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Behind a 'messed up' process to pick Austin's next light-rail leader

An illustration showing a light-rail train on a fictionalized street in Austin.
Austin Transit Partnership
A light-rail train runs down a fictionalized street in Austin to demonstrate how Project Connect could transform the streetscape in parts of the city.

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The Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) — a voter-created organization collecting almost $160 million a year in property tax to build a light-rail system — has chosen a permanent leader to oversee the single largest expansion of public transit in the city's history.

A head shot of Greg Canally, a white man with brown hair and blue eyes, wearing a blue shirt and dark blue suit jacket. His top shirt button is unbuttoned. He is clean-shaven and smiling for the camera.
Austin Transit Partnership
Greg Canally is the new executive director of the Austin Transit Partnership

The Orange and Blue lines eventually will offer frequent service along almost 30 miles of city streets and perhaps even under downtown Austin as a subway. Project Connect, the name of the expansion, is funded with a real estate tax of 8.75 cents per $100 property value — a dedicated stream of transit cash with no expiration date.

ATP's seven-member board this week unanimously installed Greg Canally to lead the light-rail build out. Canally was a 20-year veteran of City Hall's budget office before moving to ATP as chief financial officer in 2021. The board had already elevated him to interim director in May after forcing out Randy Clarke from the top job.

For the past several months, Canally has been hiring staff and revising the light-rail plans developed under Clarke. Those plans' estimated costs had almost doubled from $5.8 billion to $10.3 billion last April and were set to climb even higher. The ATP will begin unveiling a rebooted Project Connect at an open house March 21.

Questions about transparency

But the way Canally was elevated to the permanent post has raised concerns with community advocates, advisory boards and close watchers of the transit expansion. The ATP board chair even apologized for how the appointment was initially communicated.

The hiring process has "shaken public trust in the Board of the Austin Transit Partnership," the ATX Mobility Coalition, a group of grassroots advocates, warned in a letter to the ATP and Capital Metro boards.

The sequence of events "led to serious concerns in the community about governance, transparency, and decision-making processes," echoed Awais Azhar, who chairs a community advisory committee overseeing Project Connect.

Even ATP board member Tony Elkins, a community representative with expertise in finance, called the recruitment process "messed up."

So what happened?

After ousting Clarke last May, ATP looked to hire an executive recruiting firm to hunt down qualified candidates willing to move to Austin and earn more than $300,000 a year building a state-of-the-art light-rail system.

Only one headhunter put in a bid: Affion Public, a company based in Hershey, Pa., that was already recruiting executives for ATP. The solicitation was canceled.

In November, ATP told KUT it intended to restart the search for a headhunter, "as is considered industry best practice."

Instead, ATP board chair Veronica Castro de Barrera directed staff to hire Affion for the executive director search. The company was already working for ATP and "bringing in really high-caliber candidates to us," Castro de Barrera told KUT.

Another delay in the hunt for a leader: Castro de Barrera wanted to wait until a new board was seated before making such a consequential decision.

Former Huston-Tillotson president and CEO Colette Pierce Burnette left the ATP board in May. Her replacement, Juan Garza, wasn't appointed till November. By then, Austin had a new mayor and a board seat for Steve Adler would soon transfer to Kirk Watson.

So finally, at the new board's first meeting in January, members went behind closed doors to talk about who should lead the organization tasked with transforming Austin's public transit system.

"It is not anticipated that there will be any further discussion when we return from executive session," Castro de Barrera said just before taking the meeting private.

In their secluded discussion, Affion Public presented the board with two options: perform a full national search for a new executive director or name interim director Greg Canally sole candidate for the job.

Recruiting a qualified candidate could be difficult and potentially time-consuming, Affion advised, given a number of factors, including a relatively thin pool of highly qualified talent.

Affion had already told board members Canally was a strong candidate who understood the complexities of Austin government.

The board emerged from its closed-door session an hour and a half later to a largely empty board room. The meeting was, however, recorded by the city's government access channel, ATXN.

"I'm proud to announce that we have identified our finalist for executive director, Mr. Greg Canally," Castro de Barrera said. The five board members present voted unanimously to name Canally the sole finalist for the job.

No press release was issued. No immediate publicity was given to the announcement.

Community-engagement efforts

Later that same Friday, Capital Metro revealed that following a national search, Dottie Watkins would be named the organization's president and CEO at a board meeting on Monday.

At that Monday meeting, CapMetro board chair Jeff Travillion, who's also on the ATP board, relayed the Canally news to his colleagues. They were surprised. They liked Canally, they said, but didn't realize ATP was that far along in the process.

"I wasn't even aware that they had selected a firm," said a flabbergasted CapMetro board member Eric Stratton, who used to serve on the ATP board. "Did ATP not engage with a national search firm to do this?"

Travillion didn't directly answer the question but offered to put together a group that would clarify how ATP planned to move forward with the hiring process.

"We need to be accountable as a board and own up to the fact that we messed the process up. We weren't transparent to the community."
Tony Elkins, ATP board member

What Travillion didn't immediately convey, to the frustration of Castro de Barrera, was the ATP board planned to give the public a chance to weigh in on Canally as a light-rail leader.

"We were never intending to skip any kind of community process the way it was presented at the Capital Metro meeting," she told KUT.

Travillion said he felt his remarks at the CapMetro board meeting were "appropriate."

"I felt the information was clear," he said. "A vote was taken on the record, so I felt a duty to my colleagues to report that information."

Travillion followed up with a Feb. 2 memo to board members to "provide clarification on this matter," explaining there would be a community-engagement effort.

The public was offered two chances in February to weigh in on Canally's hiring. Each meeting was held on a weekday evening and lasted about an hour. Recordings and transcripts of the meetings posted by ATP show a handful of people asked questions.

Some private meetings were held, according to a summary from ATP, including a meeting with "business community groups" like the Downtown Austin Alliance, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Real Estate Council of Austin and the Austin Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

But the community-engagement effort was too sparse, according to ATP board member Elkins.

"We need to be accountable as a board and own up to the fact that we messed the process up. We weren't transparent to the community," he said, adding he still believed Canally was "very well-qualified" for the job.

"I believe we've lost some trust through this process," Elkins said. "We must rebuild that trust."

Before the unanimous vote to appoint Canally, Castro de Barrera apologized for "confusion" and "harm" that she obliquely blamed on Travillion's announcement about Canally to the CapMetro board. But she defended the decision to elevate the interim director.

"The Austin Transit Partnership is an organization that needs at this juncture stability and continued momentum in delivering the visionary transit program," she said. "Mr. Canally is the right appointment for this program, for this community at this time."

The ATP board voted unanimously to make Canally executive director, effective immediately.

The next step is for Castro de Barrera to negotiate an employment contract with Canally, including salary and benefits. That information will be made public.

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Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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