Months after hearing women describe the harassment, discrimination or retaliation they have experienced at the hands of other city employees, the Austin City Council on Thursday approved new rules for city employees to crack down on such conduct.
“I think this is a very important step for the city,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the resolution last spring that ordered staff to examine policies and recommend changes. “And I think it’s a terrific example of our community … recognizing an opportunity to really enhance the protections and policies and the practices that our city has for our city employees.”
The new rules expand and clarify existing conduct requirements for city staff, including more expansive definitions of what constitutes harassment and retaliation. The new language also requires that investigations into complaints be launched “without undue delay.”
However, the language passed by the council dropped a provision that would have allowed the city to hold employees accountability for off-duty conduct “that is related to or relevant to the (employee’s) job,” after the local chapter of the American Federation of State and Municipal Civil Employees, which represents city workers, objected.
But, after striking a deal to remove that provision, union official Carol Guthrie said the new language had the group’s whole-hearted support.
Tovo called for the changes last spring, after the American-Statesman reported in 2015 on a stereotype-riddled training session on women in government. Tovo said then she was troubled that city employees apparently felt they could share their qualms only with the media.
Those concerns have been underscored by other events at City Hall. In February, a jury ruled the city unlawfully retaliated against a female city engineer from Nicaragua after she complained of experiencing discrimination based on her national origin and gender.
And over the summer, the former director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development was forced out after covering up her failure to reprimand a top manager for “horseplay.” The manager, who was accused of repeatedly hugging a female coworker against her wishes and attempting to sit on her lap, has denied the allegations.
The lone dissenting vote Thursday came from Council Member Don Zimmerman, who lost his reelection bid last month for the District 6 seat. He wondered aloud whether the language would make it too easy for employees to bring “false allegations.”
After being told by staff that it is a violation of city rules to bring false claims with a malicious intent, Zimmerman pressed on, wondering if the new rules wouldn’t make it too easy to bring a complaint.
“A fool shows their annoyance at once when they get insulted, but a wise person or a prudent person, you know, will overlook insults,” he said, citing the Old Testament book of Proverbs. “In some cases, the problems can be mitigated by people just saying, you know, that person is an idiot, I’m just going to ignore them.”
In other news Thursday, the Austin City Council:
- Approved a $6.5 million settlement in a lawsuit resulting from the 2011 Steiner Ranch Fire, which city power lines started. The fire destroyed 23 homes and a deputy constable collapsed and died helping victims. His family, along with some two dozen insurance companies, sued the city for negligence. Austin’s insurance will cover most of the settlement, but about $2 million will come from the city budget.
- Postponed an item to increase the new Central Library maximum project amount by $5.5 million, for a total budget of $126.6 million. The request is set to come back Dec. 8.