new utility rates and fees. But he is not staying long enough for the 11-member City Council to find his replacement.

Ott was the first African-American to be appointed as Austin’s city manager, and he has spoken passionately about the need for equity within the city. Ott followed Toby Futrell, one of Austin’s most popular city managers, yet he still managed to hold the post longer than any city manager in recent memory. And there’s no reason to believe that he would have left Austin but for the chance to influence policy on a much wider scale in his new job.

Ott told the Austin Monitor that he considers Austin home and hopes to retire here someday.

Mayor Steve Adler said on Friday that Council should appoint an interim city manager and start looking for Ott’s replacement right away. It is not clear whether the mayor would like to have a full-scale nationwide search or something quicker and less expensive. Either way, it is certain that there will be plenty of applicants for manager of what Ott calls “one of America’s premier cities.” The new city manager’s salary should match Ott’s salary of $309,441 plus benefits.

Although Ott has had his critics, they have been few, and with the exception of Council Member Don Zimmerman and attorney Fred Lewis, they have not been particularly vocal. Lewis put out a press release on Monday urging citizens to contact Council to seek public hearings on the criteria for the new manager. He also outlined what looks like a lengthy process for selecting that person, including appointment of a nominating committee that would include only two Council members.

The decision on the next city manager may well be the most important decision these Council members will ever make, regardless of the length of their service. It seems unlikely that any of them would want to give up their spot on such a committee to a neighborhood advocate, urban planning expert, small business owner, real estate developer or environmental advocate, as Lewis suggested.

Whether he intended to or not, Adler has already laid out a list of problems that the next city manager will have to deal with, including problematic departments and issues such as economic disparity that have stymied Ott and this Council – as well as management in other cities throughout the country. Adler laid out the list of problems in a post on the City Council Message Board in July intended to be a directive to Ott for improvements and areas to focus on during the next year.

Adler wrote, “The Council would like you to be aware of performance challenges in departments and be more proactive about addressing those challenges before they rise to the level of being community-wide issues.” He added, “The Council would like you to be proactive about building community confidence in the following departments in particular: Planning and Zoning (and) Austin Code.”

He listed a number of other departments that need special attention, including the Transportation Department, the new Equity Office and Austin Energy, among others. He also stated that “Council expressed a need for you to establish more defined yet flexible operating procedures/policies/or conventions as concerns the interaction between Council Members and their offices with City staff (at multiple levels) to increase the flow of information, information gathering, policy development assistance, teaching and education, as well as earlier notice of staff and city activities driving district changes and impacts. We recognize you will need to balance this Council need against staff needs to perform other aspects of their jobs.”

As if that list were not enough, the new city manager can look forward to dealing with: homelessness, affordability, transportation, and economic development policies, as Adler laid out in his post.

Ott has certainly had more successes than failures during his tenure, and he says that his work in Austin has been his “greatest professional joy.” Although Austin has not had the same economic problems faced by many other cities, the next city manager will certainly have his or her share of problems.

Ott recalled his baptism in Austin as “challenging.” He began his nearly nine-year tenure as city manager in February 2008, a time of great economic upheaval across the country.

“I can remember the day the chief financial officer and the budget officer walked into my office and told me that there was a problem, and that sales tax revenue was coming in far below what was projected, among other things.” Soon, the city would be encountering a $30 million deficit.

Ott and his team accomplished a spending reduction without firing a single city employee. Employees were required to take unpaid furloughs, with the highest-paid employees – including the manager – taking the longest furlough. Things eventually returned to normal, and the city has continued to prosper as a whole.

Former Mayor Lee Leffingwell told the Monitor, “Marc was appointed the year before I was elected as mayor, so I spent my entire time as mayor working with him as city manager. Ours was a very productive relationship. I think we made some big strides in improving Austin’s infrastructure and economy. …Some big things came along, like our first 1,000-room hotel, the JW Marriott (and) Formula 1, which really solidified Austin’s position as an international city, an international destination for tourists and business people.

“Overall, I think Austin saw a lot of positive growth through his leadership, and I think it’s the economic record that people across the country see. They see that – they don’t see the local squabbles that go on,” Leffingwell said.

Echoing that theme, Mike Rollins, president of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, also released the following statement: “The Austin Chamber of Commerce greatly appreciates Marc Ott’s leadership over the last eight years. As City Manager, Marc has been a steadying presence, a professional and true champion of diversifying Austin’s industry base. He has supported programs to ensure prosperity is more broadly shared in our community and that Austin can be better prepared for the next eventual downturn.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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