An exit interview for Marian Clennon
Published 11:39 am Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Clennon is finishing her time on City Council
As the Austin City Council moves into the new year, one of the most prominent council members in recent memory won’t be moving with it.
Marian Clennon will begin 2013 as a regular resident, something she hasn’t done for the past four years. The one-term councilwoman championed city workers’ rights, yet at times controversially voted against seemingly mundane issues while vexing fellow council members and city officials. Depending on who you talk to, she’s a check on the city or an uncommunicative, eccentric member of Austin’s city council. She has drawn plenty of controversy over the years, from her efforts to improve Austin Fire Department morale in 2009, to her failed mayoral run and subsequent election recount in 2010, to efforts in creating Coffee with the Council, a public outreach effort, earlier this year.
Clennon is a longtime Austin resident, having lived here for 16 years. Her parents were from Austin, and she visited the area annually in her childhood. She dabbled in politics soon after coming here, running for an open Austin Public Schools Board seat in 1999 and placing 13th out of 17 that year. She also acted as treasurer during Rep. Jeanne Poppe’s 2002 campaign.
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“I learned a lot from Jeanne on how to campaign,” Clennon said.
Despite her experience, she hadn’t considered running for public office. That changed when a TV reporter knocked on her door in December 2007, asking Clennon’s opinion on a prospective dog park going into Wildwood Park, near her home. The interview came as a surprise to Clennon, as it was the first time she heard about the issue.
After organizing a group to move the park elsewhere, Clennon went to city council meetings, talked with residents, and “things just snowballed from there,” Clennon said.
Clennon defeated current Mower County Commissioner Tony Bennett 1,713 to 1,034 votes in the 2008 election for city council, capturing her 3rd Ward seat. She credits her door-knocking efforts and meeting with Austin citizens as the biggest reason why she won.
“I went to just about every door in the 3rd Ward,” she said. “It was a lot of work, but I met so many people and so many would just stop and chat. Sometimes I’d just drop off literature at the door, and sometimes I’d spend an hour or so at one door and just talk to people.”
Though Clennon remembers watching council meetings and thinking the council didn’t deal with many pressing issues, her first council meeting led to the future shakeup at the Austin Fire Department.
“The very first meeting we came into was the Fire Department scheduling had got changed and none of us could figure out how it got done,” Clennon said. “We all agreed that the station needed to be manned from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. That was our first action, that we did, was change the schedule back to having the station manned 24 hours.”
That decision was a catalyst: Several fire department employees came to Clennon with complaints about what she later referred to as a “toxic work environment.” Clennon, along with council members Steve King, Janet Anderson and then-councilman John Martin pushed for an investigation into Austin Fire Department practices, which eventually led to reports in 2010 criticizing the Fire Department’s lack of organizational structure and the city council’s over-involvement in fire department affairs, among other issues. Former Fire Chief Dan Wilson retired from the city at the end of January 2010.
Yet Clennon’s council issues were only beginning.
By 2010, tensions grew between Clennon and other council members, most of all Mayor Tom Stiehm, over revisions to the city’s charter as well as the fire department investigation.
Both politicians say they respect each other — Stiehm said he enjoyed Clennon’s tenure at times because she challenged him to think about issues in different ways, and Clennon said she thought Stiehm was a fine mayor at first — but mounting frustrations and non-stop disagreements have left Stiehm and Clennon with few good things to say about each other.
“She has been extremely frustrating over the years working with her,” Stiehm said. “I didn’t think I could be frustrated working with people.”
Clennon contends she saw her role as a fact-checker, consistently comparing Austin’s city council decisions to other cities around the state to see if any improvements could be made. Stiehm said Clennon often waited until public meetings, which are televised, to ask questions about issues instead of using time at the work session to get more information.
Clennon disagreed with the approach, as work session meetings aren’t broadcast on TV, though they are open to the public.
“I wanted to make sure the public knew as much as we were allowed to tell them, because it’s their city,” she said. “I wanted to ask questions at the [public] meeting so the public heard our discussion.”
Clennon was well-known for voting against seemingly mundane things like consent agendas, budgets, and other issues. Clennon attributes her dissenting votes to not receiving enough information by city officials, or receiving information that wasn’t properly formatted, therefore difficult to examine. She says one of her biggest struggles was simply to get information from city officials at all.
“That was huge,” she said. “Communication, and being held accountable for the money.”
Stiehm contends Clennon was given plenty of information, yet wouldn’t budge on issues if she didn’t have her way. That proved difficult on certain topics, like changes to the city’s charter, which council members must unanimously approve.
“The only way she could work on things would be if she could be in charge,” Stiehm said. “Most people look at issues and are glad to get most of what they wanted. If you get 85, 90 percent of it, you’re happy. Not her.”
Clennon decided to run against Stiehm in the 2010 mayoral election, because of her unhappiness with Stiehm over how he represented Austin. While both politicians acknowledge Clennon had a lot of support going into the election season, Stiehm captured 61 percent of the vote, 4,760 to 3,061, beating Clennon by 1,699 votes in all.
Clennon sparked further controversy when she requested a recount, which ultimately held up election night results.
“I had talked to so many people, and I was surprised,” Clennon said. “How could that many people I had talked to be that unhappy with how the mayor was doing his job, and I could lose? It just didn’t make sense to me. So many people were unhappy.”
Yet what surprised Clennon was the amount of support she received during the recount.
“I thought people would just go, ‘Have you lost your mind?’” she said with a laugh.
Clennon’s frustrations with Stiehm’s leadership led her to once again run for mayor this year, though she did not run for re-election to her 3rd Ward seat. She would bow out of the election during the Aug. 14 primary, placing third out of five candidates, needing to finish in the top two to advance.
Clennon cites her tumultuous professional relationship with Stiehm as the reason why she didn’t run for city council this past year.
“The division between the mayor and I had gotten so bad that I knew another four years would only get worse if I had to work under him,” she said.
Now that Clennon is no longer an elected officials, she hopes to continue working in the Community Against Bullying group, going to city council and Cedar River Watershed District meetings, and learn more about public policy. She isn’t ruling out another run at elected office, but she doesn’t think that will happen in the near future. She said she was glad to serve on the council and met many wonderful people, but she will still be around to help improve the city.
“I’ve learned a lot from being on the council, and learn how things work,” Clennon said. “I want to educate myself more before I go any further.”
Clennon runs for school board, but doesn’t win a seat.
Clennon defeats Tony Bennett 1,713 to 1,034 to win a seat on City Council.
Clennon challenges Tom Stiehm for Austin mayor, but loses.
Clennon opts to not run for re-election and instead runs for mayor again, but she finishes third in the primary behind Stiehm and Dick Lang.