Precourt’s MLS stadium proposal faces new, legal hurdles

Precourt Sports Ventures wants to build a Major League Soccer stadium on this city-owned tract at McKalla Place. JAY JANNER / American-Statesman

Whatever the Austin City Council decides to do in its negotiations regarding a proposal to bring Major League Soccer to Austin, it should check two boxes: Be on firm legal ground with the letter and the spirit of state law, and fairly compensate taxpayers in the way of direct benefits akin to the arrangement the city has with the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

That is why it’s a good idea for the city to immediately clear up new questions raised by Austin lawyer Bill Aleshire about whether the proposal for a professional soccer stadium on city-owned land violates state law.

It also would be wise for Precourt to sweeten the deal for taxpayers.

In a letter sent this week to City Attorney Anne Morgan, Aleshire stated that the city cannot lease, transfer or give away McKalla Place to Precourt Sports Ventures under state law unless the city receives compensation, totaling more than $18 million, or uses the land for a purpose consistent with its owner – Austin Water.

“Based on what information has been disclosed publicly, the City of Austin is on the verge of violating laws that prohibit property acquired with water utility bonds for specific use by the utility to be leased to one who would devote the premises to an inconsistent use,” Aleshire wrote in the letter to Morgan.

“McKalla Place is an Austin Water Utility asset purchased and improved with water bonds paid by Austin water utility customers. A soccer stadium is not a water utility use.”

If that is true, it throws a curve ball (excuse the baseball metaphor) into professional soccer stadium negotiations, which already are raising concerns about whether Austin is getting a fair deal, or as Council Member Ora Houston has said, “giving away the farm.”

I contacted Morgan, the city attorney, for a response.

“We did advise our council in executive session,” she told me via email. “While I cannot disclose what we advise in executive sessions, I can tell you that if council asks the city to go forward with negotiations regarding McKalla, we will explore and address the issues raised by Mr. Aleshire.”

In a unanimous decision Friday morning, the council directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to analyze Precourt’s proposal and begin stadium negotiations. In a separate action, the council passed a resolution seeking alternative proposals for McKalla Place.

At this point, few – including myself – can determine the legitimacy of Aleshire’s assertions or whether they have any merit at all. The city is in the best position to clarify those matters and should do so publicly to limit speculation that is likely to cloud or confuse matters regarding the use of McKalla Place for professional soccer or, for that matter, other purposes, such as a mixed-use development. To allow such questions to simmer without clarification is unfair to the water utility and its users, Precourt and the public.

Aleshire asserts that state law prevents the council from selling McKalla Place to Precourt without taking competitive bids. He did say, however, the council does have authority to use the land for a purpose consistent with the water utility – a stipulation he joked isn’t satisfied with a few rain water collection barrels or low-flush toilets.

Matters might end up in court, Aleshire told Morgan, unless the city sheds light on the legal questions raised by using property owned by Austin Water for sports or entertainment purposes.

Again, this is speculation, but if Aleshire’s assertions do have merit, it would seem that the city would have methods to make the water utility whole, clearing the way for soccer or other uses of McKalla.

Aleshire’s caution should not be taken lightly. He prevailed in a previous legal skirmish with the council regarding the city’s attempt to grant water utility fee waivers to the Pilot Knob housing development, getting the council’s action reversed and declared void.

READ: Pilot Knob violated state, federal law

Those new legal questions come as Austin City Council members are in talks with Precourt about its proposal to lease the 24-acre McKalla property for $1 a year. The initial terms of the agreement would cover 20 years, but with options that permit Precourt to renew under the same terms, the contract could run 80 years.

Precourt has proposed financing the construction of a $200 million stadium on the site for its Columbus Crew, SC, which it wants to relocate to from Columbus, Ohio, by year’s end. Because the property – including the stadium — would be owned by the city of Austin, Precourt wants a deal that would exempt it from paying property taxes to the city, Travis County, Central Health, Austin Community College or financially-strapped Austin Independent School District.

Some on the council have downplayed such taxpayer subsidies, arguing that the economic and social benefits Major League Soccer would yield for the city outweigh other financial considerations.

That argument ignores the fiduciary responsibility of council members to consider the highest and best use of a public asset — prior to a decision. That doesn’t mean a soccer stadium isn’t the best use, but that can’t be determined in a vacuum.

That is especially true, given city records provided by Aleshire.

Austin Water, the city’s water utility, purchased the property in 1995 for $1.4 million, city records show. That distinction requires the city to at least recoup the utility’s $18,261,323 investment over time.

So far, Precourt’s offer, while significant in benefits to Austin’s private business community and the city’s overall economy, does not provide direct or meaningful compensation to Austin Water, those who pay fees to the utility, or city taxpayers.

As the Statesman’s editorial board has said, the proposal deprives students and families in Austin district schools and ACC of badly-needed tax revenue the city likely would realize from other private developments that paid property taxes to those jurisdictions.

RELATED: Negotiate MLS stadium deal on Austin’s terms, not Precourt’s

Precourt seems to be getting the message. This week it announced it would build up to 130 units of affordable housing on the site with a parking garage. The details are sketchy, but that would be a solid benefit to taxpayers, helping Austin deal with its Austin’s affordability crisis.

If the sports franchise wants to win over critics, it should look to the city’s arrangement with the ACL Music Festival in which the private venture uses Zilker Park to stage its festival two weekends a year, though preparations and clean up limit park use for weeks before and after the festival.

The city gets a solid return from ACL: Since 2006, ACL has contributed over $26 million to the Austin Parks Foundation for improvements to parks, trails and green spaces – and in 2016 alone, it donated $6.3 million for maintenance and improvements to hundreds of city parks. ACL also pays for the yearly restoration of Zilker Park’s Great Lawn.

Major League Soccer might well be a Kumbaya enterprise for Austin; might boost the city’s cool factor. Even so, the council should put its game face on and get the best deal for Austin Water users and taxpayers.

 

 

 

CM Houston: Tired of being invisible

District 1 Austin City Council Member Ora Houston questions reason she was left out of key meeting regarding the Lions Municipal Golf Course.
Shelby Tauber / AMERICAN STATESMAN

 

This is one of those moments in which City Council Member Ora Houston, the lone African American on the Austin City Council, questions whether she is invisible.

Not in the superhero way, but in the manner that some social scientists say disproportionately affects black women.

“It is unfortunate that in 2018 we still operate by the same good old boy rules, practices and procedures of the past,” Houston told me. “What happens in those situations is that there are voices that are not being represented in the room.”

A case in point is the way Houston was cut out of high-level talks regarding the University of Texas’ Lions Municipal Golf Course – even though swaths of UT are in her District 1; even though she initiated meetings last year with UT President Gregory L. Fenves to discuss options for saving Muny and dealing with the expiring lease agreement between the city and UT; and even though she kept Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Alison Alter in the loop of information regarding those meetings.

Yet, when Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson called the meeting a couple of weeks ago regarding Muny, Houston was not among those invited to the table. Those who were invited and attended were: Adler, Alter, Fenves, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk.

READ: Why it’s exhausting being black in Austin

Watson says he chose the group based on their ties to Muny and ability to jump-start stalled negotiations regarding the popular golf course. Alter’s District 10 includes Muny as does Howard’s legislative district.

“I convened the meeting because I’ve become frustrated with both parties (UT-Austin and the city) and how they are approaching the matter,” he told me. “The purpose of my meeting was to light a fire.”

“I invited the mayor, city manager and council member who represents the neighborhood where the golf course is located. I’m pleased other council members are interested in this and I would encourage as that fire continues to burn, those council members need to make their interests known to the city and go for it. That is what is going to be necessary.”

Watson noted the clock is ticking on Muny’s future as an 18-hole, city-operated golf course. Under the contract, the city leases 141 acres (that include the golf course) along Lake Austin Boulevard from UT-Austin for more than $400,000 annually — a fraction of what the property would fetch on the market. That was estimated at nearly $6 million annually several years ago if leased for mixed development.

As far back as 2011, the city has known that UT’s desire was to permit the lease to expire next year as UT officials sought to monetize the entire 345-acre Brackenridge tract – which includes Muny — to generate more money for academic programs.

UT’s long-standing plans to turn the property into a mixed-use development were made more difficult, but still possible, when in 2016, the National Park Service – prompted by a group of golfers, environmentalists, Austin residents and black leaders — added Muny to the National Register of Historic Places.

Muny is recognized as one of the earliest municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated. Since that time, Watson said, negotiations between the city and UT have nearly stalled.

RELATED: Muny added to National Register of Historic Places

Houston isn’t buying explanations that the snub was an oversight. She made that clear in an email to Cronk this week. After first thanking Cronk for sharing information with the whole council about the meeting Watson called, she went on to say:

“It is, however, unfortunate that I was not included in that meeting. Not that I would have anything additional to offer. I have been meeting with the President and the Agent since last year regarding these very issues and the University is in District #1. My most recent face to face with President Fenves was May 11th to discuss an option that I suggested. How embarrassed I am to be discussing some of the same issues and be unaware of the meeting. So much for my credibility with the President.”

It was not the first time Houston has been overlooked on matters that directly affect her district. She elbowed her way into talks regarding how the public would be informed about the planned Capitol Complex construction, which would impact traffic on roads in her district.

She notes that Adler’s longer-term plan to generate money for Austin residents experiencing homelessness by leveraging taxes aimed at tourists who stay in local hotels was taken seriously, but not so with her proposal to temporarily house homeless residents in state facilities with empty beds.

Some no doubt will say the snub Houston sees in such matters is all in her head. It’s not.

READ ALSO: Are black women invisible study

The experience of going unnoticed and unheard is not unique to Houston, but a common occurrence for many black women, University of Texas professor and cultural critic Lisa B. Thompson says.

Black women, she said, are either hyper-visible, such as Oprah or Beyoncé, or they go unnoticed in matters of health and wellness, such as the lack of focus on the needs of black women in improving their outcomes in heart disease and maternal mortality rates.

For professionals, it can play out like this, Thompson said: “You (a black woman) are in a meeting and offer an idea. There’s no response. Two minutes later someone else (a white person) will say something similar and it’s a great idea.”

Yes, I know.

Phillips: Adler wants city to release city manager search records

Mayor Steve Adler, after voting to conduct a secret search for Austin’s new city manager, now wants to release all records.

When the Austin City Council meets Thursday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler will recommend that the city turn over all records the Texas attorney general’s office ordered be released regarding the council’s search for a new city manager.

“I’m fine with the ruling,” Adler told me over lunch recently. “I believe in transparency.”

The mayor went on to say that in addition to releasing the records showing who applied for the city manager position, he hopes the city would not appeal the AG ruling and “resolve all issues” regarding the lawsuit.

Hallelujah. Adler has come to his senses. I hope the rest of the council does, too, when it discusses the issue in closed session on Thursday.

Frankly, the council has no legal leg on which to stand after the AG’s ruling earlier this month that the city cannot withhold records showing who applied for its city manager position by claiming the information would harm the city competitively in a search for qualified applicants.

The ruling gutted arguments by the city aimed at justifying its efforts to conduct a secret search, such as the ridiculous claim that the information is a trade secret, a matter that would harm the search firm competitively or is “highly intimate and embarrassing.”

Whether the council believed it was on solid legal ground or, as some observers say, bamboozled by a private firm that had not heretofore conducted a search for a public entity or governmental body makes little difference. The damage is done in either case.

It sends the wrong message to the public when the city’s daily newspaper had to sue the city to get records regarding the hiring of the city’s top executive position. It erodes public trust when the city uses resources of its taxpayers to hide information from them to which they are entitled legally or otherwise. It should not have taken an AG ruling, but it did.

Matthew Taylor, an assistant attorney general in the open records division, wrote the opinion, which directs the city and its executive search firm, Russell Reynolds, to turn over the bulk of the information the American-Statesman requested related to the search for a new city manager, including candidate applications. Austin may withhold only attorney-client privileged emails and some personal email addresses and cellphone numbers.

If that weren’t bad enough, the American-Statesman also had to sue the city for potentially violating the state’s open meetings law when the council publicly posted a meeting at one location, then ducked out a door to take vans to another location that had not been posted. That was done to dodge reporters who staked out the posted meeting place.

The law requires public notice of where and when meetings will be – even when the meetings are in closed session.

The public won’t soon forget council members’ unanimous vote to keep the people they represent in the dark or how the city resorted to bizarre tactics to hide the faces of candidates and evade reporters.

Bowing to public pressure, the council finally released the names of five finalists, including Spencer Cronk, who they hired. Cronk starts later this month, after Sunday’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, where Cronk serves as city coordinator until Feb. 11, according to the Star Tribune.

In denying information about the pool of applicants seeking the city manager post, a job akin to a chief executive officer in the private sector, council members did a huge disservice to the public and to Cronk.

The public was unable to evaluate candidates and give feedback until the very end of the search for the person that oversees all city departments, 17,000 employees and a $3.9 billion budget. Cronk will be responsible for the kind of city services residents rely on daily, such as clean water, trash pickup, street repairs, recycling services, electricity and safe neighborhoods.

One of the biggest challenges Cronk will oversee almost immediately is the city’s overhaul of its land use and zoning code, called CodeNext, a political hot potato that has stirred activists to push for a citywide referendum — instead of allowing the council to decide the matter.

Thanks to the council, Cronk enters Austin’s political stage under questions of transparency. That is not the best way to start the job. The council can and should help clear the air by releasing all records and taking no more action to appeal or challenge the AG’s ruling.

Abbott shouldn’t mess with Austin’s success

Will Austin attract Amazon’s $5 billion HQ2 project? Will bats be involved?

 

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to have it both ways: Proclaiming Austin’s success as one of two Texas cities that made it to the elite 20 – the cities Amazon named this week as finalists for the tech giant’s second headquarters, called Amazon HQ2.

Meanwhile, doing all he can – along with his self-described wingman Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – to wreck the very business, environmental and social climate that is so appealing to Amazon and a slew of other tech companies that have flocked to Austin.

Here is what Abbott tweeted following the news: Texas is the land of opportunity & hotbed for the tech industry. That is why two #Texas cities are finalists for @Amazon HQ2.

Austin was among 238 cities across North America that submitted bids for Amazon’s second headquarters. Dallas also emerged as a finalist.

There is no denying that the state’s business-friendly regulatory and tax structures are key in attracting big companies to Texas and play a role in wooing Amazon. Also, the state offers generous incentives. But here’s a newsflash: Those businesses, particularly high-tech companies, aren’t relocating or expanding by and large to red zones controlled by Republicans, but to blue cities and counties that are run by Democrats.

Along with Austin, count Dallas, San Antonio, Laredo, El Paso and Houston in that category. There are exceptions, such as Round Rock, Tarrant County and other cities and counties that benefit by their close proximity to blue zones.

In no doubt a reference to Austin, Abbott has said “Texas is being Californianized.”

He added: “It’s being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans” that are “forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

He and Patrick have used such propaganda to attack local control with the goal of replacing city councils and county governments, which are closest to the people they serve, with state government — a huge bureaucracy that is far less accountable to local voters and taxpayers.

Abbott, Patrick and many other Republicans, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, want to homogenize Austin and other blue regions with their focus on eliminating bans on single-use plastic bags, regulating bathrooms used by transgender Texans, prohibiting local tree-cutting ordinances and dictating taxation levels of local governments. Though those measures were not entirely successful in the Legislature last year, the fight over bag bans is now before the Texas Supreme Court.

Austin is unique and that is worth protecting. The city’s embrace of environmental protections, including a bag ban to curb litter and protect parks and green spaces and an ordinance protecting heritage trees, are key to its appeal to big companies whose employees are not just looking for fat paychecks, but quality lifestyles. They want opens spaces, robust arts and music scenes, bicycle lanes, clean streets, libraries and universities and local policies that reflect their values, including respecting the rights of gay and transgender people.

Here are some things Abbott, his wingman and other state Republicans might want to consider as they go about homogenizing the state: Since 2004, 524 companies relocated to the Austin region and another 863 employers expanded their workforces. That generated nearly 52,000 jobs, according to Opportunity Austin, a regional economic development arm of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

As of last month, Austin area’s unemployment rate was 2.8 percent, more than a point below the state’s 3.9 percent and below the national unemployment rate of 4.1 percent.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler tells the Austin story this way:

“Austin is recognized as the safest big city in Texas, and the best place to start a business in the country. We lead the state of Texas in patents, startups and venture capital.”

People across the nation are voting with their feet. City demographer Ryan Robinson estimates that between 100 and 110 net persons move to Austin daily. That includes people who move out.

Instead of trying to homogenize Austin so it resembles a red city, Abbott should think about taking the Austin model to scale by promoting Austin’s progressive culture and ideals as good business practices.

I won’t hold my breath. At the very least, Abbott shouldn’t mess with success.

Will Amazon’s HQ2 home be the old Motorola campus?

Eightfold Development of Austin has proposed its campus in East Austin for Amzaon’s HQ2 headquarters and envisions a main building in the shape of Amazon’s Alexa cloud-based voice device.

Austin is cited as one of the key cities for Amazon’s secondary headquarters, known as HQ2, that the company wants to build somewhere in North America. But even if the Austin City Council came up with the financial incentives to lure Amazon – and successfully hurdled the politics of awarding publicly-financed tax abatements and other sweeteners to a rich outsider – there would be the question of where Amazon could locate in Austin, given its gigantic footprint and many preferences.

After all, the e-commerce behemoth has not been shy about detailing the perks and features it expects from communities bidding on its $5 billion project that is projected to generate 50,000 jobs. And Austin leaders, while expressing their huge interest in luring Amazon, also have been clear about their preference that Amazon fits with Austin values and not the other way around.

In addition to incentives, Amazon is asking for “an urban or downtown campus, a development-prepped site,” adding “We want to encourage states/provinces and communities to think creatively for viable real estate options, while not negatively affecting our preferred timeline.”

And that’s not all. Amazon wants to be within one to two miles of major highways, with a building or buildings that can initially accommodate up to 500,000 square feet by 2019 and up to 8 million square feet (33 buildings) beyond 2027. And that’s not all.

Amazon wants to be near, within 45 miles of an airport, have restaurants, retail, cafes and other amenities on its site. It also wants access to public transportation on its second-home site.

There’s more, but that alone is a big challenge for Austin in providing those features on a site within minutes of downtown.

On Tuesday, I toured such a place. A place that time had forgotten, but is being revitalized and readied for Amazon – or something else. It’s the old Motorola plant and campus at 3501 Ed Bluestein Boulevard in East Austin.

Set off the road on 100-plus wooded acres, it is less than five miles from downtown and about six miles to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Within 12 months, the site will yield about 500,000 square feet of office space with a potential of 5 million to 9 million square feet ultimately as it is built out. The latter will require zoning variances to build taller than the 60 feet now permitted.

Touring the campus is a throwback to Austin before the city was discovered by Formula One, Apple, Google and the hordes of hipsters that have relocated to the city. Then, Austin was laid back, weird and, goodness knows, affordable. A single mother of two, as I was in the late 1980s, could rent a house in East Austin and still put food on the table.

Developer Adam Zarafshani of Eightfold Development is touting the campus for Amazon, but makes clear even without Amazon, the campus, an ugly duckling when Eightfold acquired it, is being transformed into a swan through an $800 million, five-year redevelopment.

Where now there are abandoned buildings under renovation and redesign, he envisions a mixed-use community, complete with an urban farm, cafes, wellness and health clinics, computer labs and space for arts organizations and other nonprofits. He says he already has partnerships with Huston-Tillotson University, Austin Free-Net and Fusebox, a nonprofit arts organization, which will lease space or get it for free. It will be, Zarafshani says, a city within a city, with about 3,000 housing units, many that would be rented at rates teachers can afford. And it will be sustainable, with 75 percent of its power coming from solar energy, he says.

It’s the kind of development that compliments East Austin rather than insults it. It won’t displace long-time residents or drive up neighborhood property values, since it’s in a part of town known more for industry and commerce than for homes and neighborhoods. And most of the buildings are being renovated rather than raised. There will be a museum on site telling of Motorola’s history in Austin, featuring many items, such as an old cappuccino machine and era furniture, reclaimed from the renovation.

There are panoramic views and trails. And the campus has an Austin Energy power substation that was built for Motorola. And the Capital Metro Green line – that proposes to connect Austin with passenger rail service to Manor and Elgin – runs alongside the southeaster corner of the property.

With so much competition – upwards of 200 cities in the United States and Canada – vying for Amazon’s HQ2 project, it’s anyone’s guess which city will prevail when Amazon makes its decision next year. Even if Austin beats out the competition, there is no guarantee Amazon will choose the Eightfold site. But bids are due on Oct. 19 and Eightfold believes its development would be just the right fit.

Perhaps. But with or without Amazon, the old Motorola campus is being revitalized, rebuilt and repurposed. After a 12-year sleep, it’s a welcome awakening.

 

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.