Is That All There Is?
By Kayte VanScoy
AUGUST 3, 1998:
The rumors started over a year ago, but it should come as no surprise to those familiar
with the protracted pace of city government that it took this long to hear that Assistant
City Manager Joe Lessard would be leaving his post at the city of Austin. Last June,
when the then-new City Council took a retreat with upper-level city staff, the scuttlebutt
held that Lessard's departure was almost imminent, particularly given his noticeable
absence from the retreat. "Oct. 1, 1997," was the date most people predicted
Lessard would walk. Yet, when asked last year about this alleged impending doom,
Lessard laughed it off, explaining that he had his sights set on advancing to the
city manager's post one day. Besides, he added at the time, "the city of Austin
is as good as it gets." In reality, Lessard's duties were reassigned last June,
moving him from oversight of the police, fire, emergency medical services, and aviation
departments to focusing solely on the completion of the Austin-Bergstrom International
Airport. City Manager Jesus Garza framed Lessard's job transition as a necessity
because the completion of the airport would require his sole focus. After all, Garza
explained, the $700 million project was clearly the largest and costliest undertaking
in the city's history. (Garza did not return phone calls for this article.)
One clue that permanent changes in Lessard's career were afoot last year was that
his $103,471 annual salary was changed from being paid out of the city's general
fund, like the rest of the assistant city managers, to being paid out of the Aviation
Department budget. The switch cleared the way for a new ACM, Toby Futrell, to be
paid out of the general fund. Futrell also took over Lessard's office at City Hall,
while Lessard was shuttled off to new quarters at the airport. Although no one would
confirm it for the record then or now, Lessard - once a golden boy protégé
of former City Manager Camille Barnett - had obviously been put out to pasture.
So now it looks as if that Oct. 1 resignation deadline is going to come true after
all, albeit a year later. Though he was quoted in the Chronicle last August
saying that it would take "a pretty phenomenal opportunity" to convince
him to leave his post prior to the May 1, 1999 ribbon-cutting at the new airport,
Lessard recently announced he would leave with no new prospects lined up and, in
fact, in a bit of a muddle about what to do next in his life. After 10 years as an
Austin ACM and a total of 15 years in city administration, Lessard appears to be
caught in a fairly public midlife crisis.
To be sure, Lessard's professional roots are fairly entrenched in municipal government.
With a master's degree in public administration, Lessard served under Barnett during
her ACM tenure at the city of Dallas. Five years later, in 1989, Barnett, as Austin's
City Manager, recruited Lessard out of the private sector as her first ACM appointment
here. Lessard proudly points out that in his near-decade with the city of Austin,
he has overseen 16 different departments and several "very complex, very public,
very large projects."
While much of his work, such as establishing the Drainage Utility Department and
the dedicated street maintenance fee, are the kind of accomplishments only the wonkiest
political junkies keep track of, Lessard has popped into the public eye several times
in the past several years, and not always in a positive light. Along with his work
on the airport, Lessard also had a hand in laying the groundwork for the Austin Convention
Center. But he says his proudest accomplishment was the creation of the Balcones
Canyonlands Preserve, a unique land conservation model that began on his desk. Lessard
also headed up the Austin Police Department during 1996 and 1997 when Police Chief
Elizabeth Watson resigned under a shroud of controversy; the near-simultaneous release
of an audit of the police department had revealed communication breakdowns on every
level, beginning right at the top. At the same time, reports of flagging EMS response
times put pressure on Lessard from another of his departments.
Only a few months later, shortly after the new City Council took office in mid-June
1997, Lessard - once regarded as a potential candidate for City Manager Garza's job
- was reassigned to sole oversight of the new airport. The Garza-initiated maneuver,
viewed by cynics as the equivalent of shipping the enemy off to Siberia, effectively
took Lessard out of the inner circle at City Hall. That widely discussed scenario,
however, is not the sort of thing people want to acknowledge in print.
"The normal track for a city manager would be to either move up or move from
city to city," Lessard admits. So, given that moving up within the city's ranks
no longer seems to be an option, and that his recent marriage will likely keep him
Austin-bound for a while, Lessard says he is considering options outside city administration
- such as working for a nonprofit corporation. "This is a change of direction
for me," he says hopefully. Although he now admits that he and Garza began speaking
in February 1997 about this transition, he did not make a decision during the last
year and a half about what that new direction would be. He admits that several life
changes - the death of his brother in 1997, his marriage, and his recent 44th birthday
- have made him reassess his perspective and personal goals.
Despite the fact that Lessard has been overseeing the new airport project since
1992, and that the airport's grand opening is less than a year away, no one at the
city will admit that changing the leadership of the high-dollar venture at this late
date signifies any kind of failure on the part of Lessard - or of the airport project.
According to City Manager Garza, the decision to move on was Lessard's; according
to Chuck Griffith, an assistant city attorney who will take over Lessard's duties,
the decision for Lessard to leave now came straight from Garza. Lessard himself has
been vague to a fault on the issue. However, with his phase-out tying up so neatly,
it is not hard to imagine that the Oct. 1 switch has always been part of the plan.
"In the end, I sort of worked myself out of the position," Lessard says,
explaining that there has been very little left for him to oversee concerning the
airport since the beginning of this year. With all the construction contracts bid,
awarded, and negotiated, all that's left seems to be the hammers and nails. "I
think the organization can handle it without Joe Lessard," he says.
The man in charge of overseeing construction, John Almond, director of the New
Airport Project Team, agrees. "We're now at the point where the work
that's being done is being done by contractors. In the past there was a lot of discussion
about design, programming, master planning, redevelopment, and that's pretty much
behind us," Almond says.
However, given the recent controversy over the awarding of the vending contracts
at the new airport, it also isn't hard to imagine an alternative scenario leading
to Lessard's exit. After the City Council awarded the contract for the news and gift
shops at the airport to Paradies Inc., the Austin American-Statesman reported
that the company in 1994 had been convicted of 83 counts of mail fraud in Atlanta,
for which owner Don Paradies was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Lessard took the
blame for bringing the contract to council without first informing councilmembers
of the convictions, although several of the citizen members of the Airport Advisory
Board, which oversees the airport contracts, admit that they also knew about the
convictions long before the contract reached council. By all accounts, the City Council
was livid over the public embarrassment. The vending contract was quickly rebid.
In fact, overseeing the re-awarding of the news and gifts contract will end up being
Lessard's last act at the airport, besides coasting through the city's budget season
to Oct. 1. (This week, the Airport Advisory Board again recommended awarding the
contract to Paradies and News & Gift Shops International-Austin Joint Venture.)
Several other changes in the air at Aviation, however, make it apparent that the
Paradies slip-up was no minor gaffe. Aviation Director Charles Gates, who oversees
operations at Mueller Airport, is also being bumped from his position, so that Griffith
can take over the administration of both airports. Gates, who was also involved with
the Paradies foul-up, says that his new duties have yet to be finalized. According
to Griffith, though, Gates will now report to him and will concentrate on the finance
end of the new airport. Gates wouldn't comment on whether or not the Paradies scandal
had anything to do with his being bumped down the ladder at Aviation.
As for Griffith, the up-and-comer in this whole affair, aviation is no new hobby.
Although he has served in the city's legal department since 1990, he spent two decades
administrating airlines and airports, including nine years as a vice president at
American Airlines. Griffith was the brains behind the city's recent coup in persuading
the Federal Aviation Administration to allow the revenue generated by the Mueller
redevelopment to be channeled back into the city's coffers as opposed to an airport-only
fund as federal law dictates. Despite this triumph of legal maneuvering, however,
Griffith is still a babe in the woods when it comes to the new airport. Sources close
to the project say they doubt Griffith will stay in his position very long, and that
he is merely serving in some sort of "clean-up" capacity. At any rate,
top city officials have placed an incredibly tight lid on whatever shortcomings there
are at the airport that precipitated such a dramatic reshuffling of the project's
leaders. And Almond, the new project director, will likely be given "additional
responsibilities" when the new airport project and Mueller Airport eventually
merge operations, Griffith says.
For Lessard, however, the reshuffling doesn't come with another job within the
city. The scenario that emerges, then, is that Lessard was reassigned in early 1997,
following what apparently was perceived as a breakdown in his abilities overseeing
the police, but instead of being fired, he was put on the slow train to China by
being assigned the sole stewardship of the airport - a job that didn't exist until
Garza decided to create such a position. According to some, there was never enough
for Lessard to do once his other duties were taken away and then, following the very
public Paradies scandal, the final nail was put in his career's coffin. But don't
hold your breath waiting for any such admission to leak out of City Hall.