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Council defends Ott’s handling of minority issues

Tuesday, August 26, 2008 by Austin Monitor

A majority of the City Council made a public display of support for City Manager Marc Ott on Monday, after a news report about a letter signed by a number of Hispanic business leaders complaining about their treatment by Ott and questioning his commitment to diversity in hiring and city contracting. Several Council Members said they wanted to move quickly to prevent the letter from generating divisions between the Hispanic and African American communities in Austin.


“Austin has a long history of our communities of color working together to make Austin as progressive-minded of a city as it is. Today is no different,” said Council Member Mike Martinez. “An issue has arisen where it appears some folks would like to see our community divided. We’re simply here to say that’s not going to happen. We’re going to continue moving forward as a community where everyone is included and where everyone has a voice.”


The Hispanic contractors and former elected officials who met with Ott earlier this month made it clear in a letter to the members of the Council they felt their voice had not been heard during that meeting.


“We wanted to discuss the very public firings of some of the City’s Hispanic executives, the appearance of the dwindling number of Hispanic department heads, and the lack of continuity and familiarity with the community by his new hires,” the group wrote. “Unfortunately, what transpired has left us feeling bewildered, disappointed and quite frankly feeling disrespected.” Former Mayor Gus Garcia, former State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, AISD School Board Member Sam Guzman, Frank Fuentes, Paul Saldana, and others signed the letter.


“He wasn’t very welcoming to us,” Fuentes told In Fact Daily. “If he truly has an open door policy, he would have allowed us to express our concerns to him without being so defensive.” Fuentes is the head of an organization of Hispanic contractors.


When that criticism was made public over the weekend, it prompted a public backlash from some of the city’s African American leaders. Ott is the city’s first African American City Manager. However, Council Member Sheryl Cole on Monday sought to prevent the conflict from escalating, stressing the need for unity.


“Today, you all come to show what makes our city great,” she told a diverse group gathered at City Hall for a news conference. “It is our citizens coming and standing together despite our differences to move us forward. We have made progress, but we still have a ways to go. But the most important thing is we are not going back. I am with you as we stand together to move this city forward and do all that we can do to make sure that our city is united and not divided.”


Garcia told In Fact Daily that he was satisfied with the message he heard from the Council on Monday. “I’m glad the Council Members and Mayor called the meeting,” he said, since it brought attention to the issue of minority hiring and contracting. Garcia said he was still not convinced that the current administration at City Hall was pushing aggressively to meet the city’s minority-contracting goals.


“Since the MBE ordinance does not require quotas… often, a contract comes up (before the Council) and it says one percent for African Americans, two percent for Hispanics, and 18 percent for women. The question comes up, what happened?  And the answer is ‘Well, I couldn’t find anybody’. When I was on the Council we used to send them back, and say to the staff, ‘Go find them’.”


As for whether that attitude had changed in the past six months since Ott has been city manager, Garcia said, “I’m telling you that’s the feeling of the contractors, that perhaps that part of the ordinance needs to be strengthened. And it wasn’t that big a deal, we just went to talk to him.”


Both Garcia and Fuentes told In Fact Daily it was not their original goal to create a public controversy, although the letter they sent late Friday afternoon was copied to the Mayor, all members of the Council, Hispanic Council aides and all of the people who were at the meeting. “This story has ballooned into something that it’s not. There is no race war between blacks and Hispanics, and the paper has made it sound like there is,” said Fuentes. “I’m happy that they did this press conference. I think that it proves there is no race war and the real issue really is does the city manager have an open door policy?”


Ott on Monday reiterated his commitment to openness and diversity. “When I came, I said that I have an open door policy. I do, and will continue to have that policy for all residents in our city,” he said. “I, too, am committed and embrace the diversity of our city and look forward to providing a level service to the community that benefits everyone that lives here.”


Figures provided by the city’s Public Information Office show that within the City Manager’s office, nine of the staffers are Hispanic. Four, including Ott, are African American. Eight are listed as white and one as Asian/Pacific Islander. Of those staffers hired or promoted in 2008, two are African American, three are White, and four are Hispanic. Within his executive staff and at the level of Department Head or Assistant City Manager, Ott has appointed two Hispanic males, one Hispanic female, four white males, and one African American male.


The city also has six executive positions open. In two of those cases, a Hispanic male was replaced by a white male who is serving as an acting department head.

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