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Don’t be surprised if local government headhunters are urging job candidates to be very cautious about all the vacancies in Amarillo, Texas.
It might be hard to quantify exactly what is the most dysfunctional city government in the United States, but if you’re looking for a place in complete municipal turmoil, look no further than Amarillo, Texas.
Located in the Lone Star State’s panhandle, this city with around 200,000 residents is probably best known outside the area for the Cadillac Ranch art installation off the former Route 66 west of town.
Locally, however, an ongoing topic of conversation has been: What’s going on at City Hall?
Top city officials, including City Manager Jarrett Atkinson, the deputy city manager, the city attorney, the public works director and the information technology director have all bolted from the city government or have announced their resignations.
What’s the source of the problems? Relations with and within the City Council.
Back in June, on the day he was sworn in as a newly elected, reform-minded councilmember, Mark Nair asked for the city manager to resign along with five members of the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation.
Facing community pressure and criticism for acting so quickly, Nair later backed down.
It’s been a municipal circus ever since or perhaps a “palace coup,” as described earlier this month by Amarillo Globe-News columnist John Mark Beilue, led by Nair and two other new councilmembers who “rode in on transparency” but whose intentions have been less than transparent.
A figurative line was drawn in the City Hall sand just after the election with—at least for now—the three new members on one side, and incumbent Councilman Brian Eades and Mayor Paul Harpole on the other.
If Harpole said up, the other three said down. If it was declared the sun rose in the east, one side wanted to see a study. Items have been tabled or postponed in a mishmash of gridlock that ought to embarrass the citizens of Amarillo.
When City Attorney Marcus Norris resigned in July, KDFA / NewsChannel 10 reported that “[a]fter providing legal [counsel] to city employees for 15 years, Norris said his integrity as a lawyer no longer matches with the city as a client."
Many citizens in Amarillo have been quite angry by the current state of affairs on the City Council, some writing letters to the editor to the Globe-News calling for a recall election and others apologizing in an open letter to Atkinson for voting for the new councilmembers.
While Atkinson’s resignation, which is to take effect later in November, may have surprised some on the City Council—Nair said he “didn't see it coming”—Amarillo Mayor Paul Harpole said that conflict among councilmembers made it very difficult for the city manager to do his job, citing a handful of problems.
The inability for us to work towards a goal. The inability for us to work with him in the way that we should. Council members not answering texts or phone calls and not devoting the time they said they would to have a retreat and come up with objectives so our city can move forward. I don't think our city manager, Jarrett Atkinson, had much choice.
But all the acrimony is digging a management hole at City Hall that will be difficult to emerge from.
Harpole said it's problems like those that are hurting the city's ability to hire key staff as well. With Atkinson's resignation, there are now six vacant positions: City Manager, Deputy City Manager, IT Director, Public Works Director, City Attorney and an administrator for the new Simms Building.
"We're getting no applicants," said Harpole. "We're not getting people on a career track to look at us. This needs to settle down. We are simply not accomplishing the things that we need to do to move this city forward at this point and it deeply concerns me."
Atkinson was very gracious in his resignation letter and didn’t elaborate on the specific reasons he decided to leave, according to the Globe-News. But he did point out to councilmembers that the city “has a tremendous staff of leaders, managers and employees at all levels of the organization.”
Nair said, according to KDFA: "People have to know the city still works. Everything is okay and I am confident that that's going to happen because we have a wonderful staff. We really do."
But the damage may have already been done. Why would any serious city manager candidate or local government professional want to step into the mess in Amarillo? If they do, they have their work cut out for them.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty.