San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

February 14th, 2008
Life in the fast Lane

The Myth of Jones: A Column
Editor at Large

BUDA – Bobby Lane didn’t appreciate The Hays Highway’s recent characterization of Buda’s present situation as “a leadership vacuum.” The city presently is operating without a mayor and now City Manager Robert Camareno has accepted a new job in New Braunfels.

“There is no vacuum,” said Lane, the mayor pro tem, before Wednesday night’s special city council meeting to address the city manager situation. “We’ve got good processes, a good staff, we’ve got a mayor pro tem. I don’t want to put any doubts in anyone’s eyeballs out there because we’ve got some openings.”

So, Lane’s protest is duly noted, and you can agree with him or not. Either way, his protest serves as a useful backdrop to the meeting that followed, for the city council emerged from Wednesday’s session without deciding how – or even whether – to hire an interim city manager. A little more useful backdrop: Lane has filed to run for mayor in May, while Councilmember Hutch White has announced that intention, though he hasn’t filed. White said he considers the filing a formality.

Very quickly, from about the moment when Councilmember Sandra Tenorio entered the room, the discussion shifted from how to hire an interim city manager to whether to hire an interim city manager. Buda’s activities and administrative staff have grown so much since Camareno arrived in October 2005 that arguments can be made both ways.

Tenorio said the city staff can absorb the city manager’s duties while the council seeks Camareno’s permanent replacement. The departments Camareno established did not exist when Buda went through a drab procession of three interims before hiring him in 2005.

Councilmember Tom Crouse noted that 2005 was “a horrible experience.” The city didn’t find a productive interim until Buda boy Jeff Coffee took the office. Coffee, of course, was uniquely qualified, having been an active Buda councilmember who now is getting over nicely as the city manager in Elgin.

Count Tenorio and Crouse, at least for now, as two votes for designating an existing staffer as the point of contact, and against hiring an outsider as interim city manager.

On the other side, as White said, “I think, at a minimum, we need someone to handle the sheer workload … The workload is heavier. The city manager position entails so many more chores and responsibilities than it did (in 2005).”

Councilmember Cathy Chilcote noted that the Texas Municipal League (TML) maintains a pool of retired city managers just for this type of occasion. Such candidates freelance city jobs for the 4-6 months it takes to find new city managers. Chilcote said the city department heads all are very good at what they do, but she would rather not put any of them in charge of everyone for six months, so she recommended that the city check with TML and hire an interim.

Count White and Chilcote, at least for now, as two votes in favor of keeping staffers in their present positions and going outside for an interim city manager.

That leaves Lane in position to call his own shot as he runs for mayor, since he would be the deciding vote. Whichever way he votes, it opens risks and rewards for his campaign.

Suppose Lane votes to designate an interim from inside. If that works out smoothly in the next few months, then Lane can claim, indeed, that “there is no leadership vacuum,” because he, as mayor pro tem, has guided the city gracefully through this period of transition while it operates without a mayor or city manager and the majority of council seats are up for election.

But if the designation of an inside department head as the bell cow changes the dynamics among city staffers, perhaps engendering jealousy or dissension, maybe breaking down processes and compromising projects, then Lane will have a hard time taking that off his back. His mayoral opposition is likely to say that Lane cast the deciding vote to open up a chaotic situation, to say nothing of “a leadership vacuum.”

We can entirely respect Camareno’s characterization of his staff as a family while noting that his absence as, in effect, the parent, will leave the kids without supervision. We can’t predict the difference between hiring a baby sitter or appointing an alpha sibling to take charge. For his part, Camareno said Wednesday night that the staff would pull together and help if the council picks an interim point person from within the staff.

Suppose Lane votes to hire an outsider as an interim city manager. If that works out, then Lane loses some of his claim to leadership, though he could claim that he cast the right, insightful vote for the city at a time when his decision-making powers made the difference. But if the interim city manager is a dud who causes more problems than he solves, then Lane’s decision is a flop, although White would be no more immune to that criticism.

The council didn’t vote Wednesday night on how to proceed, nor did Lane’s remarks make his preference crystal clear. At one point, Lane noted that then-Mayor John Trube did a lot of lifting during Buda’s 2005 interim period, but indicated that the slack might be covered now because “we didn’t have the processes in place that we have today.” Later, Lane said, “We need a point of contact so we don’t drop the ball on these projects.” Still later, Lane said, “If we could have somebody inside, that expedites the process.”

Taken together, Lane’s remarks are more consistent with staying inside than going outside, but not decisively. If Lane had a clear preference, he also had the votes in that chamber Wednesday night to make it happen. But no one motioned either way. The decision is likely to come at next Tuesday’s council meeting, when the council also expects presentations from search firms to help find a permanent city manager.

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