Austin nears city manager selection after a yearlong search

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The final week of October marked a major step forward in Austin’s quest to find a new city manager, as City Council began interviewing candidates recommended by its hired search firm.

It has been over a year since former City Manager Marc Ott moved to Washington, D.C., for a new job after eight years as Austin’s top executive. Although officials anticipated the process of finding a new city manager would take six months, city leaders now say they are confident Austin will operate under a permanent city manager by the start of 2018.

This follows a long process that began with an unexpected two-month delay in hiring a search firm after disagreements on the council dais. Along the way the city decided to keep the process confidential from the public, formed a citizen-led task force to weigh in on the candidate’s profile and relied on a third-party firm to bring forth qualified candidates.

Soon after Ott announced his tenure would end, the city brought on Austin Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart as an interim replacement. Since her term as City Hall’s top executive began in September 2016, Hart has overseen an entire management cycle, which has included fulfilling several council directives and passing the fiscal year 2017-18 budget.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said although instability at the city manager position could have a negative impact, Hart’s performance in the role has helped maintain the city’s path forward. However, Adler said he looks forward to hiring a permanent city manager.

“[A permanent city manager] will provide long-term, stable leadership,” Adler said, “especially as far as personnel and policy recommendations go.”

The city has delayed several executive hires until a permanent city manager is in place. This has resulted in a long list of vacancies, highlighted by the chief of police, which has been filled in the interim by Assistant Chief Brian Manley since former Chief Art Acevedo took over as Houston’s chief in November.

“It is vital that the city manager and the police chief have a strong relationship,” Hart said. “I believe it is in the best interest of the city to leave the hiring of a police chief to our next city manager.”

Although Hart initially said she did not want to be considered for the permanent role, her reputation as a capable leader has grown within City Hall. Earlier in October the city employees union—American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—sent a letter to Adler endorsing Hart as the pick for permanent city manager.

“Despite the vacancy, the city’s workforce has continued to thrive under the leadership of Ms. Hart,” wrote Carol Guthrie, business manager of AFSCME Local 1624. “We believe this is, in large part, due to the fact that Ms. Hart is an established member of the Austin community as well as a trusted and familiar presence at City Hall. For the sake of continuity and stability, which this workforce and community desperately need, we urge you to consider Ms. Hart for the permanent position of city manager.”

Since the process will remain under wraps, no one at the city would confirm or deny whether Hart was being considered for the position. According to an official timeline released by search firm Russell Reynolds & Associates, City Council will conduct candidate interviews through mid-November with a final selection expected by the end of the month. The council will vote on the hire by mid-December.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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