Thursday, October 20, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Marc Ott leaves Austin on a high note

Marc Ott, the city’s first African-American city manager, arrived for his first day on the job on Feb. 18, 2008. Ott’s eight-and-a-half-year tenure has weathered swift change in Austin, where the percentage of African-Americans has slipped and the city has become less affordable.

When Ott started his job here, the United States was already in a recession, but Austin had been doing better than most cities.

Now, as he gets ready to leave Austin and take on his new job as executive director of the International City/County Management Association, Ott remembers the day in March 2008 when the city’s two budget specialists, Chief Financial Officer Leslie Browder and Budget Officer Ed Van Eenoo, walked into his office.

Ott said he could tell that the news was bad just by the looks on their faces. The city’s sales tax revenue, projected to climb by 7.6 percent, was nowhere near that projection. By the beginning of May, sales tax had grown by only 2.1 percent. The decline in growth continued over the next year.

A city team that was accustomed to expanding and adding more staff as the city grew had to turn its attention to cuts. There was real concern among rank-and-file employees that they would lose their jobs.

That was the beginning of a time of intense concentration on the city’s real needs and the needs of its employees. Ott said, “We were committed to minimizing any adverse impact on the programs and services.” But, Ott said, he and his team wanted to make the city “more secure from a structural standpoint,” which meant not doing only what needed to be done to get through one budget cycle.

Although the city eliminated numerous vacancies, which entailed asking employees to do more with less help, the management and City Council were committed to making sure that they did not have to lay off any employees, he said.

Although there were “a couple of years” when employees did not get raises, he said, “We avoided furlough days and pay-less paydays. We didn’t want to put anyone on the street, and we were able to maintain our AAA bond rating.” In the end, he said, “We came out on the other side experiencing, ultimately, year-end surpluses.”

In 2012, Ott recalled, “We had the bond proposal, and everything passed but affordable housing. That was the one proposition that did not pass. And because of the way we had managed the city fiscally, … we had a significant surplus of dollars – well in excess of $10 million – and ultimately the Council was able to reallocate some of that surplus to sustain our affordable housing programs until such time as there was an opportunity to regroup and repose the affordable housing proposition to the community, which ultimately passed.”

Ott pointed out that the city continued to have significant surpluses, although there is no such prediction for the upcoming budget cycle.

“I will tell you that I am proud of our financial management record, from 2008 during the Great Recession all the way to now,” he said. “We have had an excellent financial team: Leslie Browder and (Chief Financial Officer) Elaine Hart, and my management team and the department heads.” It has been a collective effort, he said, “to figure out how to manage our way through the recession.”

Although Austin Energy served as the city’s “cash cow” for many years before Ott’s arrival, during his tenure the utility’s management proposed to cut the transfer to the city’s General Fund. Ott persuaded Council not just to limit the transfer but also to go through the strenuous process of a rate case – the first in 17 years.

Austin Energy executives had asked for a rate adjustment for several years to no avail, but finally in 2012 Council not only adjusted the rate structure but also approved a standard so that electricity rates can be reviewed and changed every two to three years.

Austin is still prospering in part because it owns both an electric utility and a water utility. The transfer for Fiscal Year 2016-2017 is set at $108 million from Austin Energy and $42.9 million from Austin Water, or about 16 percent of the revenue of the General Fund.

Ott told the Austin Monitor that transfers from the utilities to the city’s General Fund are “appropriate” and should continue. “It’s a sharing of the owners’ equity and occurs not only in the public sector but the private sector,” he said. “So I was pleased to hear what I thought was support” from Council as well, he added.

How to deal with those transfers will be an important question for candidates who might become Austin’s next city manager.

Ott said he is proud of the diversity of his leadership staff, pointing out the number of women, including Hart, whom he in particular had appointed to executive positions. When Browder retired, Ott picked Hart, who was then serving as CFO for Austin Energy, to take Browder’s place. Now Council has chosen Hart to be interim city manager as it looks for Ott’s successor. She has indicated that she does not want the job on a permanent basis.

Some city staff members have quietly criticized Ott for what they perceive as his failure to stand up for employees loudly or frequently enough. However, last year, as the Monitor reported, with the backing of his management team, Ott did stand up.

The transition from citywide elections of Council members to district elections – and the fact that all but one Council member in 2014 were prohibited from running for Council seats – meant that of the 11 Council members ultimately elected that November, only Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo had experience on the Council.

The transition from a generally knowledgeable at-large Council in 2015 meant that city employees had to work harder and spend a significant amount of time giving briefings and workshops to new Council members. However, several of those Council members failed to understand how hard the staff was working, or at least failed to express any appreciation for the extra work staff was doing.

In August, before the budget was adopted, several Council members and the mayor put forth ideas about cutting employee benefits, lowering the proposed 3 percent pay raise and eliminating almost 100 employees. Ott received a letter from Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley outlining staff concerns about Council’s apparent lack of appreciation of city staff. The outpouring of support for Hensley’s position was unprecedented. Twenty-six executives and department heads emailed messages of support to Hensley and to Ott.

Ott sent a memo to Council about those concerns. He wrote, “The very employees that have been striving to support the new 10-1 system, especially the Department Heads and their executive teams, have said that they are feeling undervalued and unappreciated” as a result of some Council members’ budget proposals. In the end, Ott and his staff won the argument, and barring an economic catastrophe, it seems unlikely that staff will be facing a similar scenario in the near future.

If Council Member Don Zimmerman wins the Nov. 8 election, the new manager will also have to deal with someone who expresses hostility and lack of confidence in many of the city staff members who appear before Council. It’s not just an occasional comment; it’s a regular occurrence.

Ott has, it appears, tried to walk a fine line between overreacting and failing to support city employees when Zimmerman attacks their credibility, integrity and motives.

Last month, during budget adoption, Zimmerman lashed out at city staff, claiming that it was responsible for the many millions of dollars in programs brought before Council for approval that he personally could not vote for.

Ott responded by reminding Zimmerman that it was his Council colleagues who told city staff they wanted those programs and that staff was following policy directives set forth by Council.

Ott then went on to lecture Zimmerman about the nature of the Council-manager form of government. One of the things that Ott will be doing as executive director at the ICMA is defending that form of government.

When he made his speech at the ICMA convention after being introduced as the group’s new leader earlier this month, Ott told the audience about his interview for the job. He said it was the pinnacle of his career when he was appointed city manager of Austin: “I had aspired to try to provide leadership to one of the country’s premier cities, and I think Austin qualifies.”

Ott said he was also asked to whom he would give credit, and he said his parents. He grew up in the projects in Flint, Michigan, he said, and his parents, especially his mother, always encouraged him to get an education.

He went on to get that education – a bachelor’s degree in management with a concentration in economics from Michigan’s Oakland University and a master’s in public administration from the same university. Along the way he became an intern in a city manager’s office in a small town in Michigan. After that, Ott said he knew exactly what he wanted to do.

The ICMA website notes that “in 2013, Ott was recognized with ICMA’s highest professional honor, the Award for Career Excellence in Memory of Mark E. Keane, for his creative approach to such challenging issues as budget deficits, homelessness, infrastructure management, and education.”

Ott explained during that ICMA speech that his mother passed away about three years ago. But before that happened, she came to visit him and his family in Austin, where he showed her around the city, around City Hall and around his own office, which has big windows with views of Lady Bird Lake and the Long Center.

During the visit, Ott said he began looking for something and noticed that the room was really quiet. He turned around and saw tears streaming down his mother’s face. “You can imagine my initial instinct was to turn around and say, ‘Mom, what’s wrong?’ But then I understood. She was proud.”

Continuing the story to the ICMA audience, Ott explained that one day when he was a child, the stress of the neighborhood had become too much, and his father had stomped out. He found his mother, and she was very upset. That day, he said, he promised her that one day she would join him on a great occasion. “Well, if you will allow me a moment of personal privilege, I would like to say, ‘Hey, Mom, this is it.'” After the applause, Ott told the audience, “I’m proud to be at this juncture with this organization, and I truly believe the future is as bright as we choose it to be.”

Photo by Jo Clifton.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City Manager Marc Ott: Ott was hired by Council members in 2008 and served in that position until his 2016 departure.

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