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Council may resurrect results of ‘2010 city ethics study

Wednesday, May 8, 2013 by Michael Kanin

A cryptically worded agenda item on this morning’s special-called meeting of the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee promises to resurrect the ghost of a long-buried city ethics study commissioned in 2010.


In Fact Daily has obtained a copy of the study. It offers a mostly damning look at how city employees view the ethical state of Austin and its management team. Council Member Bill Spelman told In Fact Daily Tuesday that it had not been widely distributed – even to department heads – after it was delivered.


It was uncovered in mid-April as Audit and Finance Committee members set up to discuss a separate report delivered by the City Auditor about potential ethics violations by city employees, and internal retaliation related to ethics complaints.


That discussion – and any link to the 2010 ethics report – was abruptly halted by Assistant City Attorney John Steiner just before members of the Audit and Finance Committee began to delve in to the item. “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,” Steiner said at the time. (See In Fact Daily, April 25)


Spelman told In Fact Daily that Steiner had commissioned the 2010 study. At the time, Steiner was the Integrity Officer for the city. That position was later eliminated after a November 2011 staffing reshuffle by Marc Ott moved that office under the purview of city legal, and took steps to create what Ott called in a memo, a new “compliance team.”


The study was completed and delivered by a well-regarded firm – the Ethics Resource Center, based in suburban Washington, D.C. – in 2010. The center got responses from 40 percent of the city’s workforce to a series of questions about the city’s ethics culture, its programs, and how supervisors and management each respond to ethics concerns.


Some of the results point to specific troubles with City Management. “Two-thirds (65 percent) of employees perceive that the City has a strong ethical culture, compared to about 80 percent in the US Averages,” it reads. “Of the four component cultures, employee perceptions of senior leadership are the least favorable. This is typical in organizations; however, the disparity in perceptions about the senior leadership and the supervisor and coworker cultures is greater than that seen in the US Averages.”


The study reveals that only 58 percent of those surveyed believed that their managers rewarded ethical behavior. It also suggests that 41 percent of those surveyed “do not believe that the city values them.”


The study also looked at pressure felt by employees to compromise standards. Here, some departments faired worse than others. “Overall, 19 percent of employees perceive pressure to compromise standards,” the study reads. “Among departments, between 10 and 32 percent feel pressure, but within some of them, 80 percent and more feel specific types of pressure. In Aviation and Human Resources 75 percent and more feel several specific types of pressure.”


In 2010, the study further reports, “Forty-two percent of employees, compared to 34 percent in the US Averages, observed misconduct in the previous 12 months. Employees were also asked if they had seen any of 25 specific behaviors. Sixty percent indicated they had seen one or more of these forms of misconduct. In five departments, about 70 percent of employees observed one or more of these behaviors, the highest rate compared to other departments.”


Those departments were “Fire, Emergency Medical Services, Human Resources, Parks and Recreation, and Solid Waste Services. It is recommended that these departments be provided additional attention when addressing the issue of misconduct.”

Then-Solid Waste Services head Willie Rhodes was replaced by current, now Resource Recovery director Bob Gedert in 2010 after a separate study eviscerated that department. Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr has been in that role since 2008, as was current EMS head Ernie Rodriguez. Current Human Resources head Mark Washington was appointed to that post in 2009.


The 2010 study contains a host of recommendations. Though Spelman told In Fact Daily that he didn’t know if city management had taken any action with regard to those issues, it did not appear to him as though they had.


Spelman summed his read of the report for In Fact Daily. “For my money there are five important results,” he said. “The first one is positive and that is that City of Austin employees seem to know a lot about the ethics and compliance program. The second is less so: That they observed more misconduct than local government employees elsewhere around the country.”


He continued with his third and fourth observations. “When they did observe misconduct they were less likely to report it, and when they reported it, they were more likely to experience retaliation as a result.”


Spelman said that his fifth take-home point was “disturbing only in context.” Of the elements of the city organization, he continued, “what they found is that the strata that got the worst marks from employees throughout the organization were the top managers, the city managers and (their) assistants.”


Why the report never saw the light of day remains unclear. Spelman revealed that “at some point…there was a conversation between the integrity office and the executive team – the City Manager and the assistant city managers – to talk about the survey and they concluded somehow that the survey results were invalid and the city shouldn’t pay attention to them, further that the city should not distribute these results to the department heads for action because they would be misleading, and should not distribute them to the Council and to the public, again because they were presumably misleading.”


Though Spelman was not sure which representative of city management would be on-hand to discuss the study and its aftermath, he said he did not expect Ott to be there. “I would expect we would get much better answers to our questions if somebody…the manager or one of the assistants was able to make it to the meeting,” he said. “They were in the meeting when this was discussed, and decisions were made not to use it and I’d like to know what happened there.”

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