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Council upends manager search process

Friday, December 9, 2016 by Jo Clifton

City Council on Thursday scrapped the staff-led process for hiring an executive search firm to help find a new city manager, sending the Human Resources and Purchasing Office team off to see if it might put together a new process that would include both public and private sector headhunters.

Council members voted unanimously to close the current process, and Mayor Steve Adler said staff should plan to come back to Council with a report at the Council retreat Jan. 11-12.

Council was scheduled to vote on whether to select Ralph Andersen & Associates of California to start working on finding a manager to replace Marc Ott, who left Austin in October to become executive director of the International City/County Management Association.

However, after several high-profile critics pointed out that staff had not contacted the four largest private sector recruitment companies, Adler and several Council members expressed dissatisfaction with the process.

On Thursday, Adler told staff, “I was real impressed with the person you selected. … This is not in any way a rejection of that. We’re just wanting a broader perspective.”

Adler is still pushing for staff to find a way to have both a public sector and a private sector search firm working on the same project.

That goal could be difficult to achieve. Human Resources Director Joya Hayes told Council that someone in the Purchasing Office had reached out to Ralph Andersen & Associates to ask whether they would be willing to work with another firm, but the answer was no.

Mike Herbert, who signed up to give input as a citizen, told Council on Thursday, “I urge you to follow the advice of Adm. Bob Inman. Austin is a $3.7 billion enterprise. This is a big job. We need to reach out to a much broader pool of people. We can’t afford to experiment with an assistant city manager from Anywhere, America. … There should not be a rush to make a decision.”

Terrell Blodgett, a professor emeritus from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, told the Austin Monitor it would be highly unusual to have two firms working on the same executive search.

Blodgett said he was concerned about selecting a private sector search firm. “You rarely see the CEO of a steel manufacturing company become the CEO of an Eddie Bauer or an L.L. Bean. You rarely see the CEO of something like an auto company become CEO of a book publisher. Industries have their own history, their own culture, their own structure. In particular, the two things that are different in city government from the nonprofit or private sector is you usually don’t have the transparency, and the activity of the governing body” is significantly different.

He continued, “In most companies and nonprofits, the governing body is more passive, waiting for the leadership of a CEO, and they don’t deal with transparency. I don’t have any objection to them going out if they want to get one of these four big search firms … but I would want to make sure they have done a search for a city manager before. I don’t think this is the place for on-the-job training for a search firm to try to get up to speed on the need for transparency. … That’s my concern,” he concluded.

Greg Nelson of Ralph Andersen & Associates attended Thursday’s meeting to assure Council that his firm has been doing public sector executive searches since 1972, finding both public and private sector individuals to fill high-level positions.

For example, Nelson said, when the San Francisco International Airport wanted to build and operate its own five-star hotel, his firm found private sector talent to fill that position. He said his firm did a similar placement for the Port of Los Angeles from the private sector and also recruited the procurement officer for the state of California from the private sector.

The company is also currently conducting a search to find a new public works director for Austin, Nelson said.

“Have you worked with cities that have considered applicants for that job that do not come from the public sector? Does that work?” Adler asked.

Nelson said his firm would be able to “tell you the advantages and disadvantages of operating in a sector that has many more rules,” such as the government. He said, “Some executives would want to throw their chair out the window after the first week” after learning the rules of dealing with government rather than the private sector.

Outgoing Council Member Don Zimmerman tried to persuade his colleagues to reject Ralph Andersen & Associates outright, but the mayor instead took a motion from Council Member Leslie Pool to simply close the request for qualifications process without making a decision about any of the firms that applied for the job.

Photo by That Other Paper made available through a Creative Commons license.

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