The search for interim City Manager Jesús Garza's permanent successor is set to kick off this summer and could get Austin's next city manager in place before late 2024.
In Austin, the unelected city manager is responsible for the administration of city government and carrying out policy directives of elected officials. City Council members choose the manager and may remove them at will. Garza has been serving as Austin's chief executive for more than four months following council's February vote to sever ties with former City Manager Spencer Cronk.
Garza's appointment was on a temporary basis, although the exact timeline of his tenure was undetermined. He was hired on a $350,000 salary with more than $19,000 in annual deferred compensation, nearly $9,000 for professional allowances and standard city benefits.
Garza's appointment came one month after the inaugurations of Mayor Kirk Watson and three first-time council members. Through his early days back at City Hall—he and Watson served in the same roles in the 1990s and early 2000s—he's overseen shakeups to the city government structure including top leadership turnover, and both returning officials have commented on a need to update and streamline Austin's services.
"The council directive to Jesús was to stabilize our city government and get those basic operations of the city running well. We asked him to fix the problems of the past so that our next permanent city manager can focus on moving the city forward," Watson said in a June newsletter.
With many of those changes now underway, the outlook for finding Garza's replacement is also becoming clearer.
Watson stated earlier this month that he was developing a solicitation for a search firm to seek out permanent city manager candidates and now hopes council can pick a firm this summer. Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis and Council Members Vanessa Fuentes, Chito Vela and Leslie Pool were also tapped to form a subcommittee centered on that process.
On June 15, Watson shared a detailed timeline for the search's next steps with an end goal of having the new hire begin working Sept. 1, 2024. In the shorter term, Watson said he hopes the city will publish a request for consultants by the end of this July and that council will select a firm before the fall.
Following that, the chosen firm would work on recruitment and community engagement for several months this year before starting to review and trim its list of candidates in 2024. The final selection of a new manager could happen in late spring or summer 2024 followed by a September start date—although that timeline is not set in stone.
"September 1  is only a target. If things go beyond that, so be it," Watson said on the council message board. "We all want to be thoughtful, and there’s no need to rush to a decision if, at the time, we feel we want more time. This is too important of a decision."
Watson's office confirmed that search costs will be covered through the city's general fund. A final amount will be determined through negotiations with the selected firm.The next manager's projected start date would avoid conflicts with the intensive budget approval process that typically wraps up in August, leaving Garza in charge of those financial planning efforts both this year and in 2024.
The timeline would also set the new manager up to take over city government in the middle of an election season. Watson—who's serving an irregular two-year term established to line up Austin mayoral contests with presidential election years—previously said he plans to run for re-election in 2024. The seats for council districts 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10 will also be contested next year.
The big picture
So far, Watson has laid out the plan for a council-driven search. But it remains to be seen what direction city officials hope the selection will go in, what candidates will be targeted and how community members may be drawn into the process.
The current proposed timeline would be longer than Austin's last, which extended from former City Manager Marc Ott's October 2016 resignation to the eventual selection of Cronk in December 2017. Cronk then began his tenure in 2018.
Although that 2017 work involved an appointed resident task force to gauge community desires, the Russell Reynolds Associates-led search didn't disclose the names of any candidates through much of the process.
The citizen task force was also helmed by Laura Huffman, a former assistant city manager and local business leader who Garza appointed as a change management consultant at City Hall this March.
As a member of council's search firm subcommittee, Pool—who was also on the dais in 2017—highlighted resident engagement, openness and a quick turnaround as aspects of the upcoming search she hopes to see.
"Selecting a new city manager for Austin is one of the biggest decisions the council will take in the next year, and I'm looking forward to strong engagement and input from residents across the city. Public input, transparency and a realistic timeline are imperative to ensure we hire the best city manager for Austin," she said in a statement. "Over the past few months, the pace of decision-making on council has increased with good outcomes. I hope the same positive action and accountability to our departments and delivering key services to the public continue with the selection of a new city manager. I look forward to serving on the search committee to ensure that we don't lose this important momentum."
Fuentes said she'll look to see that the process reflects local values and involves Austin residents.
“We’re undergoing major leadership changes that will affect city operations and its delivery of essential services for years to come. How we select our new city manager should reflect our values as a city and prioritize input from everyday Austinites. To ensure this process is accountable and transparent, robust public engagement is an absolute must," she said in a statement.