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Union cites city managers’ track record in supporting Prop. 10

Monday, October 29, 2012 by Michael Kanin

According to documents obtained by In Fact Daily, Austin city managers Toby Futrell and Marc Ott sided with their respective department heads more than 80 percent of the time on the outcome of city employee grievances filed between 2005 and 2012.


Officials with the union that represents 15 percent of city employees, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), cite this statistic as a reason for Austinites to vote for Proposition 10, a question on the Nov. 6 ballot that asks voters to create a civil service system for the city’s civilian workforce.


AFSCME’s political action director Jack Kirfman told In Fact Daily that the statistic “really shows that (city management) nearly always sides with the department.”


“There’s no getting around it,” Kirfman said.


Council Member Laura Morrison sponsored the resolution to put the item on the ballot. In September, she told In Fact Daily “My priority was to change the system so that any kind of discipline – termination, suspension – would be based on a reason – just cause – and there would be a process for an independent appeal. For me, the fact that we don’t have that right now is truly a systemic wrong.”


Still, some would point to the relatively small portion – considering the size of Austin’s work force – of employee grievances filed. City officials have also reminded In Fact Daily that Kirfman’s union represents only a small fraction of the city’s roughly 8,000 person workforce.


According to the results of an employee survey conducted this past year and obtained by In Fact Daily, 90 percent of Austin’s work force agreed with the statement that they would still be working for the city a year from now. Eighty-eight percent shared a strong commitment to Austin as an employer.


The first figure is a six-year high. The second is the best in 10 years, according to city documents.


The study also says that 86 percent of the workforce knows how to report unethical behavior.


Austin City Council approved putting the proposed civil service proposition on the ballot with little fanfare on Aug. 2. Council Members eventually revisited the cost of the potential change – Ott’s initial projections were in the millions; they eventually settled in to the hundreds of thousands (see In Fact Daily, Aug. 20, 2012) – but there was no robust discussion about the idea.


Indeed, as In Fact Daily reported in late September there was no small amount of confusion about the potential proposition. Discussion restrictions on city staff, including Council members, by Austin’s legal department after the measure landed on the ballot may have contributed to that situation. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 21, 2012)


If approved by the voters, Prop. 10 would establish a five-member Civil Service Commission and instruct the head of the city’s human resources department, Mark Washington, to provide civil service rules for commission approval. Council would eventually have to approve anything passed by the commission.


As In Fact Daily reported in September, according to the ordinance, the civil service rules must, “at a minimum” contain provisions that would direct such items as “initial appointments, promotions, and lateral transfers, all of which should be based on merit and fitness” and “disciplinary probation or suspension, involuntary demotion, denial of promotion, and discharge, all of which, in the case of non-probationary employees, must be for cause.”


For AFSCME assistant business manager Carol Guthrie, the proposition is about the city’s civilian staff earning “just cause protections.”


Guthrie also cited stability as a factor. She pointed to the idea that, as city managers come and go, city staffers are subject to evolution of work rules. “You’re constantly changing a process,” Guthrie said. “With civil service, you can make it more consistent.”


Still, rumors persist that at least some members of the city’s civilian workforce are concerned that a change to a Civil Service system could interfere with – or at least slow – their respective career paths. It is pretty clear that city management is also against the idea although they have been very careful about saying so.


Early voting continues through Nov. 2.

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