EXCLUSIVE: Austin events leader reprimanded after avoiding female co-workers

3:20 p.m Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017 Politics
William Manno, shown at a 2015 press conference about South by Southwest, filed a grievance saying the city’s findings against him are based on “misleading and incorrect information.” (Stephen Spillman / For American-Statesman)

The city of Austin has formally reprimanded an official who oversees coordination of large events, such as South by Southwest, after an internal investigation found he purposely avoided meetings and private interactions with female co-workers because of issues with his marriage.

The city’s investigation of William Manno, the Austin Center for Events program manager, was launched the first week of July, soon after one of Manno’s female co-workers, a business specialist, complained. She told city investigators that Manno deliberately did not attend at least two meetings because he believed a communications consultant in attendance had romantic feelings for him, according to a July 5 statement obtained by the American-Statesman through the Texas Public Information Act.

The Statesman is not naming the women because of the nature of the complaint.

Manno, who filed a grievance Wednesday disputing many of the city’s findings, declined to comment for this story.

“Many of the statements included in the reprimand memo are based on misleading and incorrect information,” Manno said in the grievance.

The Aug. 10 written reprimand comes as the city of Austin has stumbled in recent years on the treatment of women in the workplace. A stereotype-laden 2015 training session on working with women in government led to the suspension and resignation of a high-ranking city executive. The fallout from that incident led the City Council in December to revise its definitions of workplace harassment and retaliation and prompted an audit that found the city lacks consistent standards for investigating such complaints.

The investigation into Manno’s conduct found he ended regular lunches with the communications consultant, telling her, “I’ve been told it is not appropriate for a married man to have lunch with a single lady,” according to a July 10 memo summarizing the city’s investigation.

She later told investigators that she found his reply “odd,” as she had told him she was not interested in him romantically and only sought to have lunches with him for mentoring purposes, the memo said.

Manno also discussed possibly reassigning the communications consultant and a female assistant city attorney who worked with the Austin Center for Events because his wife objected to some of their interactions with him, the business specialist told investigators.

Manno said in his grievance that the business specialist’s statement contained inaccuracies. He also said his reprimand wrongly insinuates that he has issues with all one-on-one interactions with female co-workers.

Ricardo Brazziell/American-Statesman Staff
William Manno, shown at a 2014 presentation, is accused of avoiding meetings and other interactions with certain female colleagues after his wife raised objections.

Human resources investigators told the city manager’s office that Manno violated the city code of conduct by treating employees differently based on gender.

“Mr. Manno differentiated in his mentoring of subordinate employees based upon gender and marital status, and he likewise made decisions regarding which meetings he and a subordinate would attend based on marital status and factors unrelated to his role as a manager for the city of Austin,” Susan Starks, a human resources acting division manager, wrote in a July 25 email to supervisors as part of the investigation.

The city also cautioned Manno that he might have violated retaliation policies when he asked a subordinate — the business specialist — about the report she made to city staff that sparked the investigation, according to the letter of reprimand and other documents related to the investigation.

Manno asked in his grievance that references to retaliation be removed from his reprimand, since investigators never found him in violation of that policy.

Manno, 55, is a relatively public figure for the city of Austin. His job makes him a chief planner for facilitating many of Austin’s largest events, including SXSW, the Austin City Limits Festival and the city’s New Year’s Eve fireworks show. He has at times been the city’s public face for safety and security issues related to South by Southwest.

He is a former Austin police commander who managed special events for the Police Department before taking a civilian job in 2014 with the city, where he makes $98,404 a year.

The newspaper has requested Manno’s full personnel files with Austin Police Department and the city of Austin, which the city had not yet provided at the time of publication.

Manno remains head of the Austin Center for Events. Meanwhile, the business specialist who filed a complaint against him accepted an offer to be reassigned, telling the city staff she never wanted to work for Manno again.

The Aug. 10 written reprimand states Manno could face punishment up to termination if he violates the city’s employee conduct code again.

The catalyst for the investigation was a June 30 interaction between Manno’s wife, Bonnie Manno, and the now-reassigned business specialist. Manno’s wife learned he gave her a ride to City Hall to attend a briefing with the City Council, according to the business specialist’s statement to investigators. During the nearly hourlong meeting in the specialist’s office, Manno’s wife tearfully divulged details about the couple’s marital problems and said that William Manno had vowed to never give female employees rides alone, the statement says.

The business specialist told a co-worker about what had happened, and human resources got involved.

Days later, William Manno came to the business specialist’s office and asked what she had reported, her statement said. She rebuffed Manno, telling him, “Are you kidding me?” before he left. A human resources investigator took her statement later that day.

The meeting with Manno’s wife was not the first time the business specialist was privy to Manno’s personal life. In his grievance, Manno states many of the details came from conversations long before the June 30 meeting with his wife.

But during that June 30 meeting, the business specialist told investigators, Manno’s wife specifically spoke of how Manno had promised her and a marriage counselor he would stop giving women rides in his car. Manno’s wife went as far as to demand he sell a vehicle because one of the employees she suspected of being attracted to him had ridden in it several times and had one-on-one lunches with Manno, the business specialist said.

Manno noted in his grievance that he should not have brought issues in his personal life into the workplace.

“I do acknowledge that I introduced personal information about my marriage into the workplace and to a subordinate,” Manno wrote in his grievance. “I recognize that this does not foster a positive work environment and is unprofessional and inappropriate conduct in the workplace. As such, I will ensure that this does not reoccur.”

But Manno said the investigation’s finding is “based partly on facts and substantially more on several unconfirmed, misinterpreted conversations over an undetermined period of time.”

The grievance said he avoided the communications consultant because she acted inappropriately during a 2016 New Year’s Eve event.

She hugged him several times at the event, according to the business specialist’s statement.

Manno also took issue with the business specialist’s account, in part because she also had shared several details about her marriage with him. Manno questioned in his grievance why she had not contacted human resources sooner if sharing those details made her uncomfortable.

“Perhaps she was not made to feel uncomfortable by me or the conversation with my wife, but the heightened anxiety of her own marriage relationship,” Manno wrote.

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