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Mike Kanin is the Publisher of the Austin Monitor. As such, he doesn't report on much--aside from the workings of the Monitor--any more. In his previous life as a freelance journalist, Kanin has written for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Post's Express, the Boston Herald, Boston's Weekly Dig, the Austin Chronicle, and the Texas Observer.
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Council approves first charter amendment question on staff policies
In November, voters will have the chance to approve a change to the City Charter that would give the City Council the authority to hire and fire their own staff. If the measure succeeds, the offices of the city clerk, the city attorney, and the city auditor would all be granted the same autonomy over their personnel.
Council members unanimously approved the charter question on Thursday. It marks the first of what may be many proposed changes to the city charter that could be on the November ballot.
Current administrative rules place Council, legal, clerk, and auditor staff under the purview of City Manager Marc Ott. As such, each of the offices has to adhere to the general hiring practices of the city’s Human Resources department.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell was careful to illustrate the fact that the new charter language, should it pass, could allow the four affected departments to come up with their own human resource policies. He did it with a question. “How do we handle HR guidelines?” he asked. Assistant City Attorney Meghan Riley told Leffingwell that the provision would provide the Council with “broad authority” to “appoint or hire staffs” and “create an HR framework by ordinance.”
“So…Council staff members, just as one example, would not be subject to the criteria established by HR as far as education and experience for a certain salary bracket?” asked Leffingwell.
Riley told the Mayor that anyone hired under the new rules would not be subject “to the current personnel policies that apply to the work force.” She added that the language in the ballot initiative was flexible enough to allow a range of options for HR guidelines, including the continuation of all or some of the policies for newly autonomous hires.
The new rules would not, on their own, change staffing numbers or salaries for any of the offices. Council members get a single line item in their annual budgets to pay for office needs, including staff. The other offices are each subject to the yearly administrative budget cycle.
Assistant City Attorney Sabine Romero was careful to illustrate for Council members – and, more importantly, their audience – that the approval of the item was limited to just that: the approval of the item. “(This ordinance) does not formally call the November election, nor does it establish the order in which this item will appear on the ballot,” she said. “Ordinances for those items will be brought to you at a later time.”
The question of whether Council members, the City Auditor, the City Attorney, and the City Clerk will all be individually responsible for their own respective staffs will appear on the General Election ballot on Nov. 6. It will likely be joined by other charter revisions – including authority for the Council to hire the City Attorney, an item that could change the make-up of the council and their terms – and a host of bond questions that will probably feature some form of funding for urban rail.
If the staffing charter amendment passes, Romero told Council members that they would have to pass via ordinance the specific rules that would govern hires for the four departments.
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