City Manager Announces Slew of Key Department Head Changes

Interim City Manager Jesús Garza during a work session (Screenshot via City of Austin)

Today, Interim City Manager Jesús Garza announced another sweeping set of leadership changes at the city, again late on a Friday.

The slate of new leadership covers key city departments, including Austin Energy, Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Development Services Department, Economic Development Services, and the newly created position of chief strategic communications & external relations officer. Still no word on a replacement for Jacqueline Yaft, executive director of the Austin airport, who resigned in March.

Austin Energy’s General Manager Jackie Sargent stepped down at the end of March, replaced by interim Stuart Reilly, after a tumultuous tenure including widespread outrage over multiple winter storms and power outages largely outside AE’s control. The new manager starting Monday, Bob Khan, is stepping up internally from the role of deputy general manager, general counsel, and vice president for legal services. He most recently served as GM for Texas Municipal Power Agency, but before that was CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) from 2007-2009. He is also a board member of the Texas Public Power Association, a lobby that represents municipal utilities across the state.

In more unexpected news, HSEM Director Juan Ortiz announced today that he is stepping down after six years, saying “I’m proud of the work we’ve done at HSEM, and I’m very proud of the team of strong and highly trained emergency managers we’ve developed.” Ortiz coordinated pandemic response and developed the Accessible Hazard Alert System for the city. The city release states that Ortiz’s “composure under pressure, and ability to motivate others has been invaluable during multiple disasters,” though the city’s response to some disasters triggered sharp criticism. Ken Snipes, formerly director of Austin Resource Recovery, will take over as HSEM director June 19, and Richard McHale will serve as interim director of ARR. Snipes, who moved to Austin for ARR in 2019, previously held multiple leadership roles in Seattle’s public utilities. In a statement, Snipes said his goal for HSEM is “a keen focus on performance, communications and impacts to the community we serve.”

José Roig, who has served as interim director of DSD since 2020, has been named director. With a background in building inspection, as interim, he ramped up code enforcement and has moved to analyze development review and permitting processes. While city leaders grapple with a housing supply and affordability crisis, DSD has fallen under intense scrutiny for lengthy delays in approving permits required to build housing. In the Economic Development Department, Assistant Director David Gray will begin a special assignment focused on addressing homelessness, working with the Homeless Strategy Office and the city manager’s office. The newly created position of chief strategic communications & external relations officer will be Michele Middlebrook-Gonzalez, currently a communications consultant at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas.

“Since returning to this organization in February, I have spent considerable time assessing the strengths of our organization and identified opportunities to reorganize to ensure we are operating cohesively, effectively and efficiently,” Garza said in a statement Friday. “I am confident the changes announced today will strengthen the City of Austin as we continually work to improve the services we provide to our residents.”

This week, Mayor Kirk Watson also initiated next steps in the search for a permanent city manager to replace Garza. In a message board post to Council members Monday, Watson appointed Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis and CMs Leslie Pool, Chito Vela, and Vanessa Fuentes to head up the committee to find a search firm for the position; Watson expects to put out a Request for Proposal by the end of the month and select a firm in July or August.

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