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Is This City Hall's Most Powerful Leader Under Austin's Change to 10-1?

Daniel Reese for KUT News
City Manager Marc Ott at a council work session in 2011. Ott is not a very visible figure in city politics – but that doesn’t mean he’s not influential. ";s:3:

This article was co-produced with KUT News’ Joy Diaz as part of an ongoing City of Austin reporting partnership between In Fact Daily and KUT. Listen to KUT's broadcast story in the audio player below.

Among the changes that will accompany the start of districted representation for Austin City Council members, at least one unintended consequence is causing some level of civic heartburn for interests represented by figures ranging from current sitting Council members to the outspoken face of the 10-1 movement: A potential shift in the way things get done at City Hall.

That change, should it play out, will find the office of City Manager – the unelected executive arm of city government –  becoming a much more powerful position. “The City Manager, at least temporarily – until people find their footing – is going to have a substantial amount of power,” said longtime Austin political organizer David Butts.

Of the top 15 U.S. cities listed by population in the US Census, nine are represented by strong mayor systems of government. These include such familiar spots as New York City, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia. Columbus, Ohio, San Diego, Calif.  and Indianapolis, Ind. also use the strong Mayor system.

But San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Jacksonville, Fla., and San Jose, Calif. employ the Council-Manager system.

Though not always an operational fact, supporters of a Council-Manager system argue that the approach allows management of a city to steer clear of political entanglements as they go about the business of running the day-to-day operations of a city. Whether or not that is the case – locally, the premise has certainly been tested, at least historically – the fact of a largely inexperienced incoming 10-1 Council has raised concerns over how the manager’s position could become more powerful as new City Council members struggle to get a hold on how to make policy.

Council Member Bill Spelman has served three, non-consecutive terms on the Austin City Council. During his first run, in the late 1990s, he told In Fact Daily and KUT that he and his colleagues took a retreat to help delineate the relationship between the Council and manager. These days, he says, the Council and Manager Marc Ott have achieved a “reasonable balance.”

Spelman, also a government professor at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, worries that this will not be the case as the new Council comes in. “I think that balance is going to come a little bit off kilter from its current state, and I think that the manager will pick up the slack and do more policymaking than he or she has done in the past – whether it’s this manager or some future manager,” offered Spelman.

Spelman turned to the hands-off style that Ott is generally depicted as wielding. “If you’ve got a manager who is always hands on in what all their people are up to then at least you’ve got consistency – you know what to expect,” he began. “If you’ve got a manager who is hands on in some cases and not hands on in others, you are not sure what is going to happen on any given issue, and if there is going to be a void in policymaking – which, in some issues, at least there is going to be; it’s inevitable I think that some members of City Council just won’t know anything about flood control, or won’t know anything about the Fire Department.”

He continued: “If decisions have got to be made on things that they just don’t know anything about, then somebody is going to have to make them, and whether they are made by the department heads and the staffs, or whether they are made by the City Manager is a little uncertain because I don’t know whether Marc Ott is going to think this is an issue I need to delve into and really get into or whether he will be happy to the department bring forward whatever policies it thinks it needs.”

When asked if the combination of Ott and a new Council would set off some level of detriment to the city. Spelman was careful. He looked past the manager. “In the long run we may end up having to fall back on the fact that we’ve got a great staff,” he said.

For his part, Council Member Mike Martinez also suggested that Council inexperience could leave an opening for a stronger City Manager position, should none of the sitting Council members return. “If it turns out that the City Manager is the only one (on the dais who remains), some would argue – and I would likely agree with them – that the city manager has an advantage, a distinct advantage.”

Mayor Lee Leffingwell echoed those concerns. “This is probably the first time in a long time that there will be virtually no institutional memory on the Council,” he said. “Going to 10 members that are elected from districts that are going to come from, I think, dramatically different experiences, backgrounds…I think communication is going to be very difficult.”

He continued: “The only institutional memory around is going to be on the part of the staff members. They are going to know what’s going on, and I think (the Council) will not be quite so aware of what is going on.”

Credit Daniel Reese for KUT News
Austin City Council Member Laura Morrison looks on as Ott speaks. Morrison says defining the separation of powers between the council and the City Manager “can be a very difficult issue.”

Council Member Laura Morrison noted that the sort of conflict that could arise from the debate could also be problematic. She noted that defining how the manager and Council members share decision-making roles “can be a very difficult issue.”

“You don’t want to get down to the situation of having to have that kind of battle, you want to be able to just work it out,” she continued.

Morrison said that that possibility reminded her of her tenure as head of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. “Whenever I heard folks start citing their bylaws, it’s like: Oh, you know they are in trouble, and you want to find a better way to deal with it.”

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole suggested that both management and the community would have a key role in how the interaction between Council and the manager would transpire. “I think there is no question that there will be a time for adjustment and with the new people come new perspective,” Cole began. “They will have to learn and the experience will come with time…we’ll just have to make sure that the community supports the Council, along with management, in that process.”

Cole, Martinez and Morrison have all expressed an interest in running for Mayor next year although it is not clear whether they will all follow through. Otherwise, they will be retiring from the City Council.

University of Texas Professor Emeritus Terrell Blodgett is an expert in local government operations. He suggested that the City Manager’s role could be dictated in large part by the personality offered by the new Mayor. “If the Mayor is a strong leader, a strong consensus builder, a facilitative leader that can pull all of those elements together – it’s going to be like herding a bunch of cats, one might say…the City Manager can have a lot of perceived power without really being out front,” said Blodgett.

Under that scenario, Blodgett argued that the City Manager could take “more of a back seat.” However, Blodgett continued, “if the Mayor, on the other hand, is not a good consensus builder, not a strong leader, not able to facilitate a strong consensus – and not have a lot of 6-5, even 7-4 votes – it will inevitably thrust the City Manager, in many cases, out front to try to keep things moving in the city.”

Like Butts, Peck Young is also a longtime political consultant. Young has also consulted on state and national campaigns. Butts and Young represented different sides in the geographic Council debate – Butts favored an 8-2-1 system that maintained two at large Council seats while Young preferred the ultimately victorious 10-1 system.

Still, both Butts and Young saw trouble with regard to the future relationship between Council and the manager.

Butts was blunt in his estimation of what will happen. “Clearly, the City Manager will be in a position of knowing everything and having a number of people who don’t know a great deal – other than they’ve just gone through a political campaign and were successful,” Butts said. “That’s probably (imbued) them with a certain…belief that they know something – and they do, maybe about their neighborhood or their district – but whether they know how the city operates and how it functions, and what it can deliver, and when it can deliver, and how to get it delivered will be another issue.”

Young argued against the general principle of a manager-style government. “My philosophical position is that the whole City Manger form of government is an assumption that elected officials can’t run the city, and I think that’s anti-Democratic, and I think that’s wrong,” Young said.

One possible outcome of this shift in power could be another change, one that would be toward a different form of government – a version, perhaps, where a weakened manager reports to a Council with more powers, or a so-called strong mayor makes administrative decisions. Such a change would require a vote of citizens to amend the city’s charter.

Young suggested that such a turn could be good for the city, if done right. “I think we need to have the executive – which is what the City Manager is – wing of the government elected,” he said. “The voters need to be able to hold their executive officials accountable.”

Later, Young tied the Council-Manager form of government back to an uncomfortable past. “This whole model we have dates from a time when Anglo power brokers didn’t like cities where we had a majority of people who were immigrants,” he said. “In Austin, it was Swedes and Germans and Irish…they didn’t want them to have a say in how the city was run.”

However, Blodgett argues that a switch to strong mayor may not be good for Austin. “I’ve seen several cities over the last 20, 30 years in the strong mayor system where the mayor has brought in, for example in one city, a tax partner of an accounting firm, another his campaign manager, another his press person,” Blodgett said. “Those people are trained and educated in their particular area, but not in the profession of city management.”

Blodgett further suggested that, in his opinion, “the city would suffer” from a switch to a strong mayor system.

In Fact Daily and KUT tried multiple times to get Ott to comment for this story. Austin’s City Manager did not return requests delivered through both personal and official lines of communication.

Council Members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley – the only two sitting Council members that could run for new, districted seats – also declined comment for this story. 

This article has also been published by In Fact Daily under the headline, "Major changes possible with shift to system of 10-1 Council districts."

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