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Citizens complain about removal of two managers from Travis County

Wednesday, August 5, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

A parade of citizens spoke at Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday in defense of Alicia Perez, an executive manager with the county. Last week in a little-publicized evening motion, the commissioners voted to place Perez and Linda Moore Smith, Director of Human Resources, on a two-week paid administrative leave. When the administrative leave ends next Tuesday it seems likely that both will face termination.


For an hour and a half, citizens complained about the court’s judgment and praised Perez’s role in regional government and specifically within Austin’s Hispanic community. Although the crowd had few details about the reasons for Perez’s dismissal, there were plenty of complaints raised about the manner in which Perez was asked to leave, and concerns that a professionally qualified 15-year veteran of the county would be asked to leave. Smith has spent 10 years with the county. There were concerns that Travis County was losing its only Hispanic Executive Manager and some insinuation that race may have factored into the situation.


Judge Sam Biscoe and Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez composed a subcommittee that has spent the better part of the year trying to resolve what they described as a management issue between Perez and Moore Smith. Biscoe told In Fact Daily that the two managers have had a problem with each other for six years. “They have not been communicating, not cooperating, not meeting,” he said, “and it’s been rubbing off on other employees and other managers.”


He said two years ago, in response to a grievance and appeal in front of Commissioners Court, the county hired a third party consultant to do a “climate assessment” survey of the Human Resources Department, gathering input from county employees regarding “various matters.” Biscoe said the result of the survey indicated “there were fundamental problems that had languished for years and there was a cancer that was spreading.”


Biscoe said the county had four options following the survey: maintain status quo, terminate both “which we didn’t want to do,” reorganize the department or adopt a management plan with specific measures and objectives.


“We opted for the management plan and hoped that this would enable us to solve the problem,” he said. Part of that plan involved bringing in a coach/mediator to help the two through their problems, with instructions to report back to the court in 90 days. “Sixty days into this 90-day period, the consultant basically came and told us that (Perez and Smith) had basically given up on the process,” he said. On July 14, the court got the report from the consultant and Biscoe said, “The court wasn’t happy with the report we got.”


Biscoe said it was “their inability to overcome a history of not working together and the depth of the personality conflict, the friction between them has just overcome them, and I don’t think the court had any choice but to do what we did.”  He told In Fact Daily that he was “frustrated and really disappointed,” the two had not found a way to get over their problems.


Commissioner Gomez said she was surprised that things didn’t work out, “We fully expected them to come back and tell us a solution,” she said.


Lupe Morin spoke to commissioners about Perez, whom she has known personally and professionally for many years. “My biggest concern and my message today was that we don’t treat employees that way who have been totally dedicated to their jobs and did outstanding work for so many years,” she told In Fact Daily. Morin was referring to the evening action last week by commissioners which dictated that Perez and Smith vacate their offices by noon the next day.


Mari Barr also was concerned about “the manner in which it was handled.” She said she has known Perez since her time as Assistant City Manager. Barr said, “One of the things that happens in these public offices is that we want to achieve some kind of parity,” between races and gender. “Perez is probably one of five Hispanic women in the country that has the credentials” to serve as an executive manager or assistant city manager, she said. “They exhibited no grace,” Barr said of the manner in which the court forced Perez out.


Paul Saldaña told commissioners, “While many of us don’t know the particulars of your recent decision to terminate the employment of Ms. Perez, we do know that the recent action of the court is precedent and creates perception issues of political posturing and micro-managing.”


“I can understand people who came in who were friends of hers and knew her for years, and I put myself in that category,” Biscoe told In Fact Daily, “But they aren’t duty bound to protect Travis County and make sure we function efficiently and I was,” he said. 


Gomez addressed concerns that race may have been a factor in any of the process. “I would simply say I have worked very, very hard to make sure that I don’t consider race, ethnicity, gender, any other issue that is protected by law.” Gomez said,   “I’d rather be judged on the content of my character… and not my ethnicity, nor my gender and I truly believe that I work very hard at making sure that if I don’t like something done to me I‘m not going to do it to someone else.”


Next Tuesday commissioners will take action on the status of the two positions. Biscoe said “a settlement” was a more apt description than a severance package and said he expects the county will have to deal with a lawsuit soon. “I think litigation is almost inevitable,” he said late Tuesday. A potential settlement would stave off that lengthy and expensive process, he added. Asked whether the two employees could potentially be reinstated next week he said, “When we asked them to leave their offices, in my view that meant we would basically terminate them.”

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