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Hart named interim city manager

Friday, September 2, 2016 by Jo Clifton

City Council on Thursday appointed the city’s chief financial officer, Elaine Hart, as interim city manager. Hart, who began her service with the city in 1980, will take over management of the city upon the departure of City Manager Marc Ott in October. The vote was unanimous, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair on maternity leave awaiting her first child.

Mayor Steve Adler said, “The city of Austin stands at a unique moment, and we need a strong and capable leader to help guide us through this interim phase. Elaine was our choice for many reasons, including that she brings an enterprise-wide view and broad experience with all our city departments and operations.”

Adler said that Council intends to hire a new permanent city manager within the next six to nine months. Council heard a presentation from Human Resources Director Joya Hayes on the proposed process, including selection of a citizens committee to make recommendations to Council. Council did not vote on a resolution approving the process, but Adler said he plans to bring that resolution before the whole Council at one of next week’s special called meetings.

Adler urged his colleagues not to be too hasty in appointing members of the advisory group or in promising those positions, indicating that he would like for that to be a more collaborative process than usual.

Hart told the Austin Monitor that while she welcoms the challenge of leading the city on a temporary basis, she has no desire to be named city manager and would not be applying for the job. Hart has attended every Council meeting for years, and she noted that her department is involved in 40 to 50 percent of the items on each agenda.

Hart also stressed that her current job as chief financial officer will keep her busy through the adoption of the budget, scheduled for Sept. 12-14. A natural numbers person, she described each budget she has worked on recently as “fun” and unique.

Asked who would take over in that spot once she takes over Ott’s duties, Hart said she had once tried to do two jobs at the same time at Austin Energy when she was promoted, but she would not make that mistake twice.

Hart said she would be working with the executive team on a transition plan and said that they may have a retreat this fall to work on next year’s budget.

As she told In Fact Daily, the Monitor‘s predecessor publication, in 2012, her municipal career began in 1975 as an external city contractor. “I audited the city for three years,” she said. “I actually got my job as an auditor because the City Council asked, when they were selecting the auditors, how many minorities worked for the audit firms. My firm told me that if they could use my name in the proposal, I could have the job.”

The firm won the contract, and Hart began her municipal career. “I never planned to be in government, but that’s how I ended up there,” she said in an interview.

During her first stint with the city, which began in February 1980, Hart served as audit manager and deputy city auditor, then acting controller, controller, assistant director of finance and then director of finance, before leaving in February 1990.

She returned to the city in 1998 at Austin Energy as budget manager, and then she became senior vice president of finance. She served at the utility for 14 years until her move to the CFO’s seat in 2012.

In a conversation with the Monitor on Thursday, Hart talked about solving problems. For example, when she was controller, she said, the city had a new accounting system that wasn’t working very well, and she enjoyed resolving that issue. She was also part of a group working to analyze a utility deregulation bill, passed by the Legislature in 1999.

One of the most important things that she did at Austin Energy was work on a project with the city’s financial advisors to separate Austin Energy’s bonds from the Austin Water utility’s bonds. At one time, the bonds were issued jointly. Part of the task, she said, was to “convince the city’s bondholders to free up $165 million in reserve funds and let us replace it with an insurance policy. … We got the money and actually used it to defease debt.” It was a difficult and technical project, she said, but “it was really beneficial to both those utilities and the city as a whole.”

In a prepared statement, Hart said, “I appreciate the confidence this Mayor and Council have shown in me. My focus, for now, is helping guide us through the budget process in partnership with the City Manager. This is truly a great organization, with exceptional employees at every level, highly dedicated to serving the people of Austin. My challenge is to help them continue to do their best work while Council searches for a replacement for Marc.”

Ott expressed confidence in Hart’s ability to do the job. In a news release, he said, “I believe she will excel leading Austin through this transition.”

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