Reversing course, Austin council to reveal city manager finalists

By Elizabeth Findell
Austin American-Statesman
Originally published Nov. 9, 2017

Austin City Council members will reverse course on their secret search for a city manager and release up to five finalists’ names in the next few days, a week after the American-Statesman staked out candidate interviews and sued the city over refusing to release records on the search.

Stephen Newton, a representative of search firm Russell Reynolds, told the council Thursday that he recommended making the finalists’ names public — a departure from his previous advice, and from a decision the council made in March to keep the process confidential until the council made its final pick.

“I’ve listened to all your comments, concerns,” he said. “Based on that, my recommendation is that you bring back between two and five individuals for the second round. I’m also recommending to you that the names of these individuals be made public … but in order to do so appropriately, we need to hear from each one of those individuals that they’re interested in going forward and that they’re willing to have their names given to the public.”

Newton said he expected to have those names released sometime Friday or, at the latest, Monday.

The Statesman last week identified five of the eight or nine candidates the council interviewed over two days, despite the city’s attempts to maintain secrecy. Those candidates are Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso, Minneapolis City Administrator Spencer Cronk, Ann Arbor City Administrator Howard Lazarus, Chattanooga Chief Operating Officer Maura Black Sullivan and former Tulsa City Manager Jim Twombly.

The council members voted unanimously in March to keep all candidate names secret until a single finalist was picked, operating on advice from Newton that they would get a wider pool of applicants if they maintained confidentiality. When the city sought to withhold records related to the search under a provision typically applied to competitive advantages between private companies, the Statesman sued.

Last week, after Statesman reporters identified four candidates seen on the first day of interviews, the council sought to evade public scrutiny on the second day of interviews by racing away unexpectedly in vans, blocking reporters from following them and moving its closed-door meeting to a conference room behind federal security checkpoints at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The Statesman added a complaint to its lawsuit that the council’s actions violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by moving from the publicly advertised location to another site that was not accessible to the public.

After Thursday’s meeting, Mayor Steve Adler said the council always hoped to make finalist names public, but voted previously to preserve the option of confidentiality in case it had a particularly desirable candidate who wanted to remain unidentified.

“We both wanted to get absolutely the best person and wanted it to be open and transparent,” he said. “We said it from the beginning. We set up a process to maintain confidentiality to the end. We don’t need it to the end.”

Newton said the same, noting that revealing candidate names had always depended on how the candidates felt.

“We wanted to make sure those individuals were comfortable,” he said.

He said he is reaching out to about five candidates to confirm that they want to continue with the search process. Those who do will have a second round of interviews at City Hall. Two to three more will have final interviews with citizen groups.