An investigation centered on the city of Austin’s Equity Office has sparked strife in City Hall circles, with groups representing minorities strongly weighing in with different viewpoints.
The city used an outside firm to investigate a complaint filed last spring by former employee Nadia Kalinchuk, who alleged that the Equity Office’s leaders were dismissive of and hostile to certain staffers and community members, particularly Latinas and those affiliated with the city’s Hispanic-Latino Quality of Life Commission.
The city’s investigation is expected to be closed next week. The probe led to a spat last month during a Hispanic-Latino Quality of Life Commission meeting and a pre-emptive reaction from the Austin branch of the NAACP. On Thursday, the NAACP announced at City Hall that it’s investigating “harassment of African-American employees at the city of Austin,” including those involved in the Equity Office inquiry.
Leaders of the Equity Office, the commission members named in the complaint and Kalinchuk declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Austin created the office and hired Brion Oaks as its first chief equity officer in late 2016. With the help of three staffers, he is tasked with identifying disparities within city operations and helping to address them, as well as working with community groups. Those groups include the city’s various quality of life advisory commissions, which include residents appointed by council members who offer nonbinding recommendations on matters of equity.
Without offering specific examples, the complaint alleges that Oaks and Kellee Coleman, the Equity Office’s business process consultant, often mocked the accent of Marion Sanchez, a community engagement consultant. Oaks and Coleman are African-American.
The complaint also said that Coleman referred to Hispanic-Latino Quality of Life Commission members Jill Ramirez and Isabel Lopez Aguilar as “trash.” Screenshots of text messages attached to the complaint show Coleman calling people trash, but it’s not clear who she’s talking about. Kalinchuk said Coleman called various people trash, including non-Hispanics and men. But the complaint focuses mostly on Ramirez and Lopez, saying those references were more frequent and mostly verbal.
Kalinchuk, who’s Hispanic, filed a 13-page complaint alleging unkind remarks about a number of people of various races, but primarily as a Hispanic-discrimination complaint focusing on hostility against Sanchez, Ramirez and Lopez. Kalinchuk said in the complaint that she initially participated in mocking the commission members, before getting to know them and becoming friendly with them. Kalinchuk worked in the Equity Office nearly six months and quit after Oaks placed her on administrative leave after an unrelated argument that occurred shortly before her initial probationary period ended.
Screenshots of text messages show Coleman referring to unspecified recommendations from Ramirez as “highly problematic and anti black,” and later writing, “Whatever. She is terrible at life,” in reference to Ramirez.
In an exchange between Kalinchuk and Oaks, Kalinchuk texts, “Jill and I are going to be BFFs. Lol,” before Oaks responds with a bitmoji of himself spitting out coffee.
The investigation became a point of contention during a Hispanic-Latino Quality of Life Commission meeting July 24, when Vice Chair Carmen Llanes questioned why Ramirez, the chair, didn’t want to consider a community proposal to recommend a new staff member in one of four offices, including the Equity Office.
“Well, I have a problem with the Equity Office right now,” Ramirez responded.
Llanes responded that some commission members already knew about the ongoing investigation and a couple had been asked to testify.
The comment led to an argument about whether Ramirez’s role in the investigation was influencing her work on the commission. Ramirez acknowledged that the complaint and investigation have made her wary of working with the Equity Office.
“How can we trust an office that goes behind our back?” Ramirez said. “We were trying to steer (the new position), so that it wouldn’t be anywhere where we have a history of disappointment.”
Meanwhile, the NAACP plans to review whether there’s systemic anti-black discrimination at City Hall. Local NAACP President Nelson Linder initially set up the Thursday rally to oppose City Manager Spencer Cronk’s elimination of his current assistant city managers, including African-American Mark Washington, who last week was hired as the city manager of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Linder broadened the event after deciding that investigations into black department heads at City Hall, of which the one involving the Equity Office is the most recent, represent harassment. Linder said Wednesday that he knows Oaks well and does not think the city should have taken Kalinchuk’s allegations seriously.
“You don’t just do an investigation because someone files a complaint,” Linder said. “When you read a complaint, you can pretty much tell if what a person says is true.”
Llanes praised the Equity Office on Wednesday for helping the quality of life commissions come together for the first time to make joint budget recommendations.
“There are actions being taken by a small handful of Latino community members to undermine the leadership of the Equity Office,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s coming across as a black versus brown thing, so we need to up our conversation on race to see what our true priorities are.”