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Council selects search firm to find new city manager

Friday, February 10, 2017 by Jack Craver

City Council settled on a firm to conduct the search for a new city manager Thursday following a convoluted and unusual process in which each Council member ranked the three firms competing for the contract.

Council ultimately voted 7-4 to award the contract to Russell Reynolds Associates, a global firm that specializes in recruiting high-level executives in both the public and private sectors. The other finalists for the contract were Ralph Andersen & Associates, another large head-hunting firm, and a joint application from two recruiting firms: GovHR USA and Transearch.

Council Member Greg Casar was the first to speak in favor of Reynolds, saying he believed it “brought something different” than its competitors, including an openness to “back and forth feedback.”

Council Member Pio Renteria seconded Casar’s endorsement, adding that he was impressed by the high number of high-ranking women in the organization as well as its record of recruiting women and non-white executives to major companies and nonprofits.

Council Member Alison Alter also expressed a strong preference for Reynolds, saying that she became familiar with the firm while working in academia. The firm’s experience in engaging with “quite a complicated group of stakeholders in the academic market” would serve it well in finding a city manager prepared to deal with the complexities of City Hall, she argued.

Other Council members, however, didn’t like that Reynolds had never engaged in a city manager search.

“I’m much more comfortable with a firm that has done a search for a city manager position,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo.

Council Member Ora Houston also argued that Reynolds’ diverse leadership reflected the fact that it was a large, international company. Of the members of each firm who will actually be involved in the city manager search, she was most impressed by the diversity of GovHR and Transearch, which are both owned by women.

Casar and Mayor Steve Adler pushed back against the argument that Reynolds was unqualified because it hadn’t helped hire a city manager before. It had been involved in filling many high-level government jobs, Casar pointed out. Indeed, it was the firm that connected former Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo with his current employer: the city of Houston. Furthermore, he argued, GovHR’s city manager searches were performed for cities much smaller than Austin.

One of those much smaller cities, Adler noted, was Ferguson, Missouri, which in 2015 hired GovHR to find a new city manager tasked with repairing the image of a city government that had been tarnished by a police shooting in 2014 that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and a subsequent federal investigation focused on misconduct and racial bias in its police force.

Helping Ferguson land a new city manager was a very “impressive and difficult thing,” said Casar, but the manager of a city of 20,000 is still a fundamentally different position than one of nearly 1 million residents.

At no point in the debate did the cost of each bid come up. GovHR estimated that it could do the job for $68,000, plus expenses. Andersen estimated a cost of $74,000, plus expenses. Reynolds proposed a fee of one-third of the cost of the city manager’s salary plus $4,800, a total staff estimated at $122,800.

While Council members mounted a number of arguments in favor of the various bidders, few offered strong criticism. In fact, the lack of passionate opposition to any of the proposed contracts appeared to make the debate considerably longer, because Tovo suggested that Council avoid an up-or-down vote on a contract that would result in its rejection. She argued that doing so would send an unnecessarily critical message about what she believed were all worthy applicants.

Ever the seeker of compromise, Adler suggested that every Council member offer their first and second choices. That led to a confusing 15-minute conversation about which of the three candidates would “drop off” so that the other two could face off.

In the end, however, Council did what it sought to avoid. A vote to select GovHR failed and was followed by a successful vote to choose Reynolds.

Photo by John Flynn.

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