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.