Mar 2, 2023 - News

Shake-up at Austin City Hall leads to return of old hands

Illustration of Austin City Hall with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Austin interim city manager Jesús Garza, appointed after last month's winter storm outages, is shaking up leadership at City Hall.

Driving the news: Garza announced yesterday that Austin-Bergstrom International Airport executive director Jacqueline Yaft, hired in 2019 by recently fired city manager Spencer Cronk to oversee an ambitious airport expansion, had resigned.

Why it matters: Garza and Mayor Kirk Watson, who worked together during their time in power in the 1990s, are reshaping City Hall in their image — highly competent, professional, and deeply connected with the city's managerial class.

Catch up quick: Garza brought back a host of old city hands yesterday, including former assistant city manager Laura Huffman and former deputy city manager Joe Canales; Bruce Mills, a former assistant chief of the Austin Police Department; and Jim Smith, the long-time former director of the Austin airport, to serve in interim roles.

  • Canales served as a vice president at Seton Healthcare Family while Garza was CEO at the hospital system.
  • Of note: Smith was at the helm of the airport when the city agreed to the long-term South Terminal lease that the city has now been ordered to pay $90 million to break as part of eminent domain proceedings.

What they're saying: ​​"I am confident that this group of seasoned professionals … can help deliver on those issues the way the public and council expects, laying a solid foundation for the future," Garza said in a statement.

The intrigue: Huffman, who headed the Texas office of the Nature Conservancy and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and who has long worked with Watson, would be a top candidate to be the next city manager if she puts in for the job, per a City Council aide and the head of a city commission who have worked closely with top decision-makers and didn't want their names used in order to talk freely about the appointments.

  • Huffman is being hired as a "consultant in change management."
  • With Watson required to run again in 2024, expect Garza to serve in the interim role through that election before city leaders hire a full-time successor.

Watch this space: More dismissals could come, the sources said, especially among the assistant city manager ranks.


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