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Staff harassment, decorum subject of MBE/WBE Council committee meeting

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Policy took a back seat to procedure at Monday’s meeting of the Minority-Owned and Women-Owned Business Enterprise and Small Business Council Subcommittee, as committee members addressed a dust-up between city staff and members of the Austin Black Contractors Association in February.


In addition, a city employee (who did not wish to be identified) told In Fact Daily  there was another incident following the March 2 meeting of the MBE-WBE committee meeting involving the same individuals as last month’s incident. The employee said that two ABCA members were staring and taking photos of staff who were in the building that night. The staff member said she considered such actions to be harassment. Another city official said a police investigation is ongoing.


On Feb. 2, a meeting of the MBE-WBE Council Advisory Committee turned tense following an interaction between ABCA President Alayne Johnson and Assistant City Attorney Sabine Romero. During the meeting, Johnson, speaking about a city policy that says contractors working on city projects must make a good-faith effort to subcontract with women-owned or minority-owned businesses, told the committee, “We need to get away from this ‘good faith’ bull crap.”


Romero took issue with Johnson’s tone, saying, “With all due respect, there are limitations as far as the level of respect of the exchange in this room.” The discussion got more heated and then apparently made its way out of the meeting room, where, according to a report filed by a security officer at City Hall, an altercation occurred between Johnson and Romero.


At yesterday’s meeting, advisory committee Chair Adrian Neely told the committee that he wanted to make sure such an incident never happened again and that the word “decorum” was clearly defined so that he had a clearer understanding of the guidelines for running committee meetings, especially as they pertain to exchanges between citizens and staff.  He asked that the boards and commissions portion of the city code be amended to include a rules of order section.


Romero told the committee that Robert’s Rules of Order are the guidelines for all board and commission meetings in the city. Neely responded by saying that Robert’s Rules of Order have nothing to do with decorum in a meeting.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez told Neely that he would be happy to work with the committee to help define decorum and to give guidelines for discussion. “Common decorum says we can disagree all day long,” he said, “but you don’t have to do it in a manner that comes across as disrespectful or demeaning.”


Council Member Randi Shade pointed out that they didn’t need to define “decorum,” as it had already been defined in city code concerning City Council meetings, which, she said, “it would seem would apply to all the boards and commissions and all advisory boards, since you’re part of the Council system.”


According to the code, decorum at meetings should be determined by the following guidelines: “A person or Council member should not speak out of turn, use disparaging or abusive language, or make threats of violence against any other person during a Council meeting. The presiding officer should maintain order, should exercise the officer’s authority impartially, and may shorten a person’s speaking time or ban a person from speaking for the duration of the meeting only for violation of decorum set out in this section.”


But the third member of the committee, Sheryl Cole, pointed out that much of the passion that arises at advisory committee meetings is born out of honest frustration over a system many in the community see as flawed. “I think the advisory committee, especially the African-American members, are frustrated that we have not been able to implement procedures to adequately grant the work that the city gives to that community,” she said. “And we come to that committee meeting with all that frustration.”


Johnson agreed with Cole’s statement. “We’re passionate because there’s no enforcement,” she said. “We have zeroes, we can’t get any answers from the staff, and when we get up to speak, we’re interrupted. We have to advocate for ourselves. I agree we should always be professional but the respect goes both ways. All we ask is that we be allowed to complete our statements, that we have free speech.”


Shade put a positive spin on the situation, saying, “We need to move forward to get the work done and hope that this was a learning experience and that we do better going forward.”


Some damage has already been done, however. On Feb. 21, Neely said, the advisory committee was notified that staff would no longer provide presentations at advisory committee meetings. Instead the committee will receive reports from staff upon request. “It was communicated to me before this took place,” Neely said, “that if people continued to get out line at our meetings, staff would no longer be allowed to come to those meetings.”  And though he agreed that he could have done more to run the meetings better, he said that the city’s decision not to send staff to meetings will “render our committee very inefficient (and) cripple our efforts to serve the community and fulfill our committee’s charge.”


Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza, who attended this month’s committee meeting told Neely in an email, “I do want to remind you that for over the past twelve months, I discussed with you on a regular basis that I could not allow staff to continually be disrespected, insulted, and mistreated by members of the community or anyone else. I requested on numerous occasions to both you and the Vice Chair to please take control of the meetings and not allow this type of behavior towards staff. The (Feb. 2) meeting you are referring to was simply another example of how the advisory meetings typically function.”

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