Home City of Austin City Council City Manager Faces Crucial Annual Review

City Manager Faces Crucial Annual Review

-

Bulldog Background Investigation Comes as Marc Ott’s Performance Gets Council Scrutiny

Investigative Report by Ken Martin and Rebecca LaFlure
Updated Thursday, August 9, 2012 1:11pm

Marc Ott
Marc Ott

Austin City Manager Marc Ott is scheduled to walk into a closed-door meeting on Thursday, August 2, with a City Council that can praise him, raise his pay, or invite him to find another job.

If he’s shown the door, Ott will walk away with a little more than $430,000, based on the compensation and benefits package council members approved last August.

However Ott fares in his annual job evaluation, there will never be a discoverable written record of it. The Austin Bulldog submitted an open records request for copies of Ott’s performance reviews conducted in previous years. The city of Austin responded that all evaluations are conducted verbally in closed session, and no written job evaluations exist.

Written job evaluations of public employees are often included in the employee’s personnel file, which is considered public record under the Texas Public Information Act.

Council Member Bill Spelman—as well as former Mayor Gus Garcia and former Council Member Brewster McCracken, who between the three of them served for more than two decades on the council—confirmed that city council members do not conduct written evaluations of any employees who report to the council.

So in order to educate the public on Marc Ott’s professional background and his more than four years as Austin’s top manager, The Austin Bulldog gathered available public records on Ott—including his written evaluations from previous jobs—and interviewed community leaders about their thoughts on his performance.

Community leaders’ reviews were mixed. While some praised Ott’s ability to successfully guide Austin through a shaky economy, others said Ott has not made an adequate effort to build relationships with or understand the concerns of Austin’s environmental community.

Ott, through a city spokeswoman, declined to answer preliminary questions e-mailed to him for this article or to grant an interview.

Challenges ahead

In February 2008, Ott left his post as assistant city manager of Fort Worth to become city manager of Austin. His current annual base salary is nearly $250,000 and he draws additional compensation of more than $50,000. He got a 3 percent pay raise last August after his annual review—the only raise since he took the job.

Ott has set high standards for himself and the city. He was featured in the winter 2012 issue of Public Sector Digest, an international publication focusing on in-depth analysis of government-related issues.

In that article Ott took credit for creating a city transportation department that did not exist when he became city manager, an innovative car-sharing program, and for participating in a regional approach to transportation planning. He also noted his efforts to create a more transparent budget process and continuing the city’s leadership in “financial planning, performance measurement, and budgeting.”

“When I arrived, the City Council had a vision for Austin to be the most livable city in the country. In support of that vision, my intent is to have Austin known as the best-managed city in the country,” he said in the article. “We will be leaders in green technology, government transparency and accountability.”

But Ott must deal with mounting criticism on several fronts, including citizen discontent over electric rate hikes, the looming possibility of higher water rates, and growing concern that he is tone-deaf to the environmental values of the community.

Some neighborhood leaders and residents are incensed over a proposal that would, in their opinion, allow an invasion of commercial short-term rental houses to erode the character of neighborhoods. Then there’s the ongoing struggle to deal with the city’s rising cost of living, and the upcoming 2013 legislative session, which some people fear will hammer the city over its management of Austin Energy’s electric rates.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell has said he strongly supports Ott, who, along with other city executives, traveled with the mayor to England in July to see how a Formula One race is managed. Austin is set to host its first F1 race in November.

Ott has faced criticism from some council members in the past. In April 2010, Council Member Mike Martinez called Ott and Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald “jokes” in one of many highly-publicized e-mails The Austin Bulldog uncovered last year through open records requests. Martinez later apologized for the statement.

Bill Spelman
Bill Spelman

Spelman was the only council member who responded to our written request for comments about Ott’s performance, stating that, “Over the next few years, Austin will have to deal with two basic challenges: A million more people will be moving to town and will need services; and the cost of providing these services has gone up. I think we’ve been limited and reactive in our response to both of these issues, and that needs to change.

“The manager needs to tell us how he proposes to continue to provide high-level services at a reasonable cost to an increasing population. Solving Austin’s problems will require innovative thinking, and we need to know how he plans to stimulate and reward innovation among city staff, and solicit and use innovative ideas from the public.”

Ott’s lone written evaluation in Austin

Randi Shade
Randi Shade

The only written record of Ott’s performance The Austin Bulldog located is in an e-mail sent by former Council Member Randi Shade. The Austin Bulldog obtained that message—and hundreds of other e-mails about city business exchanged by the mayor and council members using personal e-mail accounts—by filing a lawsuit in March 2011, after the mayor and council members failed to release these e-mails in response to an open records request.

In an attached document Shade sent to Ott on his personal e-mail account on June 27, 2010, Shade summarized her take on the council’s discussion during Ott’s annual review held the month before.

“While the city is for the most part running well, frustrations exist that is largely caused by the communication break-downs between council and the city manager,” Shade wrote.

“Council members shared examples of when they felt you were defensive and/or unwilling to take their input, and you shared examples of when you felt you did not have clear direction from the council as a body versus the council as individual members and/or factions.”

Shade also noted that, “When people disagree with you, you seem to take it as a challenge or an affront rather than as an opportunity to get useful facts and gain valuable perspective.”

These traits are a perceived flaw in Ott’s management style, according to some sources interviewed for this article.

Ott was notably upset when Roger Duncan, who after retiring as general manager of Austin Energy, e-mailed Ott and council members while Ott was in the process of filling that position. Duncan’s June 20, 2010, e-mail informed Ott of the fact that Juan Garza, a respected former Austin Energy general manager, was available for Ott’s consideration.

“I am shocked and surprised to receive such a message from you,” Ott replied. “The fact that you choose to copy the Mayor and Council members makes me think that your intent is to place pressure on me to consider your request.”

Public perception of Ott’s performance mixed

Council Member Shade stressed the need for solid working relationships in her June 27, 2010 e-mail, and environmental activist Robin Rather expressed a similar sentiment in a February 19, 2008, Austin American-Statesman article about Ott’s first day on the job.

“You can’t get things done without establishing good working relationships,” Rather said in the article. “You need to give him (Ott) time to understand the people here and build teamwork inside City Hall and with the rest of the community.”

Asked to comment on Ott’s performance for this article more than four years later, Rather said, “Marc Ott is a smart and competent executive, and I think he takes his job very seriously and I respect him. However, on his watch, our energy strategy is a mess, our water strategy is a mess, our transportation strategy is a mess, and our public education, while not directly under his purview, is a total catastrophe.”

Rather went on to say that, “While all of those problems aren’t entirely his fault, the concern that I hear is there is just no leadership coming from his office on the way forward.”

Roy Waley, vice chair of the Sierra Club’s Austin Regional Group, told The Austin Bulldog that Ott has remained focused on business issues, but has made very little effort to establish relationships with environmentalists.

“You can tell communication is taking place with business, but I don’t talk to any true green environmental folks who have a real relationship with Marc Ott,” Waley said. “You know, he goes to talk to the chamber, to RECA (Real Estate Council of Austin), to the Board of Realtors—of which I’m a member—but he has never shown up at a Sierra Club meeting, and they’re open to the public.”

Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, faults Ott for not backing publicly stated goals with measurable means of determining whether these goals have been achieved.

Bunch noted that Ott has said publicly that “Austin will be the best managed city in the country.” But in a meeting with Ott in the early summer of 2009, “I asked him twice about measurements: What are your benchmarks and measurements and how will you track them to have that statement have any meaning at all beyond being an empty slogan?”

Ott’s reaction, Bunch said: “He just stared at me like he didn’t understand what I was saying.”

Despite some criticisms in the environmental community, Ott still has many strong supporters in Austin. Mike Rollins, president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, said the “fiscal soundness of Austin through the great recession is a testament to the city’s strong leadership team.”

“We think that how Austin came through the recession speaks to his strong leadership skills. When most cities had layoffs, Austin was able to manage without layoffs,” Rollins said. “We would be disappointed if there were a change in the city leadership at this time of a still unstable economy in the world and in the United States.”

Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP, echoed a similar sentiment, saying, “I give the city manager very good grades because he has managed the economy very well, doing quite well despite the recession, holding the budget, and been very fiscally sound.”

“He’s had a steady hand,” Nelson continued. “He’s avoided some of the political problems that other city managers had in the city of Austin. For the most part he’s focused on managing the city and letting the mayor and city council run the city of Austin politically.”

Linder noted only one shortcoming in Ott’s leadership: While more African American nonprofits have had the opportunity to work with the city on social services under Ott’s leadership, Linder does not think Ott has been as successful in his handling of Hispanic issues.

Susana Almanza
Susana Almanza

Susana Almanza, president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association and director of People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources (PODER), also gave Ott high marks, saying he acted on many of Montopolis residents’ recommendations for changes or additions after touring their neighborhood.

“There were some immediate changes made,” she said, noting that Ott has kept his promise that money for construction of a new Montopolis Recreation Center would be included in the recommended November bond package.

“There is so much that’s needed for residents in Montopolis, but I can say since Marc Ott’s visit there have been some changes, and Montopolis is getting some much needed attention.”

Michael Wilt, director of government relations for the Real Estate Council of Austin, and Harry Savio, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Austin, said their organizations had no comment regarding Ott’s performance.

Early challenges as Austin city manager

As the Austin American-Statesman reported on February 19, 2008, Ott faced a number of major tasks from the beginning of his tenure as city manager, including negotiating labor contracts with public safety unions, filling several high-profile city jobs, and the upcoming annual budget process.

He wasted no time in asserting his authority, forcing out Fire Chief J.J. Adame in early May 2008 and Gene Acuna, director of communications and public information, in mid-June of that year. Acuna, who previously served as deputy press secretary for Governor Rick Perry, got the boot largely for failing to notify Ott of the fire at the governor’s mansion June 8. Ott had missed the major news coverage and found out about the inferno when the mayor asked about it the next day.

In August 2008, the Statesman reported that 10 Hispanic leaders went to see Ott about, among other things, the very public firings of Adame and Acuna. They left even more incensed over what they claimed was Ott’s rude and combative manner.

Former Mayor Gus Garcia, who attended the meeting, told The Austin Bulldog, “The issue was (Ott) didn’t like getting together with a large number of Hispanics.” Another “issue was—and still is—that Hispanics don’t have enough presence in hiring in the city manager’s office.”

In later years City Attorney David Smith exited over the city’s failure to make public the KeyPoint Government Solutions investigation of the police shooting death of Nathaniel Sanders II. The report was withheld for eight months and wasn’t released until the Statesman reported that a similar independent investigation of a police shooting in 2002 had been publicly released. The belated release of the Sanders report drew heavy criticism from council members, including Mike Martinez, who was quoted as saying “There is no doubt … We need to improve our transparency.”

Contentious relationships in Kalamazoo

Our background investigation found that Ott hit some potholes on the road to success, but earned his spurs while working for five different city governments before getting to Austin, four of them in Michigan.

His career took a temporary setback when he was pressured to resign from his first city manager’s job in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1997 amid strained relationships with some city commissioners, according to public records and news reports.

After serving as assistant city manager and deputy city manager, Ott was promoted to city manager of Kalamazoo in March 1993—his first city manager position. The Kalamazoo Gazette published a positive editorial about Ott’s performance during his first year on the job.

However, city commissioners’ performance evaluations of Ott conducted in January 1995 revealed concerns about his management style.

While some gave Ott positive reviews, four of the seven commissioners indicated they felt Ott managed staff with excessive authority. One commissioner attributed this “to the learning curve for a new manager. I sense there is a need to over-exert authority to assure there is control.”

Some commissioners also gave Ott low marks in communicating clearly and timely with the commission and responding to inquiries, according to evaluations obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In a statement following the evaluation, Ott stated he would establish a time to regularly meet one-on-one with each commissioner in an effort to enhance communication. Most of the commissioners declined his invitation. He also elaborated his views on employee discipline, stating that he believed in allowing an “employee several opportunities to succeed by clarifying expectations, coaching and the like.”

However, five of the city’s six labor unions echoed similar concerns in 1996 when they charged that Ott managed “like a dictator” and used “fear and intimidation to control employees,” according to the Kalamazoo Gazette.

The Kalamazoo Black Police Officers Association came to Ott’s defense, and accused the local newspaper and city commissioners of conspiring against him.

In December 1996, the city commission voted to pay a consultant nearly $10,000 to investigate the union’s complaints against Ott, the Gazette reported. Ott told the Gazette that he felt the unions’ criticisms were tied to anxiety over his cost-reduction program that cut the city’s work force through early retirements and eliminating positions without layoffs.

Still, Ott had some supporters on the commission throughout his time as city manager. Then Commissioner Lance Ferraro wrote a January 24, 1996, recommendation letter for Ott stating that he engaged employees in adopting common values and pride in their work. The letter noted Ott’s success in reducing government costs and improving economic development in Kalamazoo.

But Ott continued to face criticism. According to the Gazette, he resigned in January 1997, just hours after receiving a memo from the mayor and vice mayor accusing Ott of trying to intimidate them and having a “fundamental misunderstanding” of his role as city manager.

Ott and commissioners quickly agreed upon a separation package. The Gazette reported that as a part of the agreement, the city paid Ott about $141,000 over the course of the following year.

In the months following his resignation, Ott faced allegations that he failed to register a handgun as required by Michigan state law. A prosecutor later concluded that Ott’s failure to register was an oversight without criminal intent, according to reports in the Kalamazoo Gazette.

Michigan court records show that in July 1998 Ott filed a lawsuit against former Commissioner Zadie Jackson, the City of Kalamazoo, and the commission, alleging that Jackson spread false negative statements about him following his resignation. Ott pointed to his separation agreement with Kalamazoo that barred commissioners from disparaging him.

Federal Judge Robert Bell ruled in June 1999 that Ott failed to prove two of the five charges outlined in the suit, but gave him the opportunity to re-file in Kalamazoo County Circuit Court regarding the other three. Ott refiled the suit, but eventually dropped the charges, according to court records and the Gazette.

Life after Kalamazoo

Ott was unemployed for 15 months after his resignation from Kalamazoo, but in time recovered, and his career resumed a steady and uninterrupted upward arc.

In 1998, Ott was hired to be a city administrator and assistant to the mayor of Rochester Hills, with a starting annual salary of $76,000—$20,000 less than he was making as Kalamazoo city manager.

The City of Rochester Hills has not yet released Ott’s personnel file in response to The Austin Bulldog’s FOIA request.

Ott stayed in that position until April 2002, when he was hired as an assistant city manager of Fort Worth with a starting salary of $132,000.

Ott earned high marks on all of his performance evaluations throughout his time at Fort Worth. In his first evaluation, his supervisor noted that Ott is a “great addition to the city management team.”

According to Ott’s resume, he oversaw the city’s water and wastewater utility, transportation, public works, engineering and aviation. Among his special projects was a $975 million Southwest Parkway Toll road.

In February 2008, Ott took over Austin’s top city position.

The data

Marc Anthony Ott

Birth Date: January 3, 1956

Age: 56

Current position: Austin City Manager

Compensation: Totals $299,388, consisting of:

Base salary: $249,268

Additional Compensation: $50,620, including $22,000 deferred compensation, executive allowance of $7,200, automobile allowance of $8,400, cell phone allowance of $1,620, $6,621 for OASDI (Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance, i.e., Social Security tax), $4,279 for Medicare tax (equal to 1.45 percent of annual salary plus allowances), reimbursement of $500 per year for out-of-pocket expenses for one physical examination annually.

Severance package:  $282,168. Based on entitlement in City Council Resolution 20110825-078. In the event of involuntary separation, forced resignation, or change in the form of government, consisting of one annual gross increment for salary, deferred compensation contribution, OASDI tax, and Medicare tax.

Additional severance: The resolution also grants Ott 23 hours of paid personal leave per month with no maximum accumulation. That equates to annual paid vacation reimbursement of $33,079 per year. Ott has served as city manager four and a half years. Thus he would be entitled to a maximum reimbursement for paid personal leave $148,856.

Total severance possible if terminated now: Approximately $431,024

E-mail address: [email protected]

Office telephone: 512-974-2200

Office location: City Hall, 301 W. 2nd, 3rd Floor, Austin

Business records: Ott is listed as a registered agent of the Austin Regeneration Fund, according to the Secretary of State:

Austin Regeneration Fund record

Court records:

Marc A. Ott v. Zadie Jackson, et al

Education: Bachelor’s degree in management and master’s degree in public administration from Oakland University in Michigan

Degree verification

Kalamazoo (Michigan) Gazette articles (60 pages)

Marriage: Ott is married to Pamela Ott, a surgical nurse at Seton Medical Center.

Pamela Ott’s registered nurse license

Municipal Court record: Ott only has one violation on his local driving record: A traffic ticket issued May 9, 2008, for speeding in a school zone. Ott took a driver safety course, paid a $136 fine, and the case was closed.

Austin Municipal Court Record

Personal Financial Statements (added Wednesday, August 1, 2012, 3:25pm)

Personnel records and employee evaluations

City of Austin (personnel records only)  22 pages

City of Fort Worth 72 pages

City of Rochester Hills, Michigan 90 pages (Pending response to FOIA request) (Added Thursday, August 9, 2012, 1:11pm)

City of Kalamazoo, Michigan 104 pages

City of Grand Rapids, Michigan 68 pages

City of Jackson, Michigan 27 pages

Property records: Ott owns one house, located in Southwest Austin and worth $441,637

2011 Property Tax Statement

Travis Central Appraisal District Record

Travis County Grantee Records (propertybought)

Travis County Grantor Records (property sold)

Tarrant County Grantee Records (propertybought)

Tarrant County Grantor Records (propertysold)

Oakland County, Michigan Grantee Records(propertybought)

Oakland County, Michigan Grantor Records (propertysold)

Kalamazoo County, Michigan Grantee Record(propertybought)

Kalamazoo County, Michigan Grantor Record (propertysold)

Voting record: Ott voted in city elections in 2009, 2011 and 2012. He voted in the March 2010 Democratic primary.

Travis County Voter Registration and History

Web pages:

City of Austin: www.austintexas.gov/biography/city-manager

Statesman City Manager blog archives

Links to major Marc Ott stories:Links to stories (most recent first). Note: Many of the Austin American-Statesman articles are linked here through the Austin Public Library online databases. Access is free but requires a library card number to view. You must log in on the library site for these links to work. Or, alternatively, Statesman articles can be accessed by searching the newspaper’s online archives and creating a user account.

Then There’s This: Shake-Up, How green was my Austin Energy, June 15, 2012, The Austin Chronicle

Austin Energy VP Out the Door, Rabago’s resignation creates void in green leadership, June 10, 2012, The Austin Chronicle

Weather-Beaten but Still Ticking: City lands $900,000 for weatherization but Rábago no longer heads program, January 6, 2012, The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Season of Discontent, Botching a high-profile project is not the best way to ask for a raise, December 16, 2011, The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Storm Surge: Finger-pointing follows lost fed funds for Weatherization Assistance Program, December 2, 2011, The Austin Chronicle

Q&A With Marc Ott, February 3, 2012, Austin Business Journal

Ott hire shows misplaced priorities, September 21, 2011 Austin American-Statesman archive

City puts Ott’s old friend in new job, September 18, 2011 Statesman archive

Employee E-Communication Policy Drafts Show Each Revision Weakened Rules: Policy That Was Near Fully Compliant on First Draft Crippled by Changes, September 13, 2011, The Austin Bulldog

The Austin Bulldog Files Second Lawsuit Against City for Withholding Records: City Not Responsive to Open Records Request Concerning Water Treatment Plant Construction, September 1, 2011, The Austin Bulldog

City Manager Establishes Policy for Employees’ Electronic Communication: Open Government Legal Experts Say Policy is Seriously Flawed, But It’s an Important Start, August 10, 2011, The Austin Bulldog

City of Austin Dragging Its Feet on Implementing Lawful E-mail Practices: City Employees, Board and Commission Members Still Not Covered by City Policies, July 13, 2011

Treasure Trove of Public Documents Made Available in Searchable Format: E-mails, Text Messages, Meeting Notes Obtained Through Open Records, Lawsuit, May 12, 2011, The Austin Bulldog

Austin City Council Adopts Policy to Improve Compliance With Texas Public Information Act: Policy Does Not Cover All City Employees or All Board and Commission Members, April 15, 2011, The Austin Bulldog

Private emails cover city business, April 9, 2011, Statesman archive

E-mails point to tension between city manager, council members, March 9, 2011, Statesman archive

Council releases revealing e-mails, February 26, 2011 Statesman archive

Council Work Sessions Stir Concern Over Tying Up Staff for Two Meetings: City Manager Presents Summary of Options for Council Consideration, February 15, 2011, The Austin Bulldog

Open Meetings, Closed Minds: Private Meetings to Discuss Public Business Shows Austin City Council May Be Violating Open Meetings Act, January 25, 2011, The Austin Bulldog

City manager explores homeless issues, November 15, 2010, KXAN-TV

Day on the streets gives Ott striking view of the city, November 14, 2010 Statesman archive

City manager seeking outside evaluation of Austin Energy’s finances, April 29, 2010, Austin American-Statesman

City manager earns some backing but no pay raise for his job, May 28, 2010, Statesman archive

TDH Update: Ott Hangs On: No good vibrations as Marc Ott survives council evaluation, May 27, 2010, The Austin Chronicle

Lawyer not given notes in shooting investigation, May 26, 2010, Statesman archive

Memo: Mistake led to KeyPoint report secrecy, May 22, 2010, Statesman archive

Desperately Seeking Public Trust, May 21, 2010, Austin Post

Sanders shooting report made public: City attorneys had argued for months that the report could not be publicly released, May 13, 2010, Austin American-Statesman

Wynn drops plan for Ott aid, December 16, 2008, Statesman archive

City Hall Firestorm: Still Burning? Minority contracting could be the meat of dispute between city manager and Hispanic leaders, August 29, 2008, The Austin Chronicle

Ott says he values diversity, August 26, 2008, Statesman archive

Latino group upset at Ott, August 23, 2008, Statesman archive

Ott’s imprint, June 27, 2008 Statesman archive

Mansion’s on fire? Don’t count on Ott to hear alarm, June 24, 2008, Statesman archive

Ott upset that he learned late of mansion fire, June 21, 2008,Statesman archive

Ott Taps More Fort Worth Talent, May 8, 2008, The Austin Chronicle

City budget planning becomes more democratic, April 18, 2008,Statesman archive

The New M.O. at City Hall, August 15, 2008, The Austin Chronicle

Austin City Manager Marc Ott has got some ‘splainin’ to do, June 20, 2008, Austin American-Statesman

City official forced out, June 19, 2008, Austin American-Statesman

City manager talks of how he’ll handle his new job, March 2, 2008,Statesman archive

Ott’s plate full on first day as city manager, February 19, 2008,Statesman archive

Marc Ott, City Manager, February 1, 2008, Community Impact Newspaper

Austin chooses Marc Ott as city manager, January 2008, Community Impact Newspaper

Kim shows dislike of process by refusing to vote on Ott, January 18, 2008,Statesman archive

With new job, Ott keeps a vow, January 18, 2008,Statesman archive

Ott is pick for city manager, January 17, 2008,Statesman archive

In previous jobs, Ott known for personal touch, January 15, 2008,Statesman archive

City goes outside in finalist choices, January 11, 2008,Statesman archive

5 outsiders among city’s 7 top picks for manager, January 4, 2008,Statesman archive

This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help sustain our reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.