If you haven't already heard, on Friday afternoon Interim City Manager Jesús Garza announced a decision that was greeted with overwhelming shock and dismay at City Hall. From the Statesman:
Art Acevedo, who has served as a police chief in Austin, Houston and Miami, is taking a newly created, $271,000-a-year administrative job at Austin City Hall overseeing policing, city officials confirmed to the American-Statesman.
Acevedo – both a celebrated and polarizing figure – will serve as an interim assistant city manager and act as a liaison between the Austin Police Department and interim City Manager Jesús Garza.
To Council members and staff who have already butted heads with Garza, the decision embodied how hopelessly out of touch the city manager is with the organization he oversees and the community he serves.
Fans of Acevedo see him as a tough-talking maverick, willing to take on entrenched interests, be they elected officials or police unions. They view his firing after six months as Miami police chief, for instance, as a testament to his courage.
However, many of his critics in Austin say that the issue is less his big personality than his job performance. It was only after he left APD that it became clear how badly the department had mishandled forensic evidence, particularly involving sexual assault investigations, during his tenure as APD chief.
CM Alison Alter immediately released a statement Friday denouncing the hiring, saying that Acevedo oversaw a department that not only mishandled evidence but regularly closed sexual assault investigations without meeting established criteria:
Paige Ellis similarly mentioned the rape kit debacle, but also accused Acevedo of "entrapping protesters," a reference to undercover APD officers infiltrating the Occupy movement way back in 2011. (You might be surprised to learn that Ellis, nowadays a mainstream liberal, was involved in Occupy demonstrations at the time)
Chito Vela similarly said he could not support the hiring, citing "too many red flags" in Acevedo's history:
Ryan Alter cast some shade:
Natasha Harper-Madison released a one-word statement in response: "No."
What's interesting is that the most vociferous critiques did not come from the most progressive members of Council.
For instance, Zo Qadri's and Vanessa Fuentes' initial tweets seemed to acknowledge concerns about Acevedo but did not explicitly denounce his hiring. Later, however, Qadri said that he opposed the hiring.
Jose Velasquez, the last to comment on the matter, said, "I share my community's concerns."
Where was Watson?
At the risk of belaboring the point, the mayor of the city of Austin has no formal powers that distinguish him from any other member of Council. The city manager is in charge of the city bureaucracy, and he answers to the entire Council, not the mayor.
However, things have been different in the past 12 months due to the very close relationship between Kirk Watson and Jesus Garza, who chaired the PAC that spent $1 million to get Watson elected. As a result, Garza's decisions are often assumed to involve Watson and the rest of Council has been hesitant to challenge the duo, even when their actions violate the spirit of our system of government.
Kathie Tovo, who last week declared her candidacy for mayor, described the decision as one made by the "Watson-Garza administration."
And yet, somewhat surprisingly, multiple City Hall sources, including critics of Watson and Garza, believe Watson when he told him that he was as surprised by the decision as they were.
Nevertheless, Watson released a statement to the Statesman apparently approving of the decision:
"Art Acevedo brings a wealth of experience and a deep understanding of the challenges facing APD. I’m hopeful he’ll be able to provide needed support for the department and help us to strengthen the relationship between City Hall and APD as well as with the community.”
The two only other Council members expressing support were Mackenzie Kelly, the conservative, and Leslie Pool, who has been Watson's most reliable ally.
The cops don't even like him
It would be one thing if, in an effort to bring the police union to the table to negotiate a new contract, Garza sought out somebody who the cops trust. But that's not Ace.
In his own comment to the Statesman, Austin Police Association president Michael Bullock said Acevedo had a "checkered past" and described the reactions from officers as "mixed."
When I asked Bullock what their issue was with the former chief, he said that his members viewed Acevedo's decisions as "being politically motivated" and that he relied on "fear or retaliation" in managing.
When Acevedo left Houston, the head of the police union there said, "I'm glad he's not our problem anymore."
What happens now?
Council doesn't have the authority to withdrawal Acevedo's hiring or fire him. The only person Council can fire is the city manager. If this sounds familiar, this was the same conversation that came up in 2020, when many Council members pushed then-City Manager Spencer Cronk to fire APD Chief Brian Manley.
Nevertheless, Alison Alter said, "I will not let our city re-hire Art Acevedo."
Suffice it to say, this is a very awkward situation. This is the cherry on top of a year of sloppy, unethical management by Garza. At some point the hubris was bound to catch up to him.
At some point in the coming months –– who knows exactly when –– Council will be tasked with hiring a new city manager. Are they going to take it seriously this time?