Elaine Hart fo­cuses on pre­par­ing a bud­get and deal­ing with crime lab.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Nolan Hicks nhicks@states­man.com

Five months on the job and seven hours into last Thurs­day’s marathon City Coun­cil meet­ing, in­terim City Man­ager Elaine Hart found her­self in the cross­fire.

The coun­cil ap­peared dead­locked — split 5-5 — over an “af­ford­abil­ity agenda.” The swing vote, Coun­cil Mem­ber Ali­son Al­ter, was lean­ing to­ward no.

But first, the coun­cil new­comer had a ques­tion: Would Hart pro­vide some re­as­sur­ance that the pro­posal gave clear in­struc­tions to the staff and wouldn’t pull re­sources away from other af­ford- abil­ity ef­forts? If so, Al­ter sug­gested she would re­con­sider.

Hart be­gan diplo­mat­i­cally, ex­plain­ing the res­o­lu­tion would di­rect staffers to do many of the things they al­ready were do­ing, but per­haps in a dif­fer­ent or­der or for­mat; but she added, she would take no stand.

“I’m not go­ing to split the baby be­cause I love you all,” Hart said, as laugh­ter in the cham­ber de­fused a tense sit­u­a­tion. “But we’ve heard you all, we’ve heard your com­ments and, cer­tainly, we don’t have to have a vote to start tak­ing ac­tion on some of th­ese things.”

The mo­ment pro­vided a brief in­sight into the po­lit­i­cal savvy of

the long­time ad­min­is­tra­tor, who was most re­cently Austin’s top bud­get of­fi­cial. She was thrust into the city man- ager spot af­ter Austin’s long- time man­ager, Marc Ott, left last fall for a new po­si­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

She’ll stay on the job un­til the City Coun­cil se­lects a re­place­ment. The coun­cil signed off last month on the con­tract to hire a search firm to find that per­son, a process ex­pected to take months.

Hart’s pow­er­ful po­si­tion, which over­sees the day-to- day op­er­a­tion of city gov­ern­ment, is a rar­ity in cities of Austin’s size th­ese days. In many other ma­jor cities, like New York, Chicago and Hous­ton, may­ors typ­i­cally hold those re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Hart’s first few months on the job have been con­sumed

by is­sues fa­mil­iar, such as the bud­get; and not, such as the prob­lems from the Austin Po­lice Depart­ment’s shut- tered DNA lab and the city’s gi­ant re­write of its land use rules, CodeNext. And keep- ing up with it all re­quires a tremen­dous amount of read­ing.

“I’m al­ways try­ing to stay ahead of the is­sues,” she said, which isn’t an easy task in a

city with a nearly $1 bil­lion bud­get and al­most 1 mil­lion peo­ple. At the top of that list, she

said in a re­cent in­ter­view with the Amer­i­can-States- man, is sort­ing out what hap

pened at the Po­lice Depart­ment’s DNA lab and fig­ur­ing out a plan to fix it.

There have been ques­tions about the lab’s method­ol­ogy

and the freezer full of ev­i­dence that failed. The offi- cial who was hired to over­haul the trou­bled lab was

re­lieved of that re­spon­si­bil- ity, and now a ma­jor back-

log of sam­ples need to be tested else­where. “We’re work­ing on a so­lu­tion with Travis County, and we’ll be rolling it out by the end of March, in­clud­ing a con­sul­tant that will take a look back at what oc­curred over the last decade in the lab,” Hart said, adding she ex­pects to take the pro­posal to the City Coun­cil by the end of the month.

The con­sul­tant’s rec­om­men­da­tions also will in­clude ad­vice about the fu­ture of the lab, she said: “Should it be an in­de­pen­dent lab, should it re­sume func­tion in the Po­lice Depart­ment, or should we out­source it?”

Sit­ting on a third-floor ter­race at City Hall with sweep­ing views of Austin’s ever-chang­ing down­town, Hart spoke openly about the lim­its of her care­taker sta­tus and her hopes for what she imag­ines will be her last few months in the po­si­tion.

She won’t hire a new po­lice chief or fill other top po­si­tions, which will al­low the new per­ma­nent city man­ager to se­lect or bring his or her own peo­ple.

Nor does she think she’ll be around long enough to shep­herd CodeNext to com­ple­tion.

Her goals are com­plet­ing the up­com­ing bud­get and cre­at­ing a shorter-term strate­gic plan for the city, ef­fec­tively break­ing the 30-year Imag­ine Austin plan down into five-year in­cre­ments.

“The strate­gic plan I can get to way down the road,” she said.

And while Hart has con­sis­tently said she has no in­ter­est in ap­ply­ing for the city man­ager po­si­tion, she would con­sider stay­ing if asked. She’s al­ready been in the role for longer than she ini­tially ex­pected. “Well, they told me six to nine months, but I’m think­ing it may be more like a year,” she said with a chuckle. The de­lay is part cal­en­dar — who would want to take over in the mid­dle of bud­get sea­son? — and part Austin. “I was a lit­tle re­al­is­tic about it, know­ing how we likepub­lic en­gage­ment and think­ing through the time­line of when they might get can­di­dates.”

Hart thinks she will be re­placed by the end of Septem­ber.

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