Austin’s City Manager search has already claimed a casualty. However, it’s not the Austin City Council’s fault. 

As reported in several Austin media outlets last week, headhunters employed by the Austin Council contacted Bozeman, Montana City Manager Jeff Mihelich to see if he would be interested in applying for the Austin job. Mihelich then made an unfortunate and fateful, for him, decision to share his thoughts on that invitation with a top lieutenant. The conversation occurred at the end of a staff meeting on Zoom, after all but one employee had left the meeting — or at least the screen. Mihelich also shared some thoughts on Bozeman’s Mayor and newly elected Deputy Mayor, which is what really got him in trouble. Well, what really got him in trouble was that the Zoom meeting was being recorded. Someone then posted the recording on social media and it generated headlines in both Bozeman and Austin.

About nine minutes into the recording Mihelich asks, “Want to hear a big secret that’s kind of funny?”

He then proceeded to say, with a tone of amazement, that he had been contacted by a headhunter involved in the Austin search, “the 10th largest city in the country and the second largest that has the [Council-Manager] form of government.” Mihelich quickly added, “But they’re a sh#* show.” He later elaborated on that remark by saying, “there’s 9 or 10 City Commission members [actually 11] .  And there’s no way a city like that operates as it should.”

Mihelich also said, “I’m just flattered, but also . . . the way that works is they (headhunters) usually have somebody they want and everybody else is just fodder.” 

Mihelich concluded that he was not going to apply because he would vest in Bozeman in May 2025. That also proved sadly ironic because after the recording leaked Mihelich was quickly placed on administrative leave. Then on Monday February 12 the Bozeman City Commission met to discuss the matter and concluded by asking for his resignation, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

If Mihelich resigns he would not get severance. According to a summary from the Daily Chronicle, the City Attorney said that if the Council fires Mihelich he would get sevearnce (a year’s salary) unless he was found by the city’s Board of Ethics to have “violated the city’s code of ethics.” (The latest figure the Austin Independent could find for Mehilich’s salary was $239,000.)

The Commission set a deadline of close of business on Wednesday February 14 for Mihelich to respond. A Thrusday morning (February 15) headline in the Daily Chronicle read, “Deadline for Bozeman city manager resignation passes, mayor mum on answer.” That was followed by the subhead, “Bozeman City Manager Jeff Mihelich has responded to the city commission’s request that he resign from the post by the Wednesday deadline, but Mayor Terry Cunningham declined to elaborate on the answer.”

It wasn’t the comments about Austin that led to the call for Mihelich’s resignation. Instead it was his comments about Bozeman’s Mayor and Vice Mayor. He complained that the Mayor should not meet with developers and instead leave that to the Manager and staff. Mihelich also said that the new Vice Mayor’s attitude on development, since recently taking office, didn’t seem to jibe with his anti “million dollar condo” campaign rhetoric. Mihelich continued that candidates say one thing on the campaign trail, but “when they sit in the chairs it’s like, ‘Well I really didn’t feel that way.’ I’m like oh, okay it’s just about what you can do to get elected.” 

Disagreements over developers are not the only thing that Bozeman (population 59,050) and Austin have in common. According to a Business Insider article back in early March 2020, “It has not only been ranked the fastest-growing city of its size in the nation, but it’s also becoming a tech hub that’s attracting pioneering millennials from around the country. In fact, it’s often somewhat disparagingly called ‘Boz Angeles’ for the many Californians and celebrities that have come to town, as well as its perceived ‘fanciness’ in relation to the rest of the state.”

Look out Bozeman, you might turn into a Sh#* Show before you know it. 

Anyway, I feel sorry for this guy. For one thing he talked on the recording about how he only had a little over a year to go before vesting in Bozeman. Now, it looks like he’s going to be leaving well before he’s vested. Yes, he definitely made some intemperate remarks, but most everybody vents about their job. I know that definitely occurs within the Council-Manager form of government where there are built in conflicts between the Manager and elected officials. On the other hand, according to the Daily Chronicle, there were a lot of citizens who were mad about his comments as well. In my view this guy’s biggest mistake was venting on tape. But, the Bozeman City Commission didn’t see it as charitably as I do and it looks like Mihelich will be looking for a new job; after being publicly embarrassed in at least two cities. But, it looks like he’ll have a year’s salary to tide him over.

Meanwhile Back at the Austin Sh#* Show

Mihelich was wrong about Austin being the second biggest US city with the Council-Manager form of government, although it is one of the largest cities with that form of government. Austin is fourth, behind Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas. We all know, however, that Mihelich has a point about Austin City government being a Sh#* Show. His point about the form of government also has some salience. We don’t have time for a comprehensive analysis here, but there is abundant evidence that the 10-1 system has coincided with a decline in Austin governance and quality of life (more on that in the future and in the meantime I refer you to a whole host of pervious Austin Independent articles.) 

We all know that Mihelich has a point about Austin City government being a Sh#* Show.

The question for now is whether the Austin Mayor and Council can hire a new City Manager without the process turning into a Sh#* Show.

As the process for hiring a City Manager is appropriately confidential, there are not a lot of specifics to report — at least for now. It does appear, however, that the Council is inching closer to hiring someone. For one thing, the application process closed this week, Monday, February 12. 

Before that, back on December 26, Mayor Kirk Watson said a new City Manager could be hired by “early to mid-April.” That prediction came in a post on the Council Message Board. The Mayor quickly followed that by reassuring the Council, “because this is such a big decision, we shouldn’t feel rushed in any way.” Watson added that “we may pick someone that, for personal or professional reasons, can’t start until later.” Watson was reporting to the rest of the Council on behalf of a Council committee consisting of himself, Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis and Council Members Leslie Pool, Chito Vela, and Vanessa Fuentes.

Watson also made clear in his December post that a broad public involvement process is coming. “Mosaic (the search firm chosen by Council) will review candidates with Council in early March and we will arrive at a group of finalists. After those people are determined, there will be a robust selection process that includes Council interviews and opportunities for others, including members of the community, to meet the finalists.”

As I just mentioned above, the hiring of a City Manager is rightly a confidential process, at least under the City Charter. The Charter grants the Council the authority, and responsibility, to hire a City Manager. It doesn’t say anything about bringing in the top candidates to meet activists and any members of the public who want to attend public introductions of the candidates. Also, critics of such “beauty pageants” — including some recruitment industry professionals — maintain that having to go public keeps some strong candidates from applying. 

There seems to be some logic to that position. I mean it only stands to reason that the requirement for a job candidate to enter a public hiring process of uncertain length, with an unknowable number of competitors, will cause some candidates not to apply. There are usually two or three finalists in something of this nature, sometimes more. No number has yet been determined, or announced. Most likely, at least two or three people will lose out publicly in the Austin process and then presumably return to their current jobs; where other employees will know that person is in the market to move on. 

That might not be the end of the world, but it makes sense that there will likely be good candidates who don’t apply because they don’t want to risk the sort of situation described above.

In recent decades such public vettings have become a part of the process in many cities. And, of course Austin is one of those cities.

Watson also noted that representatives of Mosaic had reached out to “Council Members to get your list of stakeholders that you would like included in the process.” The Mayor added, “They appreciate the significant, thorough list of stakeholders (people and groups) that the Council has provided. They intend to begin the process of reaching out to those on the list in various ways, including through written surveys and one-on-one meetings (virtually and in-person). They will also begin the process of scheduling potential group meetings.”

I’m going to divert here for a gentle note to activists and community groups: If you or your group hasn’t heard from Mosaic or the City by now that probably means that you didn’t make the list. Sorry.

I’m sort of kidding there. I mean I think what I wrote is a true statement, but if anybody or any group that the Council values — or fears could hurt them in the next election — got left out, and complains, they will likely get added — and the process will get even bigger. 

Given this and other factors, I’m thinking that hiring someone by April might be just a tad optimistic. But, I could be wrong. For one thing Mihelich may be right that there is already a favored candidate and the others are just “fodder.” That seems unlikely though since the whole Council hasn’t been involved yet. That dynamic, however, could well come into play once the Council reviews and interviews candidates, then launches the public aspect of the process. Of course we’ll just have to wait and see.


Local, independent journalism is particularly poorly funded, including The Austin Independent. So please consider subscribing and/or donating. Click here

To receive notification when the Austin Independent posts stories, to subscribe, or to write to the editor please send us an email under Contact on the home page,or  click here

The Austin Independent, a publication of The Austin Independent, LLC

All Rights Reserved

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This