Phillips: Adler wants city to release city manager search records

Mayor Steve Adler, after voting to conduct a secret search for Austin’s new city manager, now wants to release all records.

When the Austin City Council meets Thursday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler will recommend that the city turn over all records the Texas attorney general’s office ordered be released regarding the council’s search for a new city manager.

“I’m fine with the ruling,” Adler told me over lunch recently. “I believe in transparency.”

The mayor went on to say that in addition to releasing the records showing who applied for the city manager position, he hopes the city would not appeal the AG ruling and “resolve all issues” regarding the lawsuit.

Hallelujah. Adler has come to his senses. I hope the rest of the council does, too, when it discusses the issue in closed session on Thursday.

Frankly, the council has no legal leg on which to stand after the AG’s ruling earlier this month that the city cannot withhold records showing who applied for its city manager position by claiming the information would harm the city competitively in a search for qualified applicants.

The ruling gutted arguments by the city aimed at justifying its efforts to conduct a secret search, such as the ridiculous claim that the information is a trade secret, a matter that would harm the search firm competitively or is “highly intimate and embarrassing.”

Whether the council believed it was on solid legal ground or, as some observers say, bamboozled by a private firm that had not heretofore conducted a search for a public entity or governmental body makes little difference. The damage is done in either case.

It sends the wrong message to the public when the city’s daily newspaper had to sue the city to get records regarding the hiring of the city’s top executive position. It erodes public trust when the city uses resources of its taxpayers to hide information from them to which they are entitled legally or otherwise. It should not have taken an AG ruling, but it did.

Matthew Taylor, an assistant attorney general in the open records division, wrote the opinion, which directs the city and its executive search firm, Russell Reynolds, to turn over the bulk of the information the American-Statesman requested related to the search for a new city manager, including candidate applications. Austin may withhold only attorney-client privileged emails and some personal email addresses and cellphone numbers.

If that weren’t bad enough, the American-Statesman also had to sue the city for potentially violating the state’s open meetings law when the council publicly posted a meeting at one location, then ducked out a door to take vans to another location that had not been posted. That was done to dodge reporters who staked out the posted meeting place.

The law requires public notice of where and when meetings will be – even when the meetings are in closed session.

The public won’t soon forget council members’ unanimous vote to keep the people they represent in the dark or how the city resorted to bizarre tactics to hide the faces of candidates and evade reporters.

Bowing to public pressure, the council finally released the names of five finalists, including Spencer Cronk, who they hired. Cronk starts later this month, after Sunday’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, where Cronk serves as city coordinator until Feb. 11, according to the Star Tribune.

In denying information about the pool of applicants seeking the city manager post, a job akin to a chief executive officer in the private sector, council members did a huge disservice to the public and to Cronk.

The public was unable to evaluate candidates and give feedback until the very end of the search for the person that oversees all city departments, 17,000 employees and a $3.9 billion budget. Cronk will be responsible for the kind of city services residents rely on daily, such as clean water, trash pickup, street repairs, recycling services, electricity and safe neighborhoods.

One of the biggest challenges Cronk will oversee almost immediately is the city’s overhaul of its land use and zoning code, called CodeNext, a political hot potato that has stirred activists to push for a citywide referendum — instead of allowing the council to decide the matter.

Thanks to the council, Cronk enters Austin’s political stage under questions of transparency. That is not the best way to start the job. The council can and should help clear the air by releasing all records and taking no more action to appeal or challenge the AG’s ruling.

Abbott shouldn’t mess with Austin’s success

Will Austin attract Amazon’s $5 billion HQ2 project? Will bats be involved?

 

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to have it both ways: Proclaiming Austin’s success as one of two Texas cities that made it to the elite 20 – the cities Amazon named this week as finalists for the tech giant’s second headquarters, called Amazon HQ2.

Meanwhile, doing all he can – along with his self-described wingman Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – to wreck the very business, environmental and social climate that is so appealing to Amazon and a slew of other tech companies that have flocked to Austin.

Here is what Abbott tweeted following the news: Texas is the land of opportunity & hotbed for the tech industry. That is why two #Texas cities are finalists for @Amazon HQ2.

Austin was among 238 cities across North America that submitted bids for Amazon’s second headquarters. Dallas also emerged as a finalist.

There is no denying that the state’s business-friendly regulatory and tax structures are key in attracting big companies to Texas and play a role in wooing Amazon. Also, the state offers generous incentives. But here’s a newsflash: Those businesses, particularly high-tech companies, aren’t relocating or expanding by and large to red zones controlled by Republicans, but to blue cities and counties that are run by Democrats.

Along with Austin, count Dallas, San Antonio, Laredo, El Paso and Houston in that category. There are exceptions, such as Round Rock, Tarrant County and other cities and counties that benefit by their close proximity to blue zones.

In no doubt a reference to Austin, Abbott has said “Texas is being Californianized.”

He added: “It’s being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans” that are “forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

He and Patrick have used such propaganda to attack local control with the goal of replacing city councils and county governments, which are closest to the people they serve, with state government — a huge bureaucracy that is far less accountable to local voters and taxpayers.

Abbott, Patrick and many other Republicans, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, want to homogenize Austin and other blue regions with their focus on eliminating bans on single-use plastic bags, regulating bathrooms used by transgender Texans, prohibiting local tree-cutting ordinances and dictating taxation levels of local governments. Though those measures were not entirely successful in the Legislature last year, the fight over bag bans is now before the Texas Supreme Court.

Austin is unique and that is worth protecting. The city’s embrace of environmental protections, including a bag ban to curb litter and protect parks and green spaces and an ordinance protecting heritage trees, are key to its appeal to big companies whose employees are not just looking for fat paychecks, but quality lifestyles. They want opens spaces, robust arts and music scenes, bicycle lanes, clean streets, libraries and universities and local policies that reflect their values, including respecting the rights of gay and transgender people.

Here are some things Abbott, his wingman and other state Republicans might want to consider as they go about homogenizing the state: Since 2004, 524 companies relocated to the Austin region and another 863 employers expanded their workforces. That generated nearly 52,000 jobs, according to Opportunity Austin, a regional economic development arm of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

As of last month, Austin area’s unemployment rate was 2.8 percent, more than a point below the state’s 3.9 percent and below the national unemployment rate of 4.1 percent.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler tells the Austin story this way:

“Austin is recognized as the safest big city in Texas, and the best place to start a business in the country. We lead the state of Texas in patents, startups and venture capital.”

People across the nation are voting with their feet. City demographer Ryan Robinson estimates that between 100 and 110 net persons move to Austin daily. That includes people who move out.

Instead of trying to homogenize Austin so it resembles a red city, Abbott should think about taking the Austin model to scale by promoting Austin’s progressive culture and ideals as good business practices.

I won’t hold my breath. At the very least, Abbott shouldn’t mess with success.

Trump: Border wall position unchanged. But can you spare $18 billion?

Hundreds of people, many of them Haitian, demonstrate against racism in Times Square on Martin Luther King (MLK) Day, January 15, New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

President Trump is learning that the problem with asking U.S. taxpayers to pick up the $18 billion tab for his border wall is that they have long memories. Particularly when there’s money involved.

They remember when Trump promised ad nauseam at campaign rallies across the country in 2016 that Mexico would pay for a wall. Trump staked his bid for the presidency on it.

So, it’s natural for them to ask now, “What do you mean, you want us to pay for it?”

Faced with the reality that Mexico won’t pay – they were never going to – it should be embarrassing for the president to have his hand out in order to make good on a campaign promise he knew he couldn’t deliver. He should be more embarrassed that he is asking for border wall funding at the same time he’s playing political games with the fate of hundreds of thousands of young people known as Dreamers. These are the immigrants who came to this country illegally when they were children. Trump is insisting that a deal in Congress to avert a government shutdown and to extend legal protections for these young immigrants will only happen if lawmakers approve funding for his vision of a border wall.

Still, Trump isn’t giving up on the idea that Mexico will pay, no matter how preposterous that idea might seem. On Thursday, he tweeted:

“The Wall will be paid for, directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico, which has a ridiculous $71 billion dollar trade surplus with the U.S. The $20 billion dollar Wall is “peanuts” compared to what Mexico makes from the U.S. NAFTA is a bad joke!”

Perhaps the president’s most ardent supporters will buy that sketchy “Don’t worry, Mexico will pay you back” promise, but most Americans won’t.

It’s important to note that most Americans don’t want a border wall, either, according to polling. And nearly nine in 10 Americans favor allowing Dreamers to stay in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, according to a CBS News poll out today. DACA gives recipients work permits and protects them from deportation.

Dreamers shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ actions to bring them here in search of a better life — some were infants when they came. Nor should they be played for a political football.

The president can do the right thing and untether their fate from his condition for funding for a border wall, one that most Americans don’t want.

RELATED: A southern border wall is still Trump’s north star 

Trump tweeted more about the wall Thursday, taking the extraordinary step of contradicting his chief of staff by saying that his position on a border wall had not changed.

On Wednesday, the president’s chief of staff, John Kelly, said Trump was not fully informed when he promised to build a wall last year. He said the president’s position had evolved.

Trump shot back on Twitter: “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it. Parts will be, of necessity, see through and it was never intended to be built in areas where there is natural protection such as mountains, wastelands or tough rivers or water…”

Bear in mind that the president promised over and over again in 2016 to build a wall spanning the nearly 2,000-mile-long southern border. More recently he’s told lawmakers that a continuous wall won’t be needed after all because of natural barriers. The $18 billion he’s asking for now would pay for about 900 miles of wall.

That sure sounds like a stance that’s evolved. What gives?

Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway said earlier this month the president had “discovered” there are rivers, mountains and rugged terrain that aren’t conducive to building a wall in some locations.

Oh, that. That’s something Texans could have told the president a long time ago.

 

Trump gets Barbara Jordan’s immigration views wrong

Former Rep. Barbara Jordan (AMERICAN-STATESMAN file)

President Trump invoked the words of the late Barbara Jordan, the trailblazing Texas Democrat, in a statement Wednesday on the 22nd anniversary of her death. But the statement seemed less about her than about Trump’s politics on immigration. Not surprisingly, it drew the ire of Texas Dems and scholars who said the president had misrepresented Jordan’s views for political gain.

Reaction was swift on Twitter:

Twitter user @Commonsenseb0t wrote:

While @Cellularlinks said:

And @JoelKlebanoff had this stinging take:

In his statement, Trump tied his “America First” immigration agenda to the “spirit” of Jordan’s vision. The president said Jordan “epitomized the American Dream she worked so tirelessly to protect.” He noted that in 1966 Jordan was the first African American woman elected to the Texas Senate and, in 1973, became the first woman to serve Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, a seat she held until 1979.

Mostly, though, Trump — who has been criticized for comments he made about restricting immigration from some poor countries — focused on some of Jordan’s views on immigration.

Trump said Jordan challenged our nation’s leaders “to maximize opportunities for all Americans by adopting an immigration policy that puts American citizens first.” He’s right.

As chairman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, Jordan said the commission believed that the nation needed a properly regulated system of legal immigration that set limits on the number of immigrants — 550,000 — on a yearly basis. It’s no secret that Trump would like to limit who gets into the U.S.

As committee chair, Jordan “was reflecting the views of the commission, a group of people, and she was taking a middle position,” Ruth Wasem, an LBJ School public policy practice professor who was a Congressional Research Service immigration specialist, told the American-Statesman.

“Jordan called for an end to chain migration, which has allowed millions upon millions of low-skilled foreign nationals to compete for opportunities and resources against our most vulnerable American citizens — many of whom come from African-American and Hispanic-American communities,” Trump said in the statement.

Several studies show that claim is misleading.

“The impact of immigrant labor on the wages of native-born workers is low… However, undocumented workers often work the unpleasant, back-breaking jobs that native-born workers are not willing to do,” Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote in her Brookings Institution Essay, “The Wall.”

Immigrants find jobs because Americans don’t want the jobs that are available.

Those more likely to “steal” American jobs are immigrant professionals — engineers and technology workers — of which Trump suggests we need more.

More importantly, Trump’s statement doesn’t appropriately reflect Jordan’s immigration views.

Wasem said that Jordan was worried about the impact of unskilled immigration on minorities but that she was not advocating a return to race-based immigration policies. “She wanted to fully incorporate immigrants into American society,” Wasem said.

As President Lyndon B. Johnson’s protegee, Jordan found inspiration in Johnson’s Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which — besides concentrating on attracting skilled labor — abolished a quota system based on national origin and focused on reuniting families.

It would be inaccurate to paint Barbara Jordan as a supporter of racist policies that discriminate against immigrants from poor countries, said Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas history and global affairs professor.

“Jordan would find such positions offensive,” Suri said.

Missing from Trump’s cynical attempt to connect Jordan’s immigration views to his are her support of refugees and respect for all people. Respect for others was not unique to Jordan in her time. It was present in the nation’s overall political climate then.

Oh, how things have changed.

During her congressional tenure, both sides of the aisle favored civil rights-related rhetoric, Suri said. That rhetoric, he said, centered around inclusion, absence of prejudice and the belief that all parts of the world should be respected.

Back then it was rhetoric that Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill could agree on, even if policy didn’t always back the rhetoric, Suri added.
Not anymore.

“Today we have the party of Reagan regularly, its leaders, use racist rhetoric when they talk about people of color and immigrants,” Suri said.

And, it seems, shamelessly use the legacy of beloved leaders of color like Jordan for political gain.

Updated to reflect Jordan’s time as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

With its legal arguments in shreds, Austin should release records for manager search

City of Austin chief communications director Doug Matthews, left, interviews then-candidate Spencer Cronk during a town hall meeting at the Austin Convention Center, Dec. 12, 2017. Cronk was later hired as Austin City Manager. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

 

This week’s decision by the Texas attorney general’s office rejecting the city of Austin’s decision to search in secret for a new city manager was a boost for good government.

As the Statesman’s Elizabeth Findell reported in Friday’s print editions, the city of Austin cannot withhold records showing who applied for its city manager position by claiming the information would harm the city competitively in a search for qualified applicants.

The ruling ripped to shreds nearly every ridiculous argument the Austin City Council and city staff proffered to do its business in the dark, such as their claim that the information is a trade secret, a matter that would harm the search firm competitively or is “highly intimate and embarrassing.”

Thankfully, the AG’s office wasn’t buying that foolishness.

Matthew Taylor, an assistant attorney general in the open records division, wrote the opinion, which directs the city and its executive search firm, Russell Reynolds, to turn over the bulk of the information the American-Statesman requested related to the search for a new city manager, including candidate applications. Austin may withhold only attorney-client privileged emails and some personal email addresses and cellphone numbers.

The Statesman’s editorial board also rejected the city’s arguments.

The city should turn over the information swiftly before any more damage is done to the council’s battered reputation regarding transparency.

It’s telling that the American-Statesman had to sue the city for not releasing the information, and later, for potentially violating the state’s open meetings law when the council publicly posted a meeting at one location, then ducked out a door to take vans to another location that had not been posted. That was done to dodge reporters who staked out the posted meeting place.

The law requires public notice of where and when meetings will be – even when the meetings are in closed session.

The Statesman’s editorial board was sharply critical of the council’s unanimous vote to conduct a secret search and for resorting to bizarre tactics to hide the faces of candidates and evade reporters. Bowing to public pressure, the council finally released the names of five finalists for the job, including Spencer Cronk, who they hired. Cronk starts next month.

Incredibly, the council’s decision to conduct a secret search was unanimous, representing a low point for the city’s first council elected in a 10-1 system that was supposed to yield council members more in tune with public interests. No one should have to tell them that transparency ranks at or near the top of Austin values.

Arguments by Mayor Steve Adler and other council members that the city would get a broader and better pool of applicants if identities of those seeking the job were kept secret so their employers would not know they were being recruited elsewhere were naïve at best. Employers are well aware that head hunters constantly are on the prowl for talent – and some of those recruited for the Austin job had turned up in other searches that were public.

It was particularly disappointing that Adler and his colleagues voted for secrecy in the manager’s search. Yes, Austin’s city manager oversees all city departments, 17,000 employees and a $3.9 billion budget. But that person also is responsible for the kind of city services residents rely on daily, such as clean water, trash pickup, street repairs, recycling services, electricity and safe neighborhoods.

That position in particular would have benefitted from total transparency and wide public input, given the myriad challenges the city, residents and next manager face. They include the city’s overhaul of its land use and zoning code, affordability crisis, traffic gridlock and economic segregation, among other things.