By Philip Jankowski
Originally published Dec. 6, 2017
To dodge reporters, consultants suggested the finalists to be Austin’s next city manager don wigs, pretend to be tourists or possibly even wear Halloween masks after American-Statesman reporters managed to identify several candidates during the city’s top-secret search for its next leader.
That was one of many details revealed in more than 400 pages of communications the city provided in response to a request under the Texas Public Information Act made within hours of officials making the legally murky decision to secretly change the location of a second round of interviewsconducted Nov. 2.
The documents show the subterfuge that Houston headhunter firm Russell Reynolds was willing to employ to hide the identities of finalists after the Statesman identified four candidates who met with the council Oct. 31 during the first set of interviews.
They also show that the Austin City Council and the city’s legal department were kept in the dark about plans to move the interviews from the Hilton Austin Airport hotel to behind security lines at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, a move that might have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.
And text messages provided show that at least one City Council member was uncertain about the legality of the move and considered walking out of the interviews.
“Should I leave?” Council Member Leslie Pool said in a text message to her Chief of Staff Amy Smith, who responded that she did not know. “I am going to stay. I have to stay,” another text message from Pool said. “Will have to take what comes.”
“God I am so unhappy right now,” Pool texted.
Plan hatched without lawyers’ blessing
The night before the second round of interviews, interim City Manager Elaine Hart texted the head of the city’s Human Resources Department, Joya Hayes, one of the few city employees who appeared to be in the know about the decision to move the interview location.
“Tomorrow’s CM interviews meeting is a posted meeting with location of Hilton Airport,” Hart wrote. “Did you check with law on relocating the meeting?”
Hayes responded, “No. We can’t repost the meeting,” and then told Hart how they intended to open the meeting at the posted location before having the council whisked away to conduct city manager interviews at the airport.
The secret change of venue was the culmination of the City Council’s decision in March to put the job search in the hands of a consultant who urged a level of secrecy unusual for top-level municipal jobs. The council’s original plans were to only reveal the final one or two candidates to lead the city’s 17,000 employees.
After the city rebuffed records requests seeking the identities of candidates, Statesman reporters, using sources and social media, began identifying some of the nine finalists for the job on Oct. 31, the first day of interviews.
As the first candidate’s name was revealed, emails from the executive assistant of lead consultant Steve Newton showed that at least one candidate set to interview two days later was watching and wanted to talk to Newton about whether to alert candidates’ colleagues or bosses.
Newton’s executive assistant, Amanda Patterson, replied that they were working hard to keep the candidates’ identities secret, something the City Council, mayor and consultants have repeatedly said was essential to ensure the highest quality applicants would apply for the job.
By the end of that day, Patterson was notifying finalists of a change in plans. They would now be staying in different hotels and the interviews would be conducted at the airport behind security lines and inaccessible to the public.
To try to throw any journalists off the scent, Russell Reynolds would keep one employee at the Hilton Austin Airport hotel who had been seen escorting finalists on the first day of interviews. The idea was that reporters would stay at the Hilton while interviews were conducted off-site.
“We’re keeping (consultant) Erin (Carbrey) at the original hotel as a diversion,” Patterson said in an email to another finalist. “Media won’t leave if they see her and they have hunkered down in front of the hotel at this point.”
One finalist said he or she would possibly wear a wig and sunglasses during check-in, and Patterson suggested that they dress in casual clothes and a baseball cap to appear like a tourist. Another finalist seemed to delight in the situation.
“Sounds like quite the intrigue!” the candidate said in an email.
Council kept in the dark
The names of all candidates were redacted from the documents the city provided. However, after what many staffers at City Hall saw as embarrassing actions by the city and the council, the council decided to release the names of the six candidates who made it through to the second round of interviews, which were conducted behind closed doors Sunday.
Those finalists are Spencer Cronk, city administrator of Minneapolis; Cecil House, public housing construction leader for New York’s Gilbane Building Co.; Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation; Howard Lazarus, city administrator of Ann Arbor, Mich.; Denise Turner Roth, senior adviser for construction consulting firm WSP; and Maura Black Sullivan, chief operating officer for Chattanooga, Tenn.
The Statesman has sued the city for its refusal to release the finalists’ names. Included in that suit is an allegation that the city violated the Texas open meetings laws for not properly posting the location of the Nov. 2 interviews. Experts in the Texas open meetings law are split on whether it was a violation, because the council did begin the meeting in public at the posted location, a ballroom at the Hilton.
As soon as they entered executive session, the 10 council members present made their way to the room where they had conducted interviews on the first day. However, they then split off into groups of five — likely to avoid a quorum — and boarded two shuttles bound for the airport. A city staffer prevented a journalist from following by padlocking a gate as the second group left.
“Council doesn’t even know about the location change,” Patterson said in an email the night before. “They’ll find out when they are directed to board a shuttle.”
At least some Human Resources Department staffers did know the plan as they gathered the names and dates of birth of people to send to airport staff so they could be let behind security lines without a boarding pass. Those included the mayor, the council members, consultants, human resources staff and a city spokesman, according to the documents.
At the airport, Pool, who represents District 7 covering parts of Central, North and Northwest Austin, received a text from her chief of staff, who told her that secretly moving the meeting was wrong.
“I agree,” Pool replied. When questioned about it further, Pool only replied, “Die cast.”
She then asked her chief of staff by text message to contact Austin City Attorney Anne Morgan.
“Hoping Ann (sic) is outside the room,” Pool texted. “But at this point, she can’t do anything to help. I am unprepared for this.”
Mayor Steve Adler, who had not been present at the hotel, joined the council at the airport. Adler at the time said he had no advance knowledge of the interviews’ venue change, but that he was told to stay at the airport after arriving on an early morning flight.
After the interviews, the council returned to the Hilton. Several refused to comment about the meeting’s legality, though Council Members Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen, and later Adler, all said the legal department had told them moving the interviews complied with the law.
The records provided by the city included only one email from Newton, the lead consultant from the headhunting firm managing the search. It was in reaction to his assistant notifying him that another finalist had been identified on Twitter through the Statesman’s efforts.
“I who love the press now hate it,” Newton said.