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Austin’s two city manager finalists: Howard Lazarus and Spencer Cronk

Friday, December 8, 2017 by Jack Craver

The seemingly interminable search for Austin’s next city manager has finally been winnowed down to two applicants for the job.

On Thursday, Stephen Newton of consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates, which City Council hired to lead the candidate search, recommended that Council choose either Howard Lazarus or Spencer Cronk to be Austin’s top civil servant.

Cronk and Lazarus will each get an hour to present themselves to the public at the Austin Convention Center next Tuesday, between 7 and 9 p.m. Members of the public are encouraged to attend and give the city feedback on the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, either via an online survey or paper forms that will be provided at the event.

Each candidate will also be meeting with four different stakeholder groups representing different segments of the municipal workforce: department directors, assistant city managers, employee unions and “affinity groups” that represent African-American, Latino, Asian and LGBTQ city workers.

The following morning, Council will conduct final interviews with the candidates in a closed-door executive session. After that, Council members will have four or five days to consider the interviews and citizen feedback before making a final decision at a public meeting on either Dec. 18 or 19, said Joya Hayes, who is coordinating the scheduling as head of the city’s Human Resources Department.

The city manager search process has been marred by controversy and litigation resulting from Council’s decision, on the advice of Russell Reynolds, to withhold the names of the six candidates picked by the consultant. The Austin American-Statesman responded by staking out meetings between the candidates and Council members and eventually revealing the candidates’ names. The city is currently defending itself in a lawsuit filed by the paper over what it contends are violations of state public records laws, even though Council ultimately released the names anyway.

Even on Thursday, shortly after announcing the names of the two finalists, Newton hesitated in response to a request by Council Member Leslie Pool to make public the candidates’ resumes, citing the ongoing litigation with the Statesman. Pool later asked if Council could simply ask the two finalists to release their resumes voluntarily and was rebuffed by city attorney Anne Morgan, who also noted the legal battle.

Newton said he would check with his team’s attorney before making a decision about the resumes.

“I think that’s really important information for our community,” replied Pool. “If they’re withheld, I really want to understand why that is.”

In the latest issue of The Austin Chronicle, reporter Michael King described a “testy” exchange with Newton over the resume matter and noted that most of the information that Newton and the city were viciously guarding was easily accessible on LinkedIn.

Newton told Council members that he plans to provide them with a set of references for both candidates. His goal is to get feedback not just from bosses, but rather a “360 degree” view from colleagues and subordinates.

Lazarus is a familiar face at City Hall. He served for eight years as head of the city Public Works Department until June 2016, when he left to become city administrator of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Lazarus also spent a combined 11 years at private engineering firms, four years as director of engineering for Newark, New Jersey, and 14 years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he began his career after graduating from West Point in 1978.

Cronk holds a similar position to Lazarus, but in a much larger city than Ann Arbor. He is Minneapolis’ city coordinator, the top administrative position for the city of over 400,000.

Before taking that job in mid-2014, Cronk worked for three-and-a-half years as head of the Minnesota Department of Administration, which is responsible for overseeing a vast portfolio of state properties, vehicles and building projects. Cronk’s LinkedIn profile does not say what he did during the two years preceding that job, but he spent just over three years from 2006-09 working under New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as executive director and senior adviser of the city Department of Small Business Services.

Photo by John Flynn.

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