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Committee seeks answers from city management on 2010 Ethics Study

Thursday, June 27, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes defended Austin City management’s actions in the wake of burgeoning Council concern over a 2010 ethics study that only recently saw broad distribution. Snipes, called to answer questions from Council’s Audit and Finance Committee Wednesday, underscored a message City Manager Marc Ott has tried to convey since the study became public.


“Let me just be clear: I think, from an ethical standpoint, we have a very upstanding and ethical City Manager,” Snipes said. “I don’t think the manager has ever shied away from any negatives. He’s used those as a means of improving to be better.”


The survey, performed by the widely respected Ethics Resource Center, offered some disturbing conclusions about employee opinions of city ethics and management. Management disputes the results with concerns over the methodology employed by the firm.


Still, Council Member Bill Spelman hammered Snipes over the reasons Ott has cited for not releasing the report to Council.


Afterward, in an interview with In Fact Daily, Snipes said that none of the 21 programs cited by Ott as “organizational strategies (that illustrate) the City of Austin’s ongoing commitment to developing and maintaining a culture of ethics and integrity” came in response to the 2010 report.


“Prior to the (ethics) report being released, the manager had already instituted his direction with the ethics office at the time under John Steiner – here are some things I want to do, one of which was the mandatory ethics training, starting at the top, instituting some type of executive management academy that we instill with our management,” Snipes said.


However, Snipes admits that some “good ideas incorporated in that report” may have made their way into future city programs. Indeed, in a memo dated June 10 and updated sometime later, Ott connects 19 recommendations from the report, prepared by the Ethics Resource Center, back to a host of city programs.


“It was a resource for the manager to be able to look at,” Snipes offered.


Since the release of the ERC report – which resulted after an In Fact Daily article detailed its contents – management has repeatedly cast Steiner as a sort of lone wolf who requested the study to establish a city benchmark. Management has continued to argue that methodology employed by the Ethics Resource Center was flawed.


That statement runs contrary to a series of emails exchanged by Steiner and city business consultant Scott Truelove. After a thorough examination of the methodology employed by the Ethics Resource Center, Truelove concludes that management concerns over employees’ ability to take a survey associated with the study more than once are unfounded. 


“We’d be looking at less than a handful of percentage points in even (a) worst case scenario,” Truelove writes. “That is, it would not substantively affect the ERC’s conclusions. Perhaps on one or two items it might slightly shift the interpretation, but for the most part, the interpretation of the results would not change. And this is an empirically driven worst-case scenario. What’s much more likely is…That the results accurately reflect the opinions of the 10,000 employees at the COA.” (See In Fact Daily, June 11.)


Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo wondered why management had signed off on a study that could produce this sort of result. Spelman filled them in on the details.


“There were extensive conversations between John Steiner, Alicia Olmstead, the (Ethics Resource Center), and someone in Austin Energy who does this stuff for a living (Truelove),” he said. “And they concluded that the survey – although flawed – was fundamentally valid; that the errors that could have been committed in the survey as a result of taking the survey multiple times were limited. And the reason they knew they were limited is that this is an issue which is extensively examined in the advertising world which does lots of surveys of this kind.”


Spelman later continued: “This was known at least to John Steiner and Alicia Olmstead as of October or November of 2010 and the results were still not released. We could argue till the cows come home about whether something is sufficiently valid for us to believe every word of it. But if we invest a bunch of time and money and our employees invest…their own time in completing the survey I think we owe it to them to release whatever we’ve got.


“It’s going to tell us something, it’s not going to be wrong,” Spelman continued. “It may be embarrassing, but I don’t think it should cause us to shy away from making public whatever we do know and whatever survey we take.”


For his part, Snipes insisted that the Steiner-Truelove exchange never made the rounds in the City Manager’s office. “I had not seen that, and I’m quite sure that the other executive members had not seen those exchanges at all.”


Snipes reiterated that point for In Fact Daily. City human resources director Mark Washington confirmed Snipes’ account.


That appeared to create more dissonance. Snipes assured Council members that, the situation “may have been different if we saw some of that” – referring to the Steiner-Truelove emails.


That statement contradicts one that Ott himself made to In Fact Daily earlier this month, the same day his memo was issued.  “It wasn’t a report I was obliged to send to Council,” he said. “The report was done for my benefit and the benefit of the executive team. You know, I was still relatively new back then and trying to get a handle on culture of the organization – and it served (that) purpose. It wasn’t commissioned for the Council. I’m not sure where that comes from.” (See In Fact Daily, June 11.)


For her part, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who chairs the Audit and Finance Committee, remained concerned about the circumstances surrounding the report. “I think the ERC Audit allegations are serious. I hope that management did not keep them from Council intentionally,” she told In Fact Daily. “That is what they have said and I have to believe that in good faith.”


She was, however, anxious to move forward. “They have made some substantive changes in response to (the study) that they told the Audit and Finance Committee that they have implemented and I am pleased with that because I think the focus should be on what we should do going forward,” Cole said.

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