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Audit Committee muted by questions over posting, integrity policies

Thursday, April 25, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Members of the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee and city audit staff engaged in a bizarre exchange Wednesday with Assistant City Attorney John Steiner over what, exactly, they could discuss as part of a posted item that appeared as though it was going to cover potential violations of the city’s integrity policies.


The conversation resulted in a delay of a discussion about the posted item. However, some hints about what was on tap peeked through the back-and-forth.


Steiner appeared before Council members before they could begin their discussion of the item. He cautioned them about the direction that their questions could take. “Under this posting you can talk about the City Auditor’s Integrity Unit’s performance and their performance measures but, I think it’s not sufficient to get into specific city policy issues.”


Under that ruling, said Council Member Kathie Tovo, she and her colleagues could not “have a meaningful discussion. We’re talking about follow-up actions that the integrity unit has taken after they have found that there has been a violation of policy, so if we can’t talk about those policies, I think we’re not going to have a meaningful discussion here today.”


Indeed, both Council members and audit staff seemed, as Council Member Laura Morrison put it, “flummoxed.” Morrison wondered about the general implications of Steiner’s ruling. “I don’t know how we are going be able to do postings and do our business if we’re going to have to make sure that each of these very specific things that might come up in the general discussion (are posted),” she said.


Morrison indicated that she and her colleagues had told staff what they wanted to discuss prior to agenda posting. She checked with audit staff to be sure that the posting had passed through legal review. Assistant City Auditor Jason Hadavi confirmed that it had.


“So we have one part of the law department saying this is the appropriate posting – if that’s not the final word, we need to figure out where the final word is,” she said. “If the auditors were very clear and we got misdirection, we need to figure out how that process broke down.”


Though Steiner tried to use hypothetical situations and draw timely civic analogy to the Austin Energy governance question, his appearance seemed to satisfy no one.


City Auditor Kenneth Mory told In Fact Daily that he had not experienced this type of posting problem in his three years with the city. He added that, in roughly a decade of civil audit service elsewhere, he had not encountered such an issue.


In light of Steiner’s concerns, Council members agreed to postpone their discussion of the integrity unit’s performance. However, that action did not come before they danced around what appeared to be more details of the issue.


Morrison hinted at a set of internal metrics that might reveal how city staff feel about management in certain situations. “(One of the) question(s) that they were following up to was in response to our committee’s question regarding how other municipalities’ and landscapes compare to the City of Austin regarding the percentage of employees that fear retaliation,” she said.


That notion appears to be backed up by a presentation that city Human Resources head Mark Washington was ready to give. In Fact Daily obtained a copy of the document, called “Update on Employee Complaints of Retaliation,” at the meeting.


In it, Washington lays out background on the city’s policy on “reporting fraud or other illegal acts” and ethics training, with a focus on the city’s retaliation policy.


The presentation contains three tables. One covers internal complaints as investigated by city Human Resources and the retaliation allegations leveled by employees who had issued those complaints. That figure fluctuates significantly.


On average, 7.2 percent of city employees who had complained to city Human Resources had also issued reported that they felt as though they had been retaliated against. In all, 49 city employees issued such a complaint between 2007 and 2012. Four of these, or just over 8 percent, were substantiated.


The second table in Washington’s presentation looks at internal complaints as investigated by departments other than Human Resources. There, a total of 33 retaliation complaints were leveled (out of 907 initial complaints) between 2007 and 2011. Five of these, or 15 percent, were substantiated.


The third covers complaints to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to the presentation, of the 55 allegations, only one “resulted in a ‘reasonable cause’ finding.”


After Steiner’s intervention, Council members were unable to discuss any of this in public. When asked if he could add anything to what he’d told Council members Steiner told In Fact Daily that he could not.

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