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Confusion, Testy Exchanges Mark the Beginning of Dallas’ Search for a New City Manager

The Dallas City Council is holding two meetings to discuss how it will conduct the search for the next city manager. It's already a little messy, but they selected an interim replacement.
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Council members Jaynie Schultz, Adam Bazaldua, Paula Blackmon, Chad West, and Tennell Atkins discuss points during the Ad Hoc Committee on Administrative Affairs meeting on February 26, 2024. Bethany Erickson

The Dallas City Council gathered for two meetings this week to begin the process of hiring a replacement for City Manager T.C. Broadnax, who said last week that he would resign on June 3.

And that process had a rocky start. Broadnax announced his resignation Wednesday, which triggered three members of the City Council to schedule a meeting for Tuesday. Mayor Eric Johnson then scheduled a separate meeting for Monday, led by an ad hoc committee that he has ordered to head up the search for a replacement.

The conflicting meeting requests continued the confusion of the prior week, following reporting by WFAA that eight council members had worked behind the scenes to formally request Broadnax’s resignation without involving seven of their colleagues, including the mayor. Asking for the city manager’s resignation, whether in a formal public meeting or informally, could trigger a clause in his contract that would allow him to receive severance equal to 12 months of his full salary, $423,246.

The City Council spent portions of the two meetings getting on the same page, a unity that has been woefully lacking around the horseshoe. Monday’s meeting was a briefing of the Ad Hoc Committee on Administrative Affairs, which Johnson tasked with doing the bulk of the heavy lifting on the city manager search. That committee consists of Tennell Atkins, Cara Mendelsohn, Jesse Moreno, Paul Ridley, and Kathy Stewart. 

However, all 14 council members showed up, despite the mayor appointing just five to the committee. Johnson was the only member absent, and he also missed Tuesday’s.

The two agendas were nearly identical, but Tuesday’s meeting also included a discussion and vote to approve Kimberly Tolbert, a top Broadnax deputy, as interim city manager upon her boss’ departure this summer.

That created a brief and testy exchange Tuesday as Council Member Adam Bazaldua made a motion to discharge the ad hoc committee from the duplicate duties. City Attorney Tammy Palomino explained it was a procedural move—the full Council couldn’t take up the duplicate items until they had been removed from the committee’s list of duties. Council can vote to return those items to the committee’s purview later. 

“We shouldn’t even be here today,” Mendelsohn said. She felt that the fact that three members signed a memo to schedule the meeting was not transparent.

“That’s in the charter,” Council Member Omar Narvaez said of the mechanism that allows three council members to request a meeting. Ultimately, 12 members voted to discharge the committee, while Mendelsohn and Ridley voted against it. Council then went into closed session to discuss performance evaluations for specific employees, as well as the appointment of Tolbert as interim city manager. The body ultimately voted 12-2 to give the interim job to Tolbert on June 3, Broadnax’s last day. Ridley and Mendelsohn were the two votes against. Once she begins the interim role, Tolbert will receive a 15 percent pay bump in her current salary to $367,683.

Much of Monday’s meeting focused on the timeline and what information city staff needs to begin the search. Human Resources Director Nina Arias and Procurement Director Danielle Thompson briefed the Council on their options, including hiring a search firm to conduct a national search. They also discussed a timeline for hiring that firm, conducting the search, and naming a new city manager, as outlined in a draft document the two departments crafted over the weekend.

Thompson explained that the first order of business is for the Council to determine the scope of the work for a search firm. A request for proposal, or RFP, she said, would need to include details like compensation and job expectations for the incoming city manager because search firms would use that information to help decide whether to throw their hats in the ring.

“The entire procurement process is contingent on receiving the proper feedback from the Council,” Thompson said.

That feedback includes everything from the job description to how input is sought from city employees and residents. In his memo last week, Mayor Johnson said he would be looking for a city manager who focuses on public safety, taxpayers, basic services, communication, and accountability. 

Monday, council members were clear they had additional requirements, with several pointing to the equity work that Broadnax spearheaded during his tenure. 

“At what point do we begin talking about as a body … the type of city manager that this organization needs?” asked Council Member Zarin Gracey, who represents portions of southern Dallas.

Several said the city’s equity investments were important enough to be baked into any job description. “It’s very important that you understand the importance of having someone who understands where we are and understands the challenge of trying to get us to go forward and not moonwalk on any equity investment that we’ve made in this city,” said Council Member Carolyn King Arnold. 

In addition to nascent conversations about the job description, council members also zeroed in on the timeline. Two already have previous experience with the process in Dallas. Atkins was in his first 8-year stint representing District 8 when the council hired A.C. Gonzalez in 2014. Arnold was on the Council when it hired Broadnax in 2016. Gracey holds a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Luther Rice University and Seminary and certifications in state and local government from Harvard. He said he has gone through the city manager selection process as a candidate.

Arias and Thompson suggested four executive search firms at Monday’s meeting. Their draft document outlined everything from how the city would gather input to creating a possible advisory committee to help make recommendations. 

Once the Council approves the language in the request for proposal, the city can publish it. Thirty days later, the city could close the process, pick a firm, and immediately kick off the search for the next city manager. From there, reviewing candidates, winnowing down the number to finalists, and picking the next city manager should take anywhere from nine to 12 weeks.

How fast that happens was a matter of debate. Council Member Gay Donnell Willis, whose district includes Preston Hollow, said she’d like to see a new hire by November and asked whether the city could simultaneously carry out some of the public engagement components of the timeline. 

Thompson and Arias said that the timeline presented in the draft process outlined a four-month period for getting the search firm in place, which they said was fairly expedited given the scope of the search; the time it would take to review the proposals; contract negotiations between the city and the firm; and the upcoming two-week City Council spring break from March 11 to 22. 

That didn’t sit well with some members. Mendelsohn said that while she felt the search for Broadnax’s replacement should be deliberate and not rushed, she questioned how long it would take to choose a search firm. She thought that some of the checks and balances of that process could be happening concurrently to speed that approval process up.

“This is exactly what’s wrong with City Hall,” she said. “We’ve built this bureaucracy to take this long. This is exactly what I hope our next city manager will work mightily to reinvent.”

Arnold argued that the process takes time.

“It’s not something as easy as opening up a bag of chips. This is a long haul; it takes commitment, and timelines are sometimes not what we think,” she said. “Anybody here around the horseshoe who doesn’t want to be here to experience the bureaucracy will have an option of opting out if they don’t want to be a part.”

Monday, Atkins asked his colleagues to provide feedback to staff about the search and their priorities by March 8. Assuming the Council votes to return the matter to the committee, another ad hoc meeting will likely be held before the spring break.

The city is working with a consultant to review national compensation packages for city managers in other similarly-sized cities that share Dallas’ council-manager form of government, where the city manager is essentially the chief executive to the Council’s board of directors.

Broadnax’s yearly compensation is $423,246. For comparison, city managers in San Antonio, Sacramento, Phoenix, Cincinnati, and Charlotte make base salaries of $364,000, $420,000, $425,000, $286,739, and $434,551, respectively. Austin reportedly is offering $475,000 in its search, which was revealed when a prospective candidate spilled the beans during a Zoom meeting. The Capitol city’s search began more than a year ago when Spencer Cronk, whose base salary was $388,000, was fired. El Paso is also hiring for the job.

The last two city manager hires took about seven months for the Council to engage with a search firm, consider candidates, and make an offer. The search leading to A.C. Gonzalez, an internal candidate, started when Mary Suhm announced she would retire in May 2013. The city’s process to find a search firm ended in July, and Gonzalez was chosen as interim city manager that same month. In January 2014, he officially got the job.

When Gonzalez announced his retirement in May 2016, the city hired Affion Public sometime in August, after its July break. Council agendas indicate the body met in August to discuss the search and began interviewing candidates in September. According to the listing on Affion’s website, the deadline to apply was October 2016. By the end of November 2016, the field of 100 candidates had narrowed to five. The city announced Broadnax’s hiring in December and started work in February 2017. He was the first city manager to be hired from outside Dallas in decades.

Author

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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