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.