Assistant chief chosen as interim Austin police chief, national search for Manley's successor now under way
Assistant Police Chief Joe Chacon will serve as interim police chief of the Austin Police Department following the retirement of Brian Manley on March 28. City Manager Spencer Cronk is conducting a national search for Manley's permanent successor and plans to make an appointment by August. "We need to have a chief in short order," he said during a press conference on Monday.
Chacon is a 22-year veteran of the department, having started as a patrol officer in 1998. He moved through the ranks and was named assistant chief in 2016. He is third in command behind Chief of Staff Troy Gay, who some expected to be named interim chief. (When former chief Art Acevedo left for Houston in 2016, then-Chief of Staff Manley was named interim chief and later promoted after the Austin bombings in 2018.)
Both men have been finalists for other police chief positions across Texas and the U.S. Chacon was named one of four finalists for the top job in Waco earlier this year and one of two finalists for the chief position in Boise, Idaho, last year, according to local reports. Gay was one of five finalists considered to lead the Nashville Police Department in 2020.
City Council will decide whether to confirm Chacon as Manley's interim successor at its meeting on Thursday.
The search process
The national search for Manley's successor began Monday, Cronk announced in a memo to council outlining the process. He has hired Ralph Andersen & Associates, a California-based executive search firm that has assisted 35 other cities in their police chief searches and the city of Austin in a number of executive searches.
"I hope through this process that we collectively find the ideal candidate—one who collaborates with our community, instills trust in the workforce, works to achieve results from established Council policy, creates a culture of improvement and accountability, and is willing and able to lead the department in ways that lead to equitable public safety outcomes for all," he said in a statement.
The search process will take place in three phases, according to the memo. The first phase will entail creating a candidate profile with input from the community as well as city leadership and APD employees. The second phase will consist of outreach and recruiting. And the final phase will involve interviewing the top candidates and selecting the city's next chief. "The search will be transparent and inclusive, with engagement at every level," he said.
The community engagement component of this search will be different from that of the 2018 search process, when Manley, then-interim chief, was named lone finalist for the permanent role following his handling of the Austin bombings. "The difference between what we saw in 2018 and now is that we are starting with an open, national and dare I say international search," Cronk said.
Joya Hayes, director of human resources for the city of Austin, added that this time around community engagement will be considered from the start, including in the formation of a candidate profile, rather than only after a finalist has been chosen.
A rare opportunity
Manley announced his retirement last month amid an ongoing national debate over policing and after mass protests against police violence and racial injustice in Austin last summer. He has faced sustained criticism from local elected officials, criminal justice reform advocates and residents after APD officers seriously injured protesters over the summer. Four council members asked him to resign, Cronk faced pressure to demote him and the council voted unanimously to cut the police department's budget. Last August, the Austin Justice Coalition debuted a jingle, "No Confidence in You," as part of its campaign to get Manley to resign.
The department has also come under fire in recent years for multiple officer-involved shootings, allegations of racism among its top ranks and reports of hazing at its training academy.
Manley said this criticism did not contribute to his decision to retire, but it will certainly color the search for his replacement. Acevedo, who previously led APD and recently announced he will lead the Miami Police Department, said the city's police reform efforts are deterring candidates from applying to chief positions. "People are hesitant to apply for cities with misguided, reacting city councils," he told Austonia earlier this month. "It's having an effect."
But city leaders, including District 4 Council Member Greg Casar and Cronk, say Manley's retirement presents a rare opportunity. "The Reimaging Public Safety process, budget decoupling and department restructuring, and, most recently, the announcement of Chief Brian Manley's retirement provides a unique opportunity to work with our community to bring new leadership that aligns with our values and our commitment to equity and community engagement," Cronk said in a statement.
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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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