Austin American-Statesman sues city of Austin over city manager secrecy

By Philip Jankowski and Elizabeth Findell
Austin American-Statesman
Originally published Oct. 31, 2017

The American-Statesman has sued the city of Austin after officials denied requests under the Texas Public Information Act to disclose the identities of finalists for city manager.

The Statesman filed the suit Tuesday in a Travis County district court as the Austin City Council began the first of two days of interviewing finalists. The lawsuit seeks disclosure of the city manager candidates’ names. The Statesman has independently confirmed the identities of four of the candidates.

“The residents of Austin will be paying the salary for a new city manager, and at the very least should know the finalists being considered by the city for such a critical role,” Statesman executive editor Debbie Hiott said. “Whether the City Council agrees or not, the legislative intent of the Texas Public Information Act has always been clear, that this is the type of information the public is entitled to know. If the city doesn’t want to inform the public, the newspaper will.”

Last week, the city denied a Statesman request under the Texas Public Information Act seeking the names of finalists for the city manager job. In a letter to the Texas attorney general, the city stated that revealing their identities would undermine the search for the best job candidates, citing a Texas Supreme Court ruling often applied to businesses competing for government contracts.

Texas does have laws in place that guard the identities of candidates for school superintendent or chief executive of an institution of higher learning, but none for government officials such as a city manager.

“Because the Legislature has not made the names of applicants for city manager confidential — as it has with other public job positions — the ‘competitive bidding’ exception to the (Texas Public Information) Act should not be interpreted to apply to such information as a matter of law,” the Statesman’s suit said. “The decision whether to make that information confidential must be left to the Legislature, not the city.”

The city manager is the top bureaucratic position at the city of Austin. The position has remained vacant for more than a year since former city manager Marc Ott left for a job in Washington. Interim City Manager Elaine Hart has filled the post since then, running the day-to-day operations of a city with a 14,000 employees and a $3.9 billion budget. Hart is earning $300,804 in the interim role.

The City Council in March voted to keep applicants and even finalists for city manager secret as they hired the consultant company Russell Reynolds to perform the nationwide search.

Despite a private company conducting the search, Texas law still requires documents related to the hiring of a position like city manager to be disclosed to the public.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told the Statesman Tuesday that the city’s attempt to keep the finalists names hidden was the most recent contortion of the Texas Supreme Court case Boeing v. Paxton, a ruling made to protect the bidding process.

“When you are hiring (for) an important position like city manager, city attorney or police chief, that rises to the level of position that transparency is needed,” Shannon said. “And the public needs to be in a loop in the finalists and the hiring process.”