Black city employees say council dissing black execs

Left to right, Assistant City Attorney Patricia Link, Code Compliance Director Carl Smart and Code Compliance Assistant Director Dan Cardenas listen during a meeting of the Building and Standards Commission at City Hall on Wednesday August 28, 2013. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Left to right, Assistant City Attorney Patricia Link, Code Compliance Director Carl Smart and Code Compliance Assistant Director Dan Cardenas listen during a meeting of the Building and Standards Commission at City Hall on Wednesday August 28, 2013. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As the fallout continues over Austin City Manager Marc Ott’s rebuke of Police Chief Art Acevedo, another potential controversy is brewing at City Hall: African American city employees are accusing the City Council of repeatedly disrespecting black executives from the dais.

And if that is not enough, they are pointing out other troubling trends regarding African American employees who work for the city, such as a lack of African Americans in certain city jobs and departments, council members’ insensitivity to diversity initiatives and pay disparities.

To that point, the group says African American men are the lowest paid of all city employees according to data it collected for median salaries of each racial and ethnic group. The 2015 data show the median salary for black men was $21.26 per hour, compared with the median for white men at $37.28, Hispanic men were the next lowest with a median salary of $21.91 per hour. Asian men had the highest median pay, $37.92.

Those allegations were outlined by the African American Heritage Network in an April 13 letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the Austin City Council. The heritage group is one of several so-called city affinity groups organized to support employees who work for the city. Each is organized differently, but they include support groups for Hispanics, Asians, LGBT and women.

“During your tenure as elected officials, we have observed a clear level of disdain in your treatment of African American executives. We have witnessed African American executives being criticized, reprimanded and insulted from the dais,” The group stated in the letter to Council.

“While we understand that this behavior is often demonstrated by the minority of Council, the majority does not speak out against it. To observers, it suggests the behavior is tolerated. We are concerned about the message this sends to the general public.”

It’s telling, says Candice Cooper, vice president of the organization, that the group has received no response from the mayor or other council members. Ott did respond, she said, telling the group he wants to meet with them to better understand complaints and data regarding pay and job disparities.

One example of what the group described as a personal attack on a black executive has to do with a post by Council Member Don Zimmerman to the Facebook page of Dale Flatt, a Zimmerman supporter. Flatt has organized a May 13 protest of the city’s Code department headed by Carl Smart, who is African American. But the protest, at City Hall, also targeted Smart, Cooper’s boss.

DF Protest Post comments - Copy - CopyCooper provided a screen grab capturing Zimmerman’s response to Flatt’s Facebook post: “Friday the 13th, perfect! In case some code compliance inspectors come hoping to write citations, who’s bringing the hockey masks?”

Cooper said flyers for the protests have been prepared that say, “GET SMART FIRE CARL” referring to Smart.

Zimmerman’s post, referring to the Friday the 13th movie character Jason Voorhees, a psycho killer, was seen by some black employees as whipping up anger and by others as a veiled threat against a department headed by an African American.

“I have not seen the Council Member treat any other top city executive that way,” Cooper said.

Recently, the Code department has come under fire for failing to hire staffers with the required certifications, complete investigations in a timely fashion or prioritize the response to violations that pose a danger to the public, the city auditor concluded in a draft report.

In her role with the group, Cooper said she interviewed five African American executives who said they have been singled out and publicly upbraided by some council members in what felt like personal attacks as opposed to professional disagreements. They didn’t want their names revealed, she said, because they feared retaliation.

Along with that, the group has faced a series of internal investigations triggered by anonymous complaints, alleging that the group was conducting professional development training solely for African American city employees, among other race-based claims. The group was cleared on all complaints, she said.

Collectively, those episodes have had a chilling effect on African American employees, she said. It didn’t help matters that no city council members attended the 2016 Black History Month Program in February. Morale has been further eroded, Cooper said, by the city and council’s rapid response in dealing with issues of equal treatment, pay and training regarding women, versus a lack of response to concerns regarding black employees. She noted the City Council’s response to a stereotype-riddled training session in March that led to the forced departure of assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes.

To be fair, there might well be explanations for the aforementioned circumstances. But absent any justification — or even response from the mayor or Council, African American employees are left to fill in the blanks. That is not ideal, as it leaves people to make sense of certain actions through the lens of their own experiences, including cultural perspectives.

And by investigating the group based on anonymous complaints the city undermines a key democratic principle — the right to face one’s accuser.

Neither the mayor nor Zimmerman could be reached for comment Wednesday.

In a city as diverse as Austin, city officials should know their words, actions — and silence — have consequences. At the very least, they owe black employees an explanation.