Staff, council members divided over admin proposal; City leaders consider new communications policy

Published 10:35 am Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Austin City Administrator Craig Clark wants to learn as much as he can about city affairs while he acts as a buffer for the council’s interests. To that end, Clark has recently proposed staff include him in all formal communications between Austin City Council members and city department heads.

Yet city staff and some council members oppose Clark’s request as they see potential problems with keeping Clark abreast of every official city conversation.

Clark asked department heads during a staff meeting to copy him on emails with council members and notify him about face-to-face meetings so he could try to attend whenever council members want to get more information on city affairs. Council members found out about the new policy and Mayor Tom Stiehm brought the issue up during Tuesday’s council retreat.

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Stiehm said the policy wouldn’t include personal communications but would include work-related questions.

Council Members Steve King and Judy Enright agreed with Clark’s proposal.

“I can’t imagine not involving him,” Enright said.

Yet other council members didn’t believe there was a need for the new policy.

“I built up eight years of relationships with most of these department heads, so whenever I have something to discuss I just go straight to them,” Council Member Jeff Austin said. “If it’s something I feel the city administrator should be involved with, I go talk to him or I include you.”

Over the past few years, council members largely circumvented the city administrator’s office and received information on city issues directly from department heads. The council fired former city administrator Jim Hurm in December 2013 in part because of communications issues between Hurm, city staff and council members.

Yet Austin and other city staff pointed out Clark’s request could overtly burden city staff. Austin said he speaks with Parks and Recreations Director Kim Underwood on a regular basis as he serves on the city’s parks and rec board, while Police Chief Brian Krueger said he sometimes deals with a council member’s tips on minor issues such as a neighbor dispute or traffic violation.

“Normally that’s something either I will deal with or one of my officers will deal with,” Krueger said. “Is that something I need to email you about?”

Finance Director Tom Dankert said he didn’t have an opinion on the issue but acknowledged the request put city staff “between a rock and a hard place.” He said staff needed guidance on what communications to share with Clark.

Clark and Stiehm said if the policy continues, council members and staff would likely recognize whenever they needed to bring Clark in on conversations. Clark also said keeping him in the loop would protect the council’s majority influence in case a future disruptive council member tried to give staff other directions.

“This is how it’s done,” Clark said. “This is the model for city administration.”

Stiehm said the council and city staff would need to trust Clark’s intentions as a new city head and change the way it operates.

“We need to give him a little rope on this,” he said.

Council members will discuss the issue next week and potentially set a special meeting to make a decision.