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Task force dives into city manager search

Tuesday, June 13, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

The task force in charge of helping to write the job description for Austin’s next city manager hopes to stay involved in the process of picking the eventual hire, even though, as of now, the group is set to dissolve by the middle of next month.

At Monday’s meeting of the City Manager Search Advisory Task Force, members of the 11-person body discussed plans to ask City Council to give them a chance to meet with the final two or three candidates for the job later this year. The resolution that created the task force calls for it to sunset after the group delivers a profile of the desired city manager’s skills, experience and personality traits, and a summary of the public feedback process used to formulate the profile.

The matter of forwarding a request from Council will likely receive a vote at the task force’s Friday meeting, with most members appearing to be in favor of meeting the final candidates and doing their part to talk up the city and the job if needed.

Also on Monday the group laid out its schedule for a series of community forums and online feedback campaigns in each Council district that will take place through the end of the month. While Council had initially hoped each district would have an in-person forum, that plan was adjusted last week because of some scheduling difficulties, with the online and other feedback-gathering methods approved as a substitute.

The feedback will be collated by city staff and Russell Reynolds Associates, the consulting firm hired to conduct the search process, with a draft profile expected to be reviewed at the July 12 meeting.

In addition, Russell Reynolds is about to launch a management structure survey of 861 members of city staff at the executive, director, assistant director and managerial levels to determine what kinds of qualities and experience are most needed in the city’s next top administrator. The firm will also receive feedback from the city’s employee unions and special representative groups.

Residents will be able to offer their thoughts on the city manager search in the public forums, online at the task force’s website and via the city’s 311 phone line.

Stephen Newton, area manager for Russell Reynolds, said Austin’s hiring process is one of the most inclusive of public input he’s seen, with the public participation helping to emphasize the importance of being able to handle issues such as transportation and growth. Newton said his firm will narrow an initial candidate field down to around a dozen for Council to review and narrow down to a handful of finalists, who will be interviewed in person.

Newton said Council followed many other cities and large companies in stressing the importance of culture in determining who should lead city operations day to day.

“What you don’t want is a perfect fit for the current culture, because then you’re going to not change,” he said. “What you want is someone who’s a little ahead, and going in the direction of where you aspire to be.”

Task force members discussed that finding a new city manager soon is important because other administrative hiring decisions have been put on hold so the new manager will be able to shape the city’s overall leadership team. To emphasize the point, task force Chair Laura Huffman said 32 percent of the city’s executive positions, including the police chief post, are currently filled by interim or acting leaders. (Clarification: 31 percent of positions above the department director level are currently filled on an interim or acting basis.)

“This is one of the largest organizations in the community and one of the most dynamic public-facing bodies with 12,000 or 13,000 employees and billions of dollars at stake, so I can’t imagine the rationale for not having a city manager that you have hand selected, to deal with the issues that are important to the community,” she said. “I consider this to be one of the most important decisions this City Council will make.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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