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Council questions city manager hiring process

Wednesday, December 7, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Apparently responding to criticism of the process for selecting a recruiting firm to find a new city manager, some members of City Council indicated that they want staff to move in a new direction during Tuesday’s work session.

Choosing from companies that have responded to the city’s request for proposals, a team from the city’s Human Resources and Purchasing departments selected Ralph Andersen & Associates of California as their top choice to do the recruiting. But after Council discussion, it was not clear whether Council would consider Andersen or another firm that applied for the job – or tell staff to start over.

The contract is on Thursday’s Council agenda, but Mayor Steve Adler suggested that the matter might be postponed until next week, which is the final meeting of the year.

Adler, along with Council members Leslie Pool, Ellen Troxclair, Sheri Gallo and Don Zimmerman, had questions about the companies staff had selected and not selected to receive the RFP. Those who received the RFP did not include four major international search firms, a fact that retired Adm. Bob Inman and civic activist Mike Levy had criticized in the Austin Monitor‘s story on Friday.

Fred Lewis, another frequent critic of the city, also weighed in on Monday urging members of the community to tell Council to start over on the process.

Assistant City Manager Mark Washington said if Council had indicated that it wanted to spend the kind of money that would be necessary to hire the high-end global recruitment firms like the four Inman and Levy recommended, then it could have done so.

However, when staff was briefing Council in August on how the process might proceed, Council was in budget deliberations and thinking about not spending too much money. In fact, as can be seen in the transcript from the Aug. 16 meeting, the budget was anticipated to be $90,000 to $100,000. The Monitor also reported that figure in an Aug. 17 Whisper.

Adler and several Council members, including Troxclair and Zimmerman, seemed perplexed to learn that they had indeed been given a budget for the hiring process.

Washington told Council that there are only four cities larger than Austin that have Council/city manager form of government, and two of those are in Texas: Dallas and San Antonio. The firm that came in second in staff’s ranking of those who responded to the RFP, Affion Public, is currently helping Dallas find its new city manager and recently helped San Antonio select its current manager. It is also the firm that recruited former City Manager Marc Ott in 2008.

According to background documents on the search effort, 10 firms applied. Andersen came in first with 97 of 100 points, and Affion Public, previously known as Argus, scored 88 points. The firm that ranked third, GovHR USA, received 86 points.

Human Resources Director Joya Hayes told the Monitor that staff reached out to the four global search firms, but only one of them responded. That particular firm asked the city to send it a job description, but it’s not clear whether that company has any real interest.

Not everyone agrees with those criticizing the process. Terrell Blodgett, Mike Hogg Professor Emeritus in Urban Management at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, told the Monitor via email, “With all due respect for Admiral Inman, invite those 4 largest firms ONLY if they have recruited for a city or county manager. A city manager’s job is as different from a corporate executive as night and day. The City of Austin is no place for on-the-job training for an individual who knows nothing about the complex structure and operation of a city much less the political infrastructure that a manager must deal with.”

Adler in particular seemed interested in trying to do some kind of hybrid process, which would include Andersen or one of the other highly ranked firms that applied for the job but also see if one of the large firms would be willing to work as a subcontractor to help with the process. He suggested asking the firms that responded to the RFP and got high marks whether they would be willing to subcontract with another firm.

This obviously put Purchasing Officer James Scarboro, Hayes and Washington into uncharted waters.

“At this point, if we reached out to other companies and asked them for things that may or may not be consistent with what we asked the other companies for, it would be a hard circumstance to make sense of and for us to explain,” Scarboro said. “If that’s what you wanted to do, I would recommend you cancel the solicitation.”

However, Adler responded, “The questions would be the same; the solicitation would be the same.”

The request for proposal process closed on Nov. 1. The purchasing officer will undoubtedly have a lot of questions for his legal adviser about what staff may and may not do. It’s also unclear what kind of precedent the city will be setting if it tries to shoehorn in a bidder who did not respond to the original proposal.

Photo by Lewisisms made available through a Creative Commons license.

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