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Spelman vents frustration at staff over work on city leave bank

Friday, August 23, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Months of frustration over delays in a long-planned change to City of Austin leave rules boiled over Thursday in Council Chambers. There, Council Member Bill Spelman called out city staff for what he cast as foot-dragging over the issue of allowing some employees to contribute sick leave and vacation hours to others.


Spelman laid out his concerns by way of explaining why his office had not shared changes in Thursday’s proposed city leave bank with city management. He began with a loaded question to Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes: “Mr. Snipes, you understand why I did not provide you with this amendment several days ago?”


After a long pause, Snipes responded that he did not.


“We – meaning my staff…first began discussion with you and your staff on this issue in September of last year. They had lots of meetings, they spent lots of time talking to your staff about this,” Spelman replied. “And it dragged on and it dragged on and it didn’t get anywhere because all the way through they got a very strong impression – I wasn’t there, I can’t vet this because I didn’t see it – but all three of them got a strong impression that your staff did not want to work with us on this.”


He continued: “This took as long as it did because we weren’t getting any help from you. So it seemed to them…that if we gave this to you several days in advance you would just come up with a whole bunch of – I almost said excuses, and I think I’ll continue to say excuses – for why you can’t do it or why it’s going to cost too much money, and (you) would try and talk us out of it. It seemed to them and it seemed to me at the time that providing this to you at the last possible moment would be the best way of avoiding excuses.”


Spelman then noted that he and his team “had failed at that. You came up with additional amounts of money that you think this is going to cost, and you came up with some arguments for why it is we shouldn’t do it,” he continued.


Finally, Spelman closed by suggesting that dealing with Snipes and his office was like “pulling teeth” and that he ultimately did not believe him.


In the end, Council members unanimously approved a new city leave bank that will allow Austin employees to donate unused or unwanted leave to their colleagues. City Human Resources staff worried that the workload that accompanied the new program would be enough to warrant a new employee. Spelman offered changes to the program from the dais that allowed all sides to sign off on the idea, without adding any new FTEs.


Snipes offered a measured response to Spelman’s accusations. He noted that he had not been in charge of the issue for the entire length of the process, and added that their efforts were a part of a detailed examination of a leave bank designed to “go back and look at the best way we can implement a leave bank process.”


“I believe that based on the work that staff has done of course for the last month-and-a-half in putting forth a leave bank that we’ve never done before, I think that staff did a very responsive and deliberate job in trying to bring forth to this Council the best leave bank proposal,” Snipes said. “It’s disheartening that you believe that we can’t be collaborative because my staff works very hard to provide the best possible service to not only your staff, but Council. So, if that’s the case, I do apologize.”


Spelman was joined in his concern by Council Member Mike Martinez, who returned to the theme of unfilled vacancies. “I wanted to ask you about the 10 vacancies that you have currently in HR, and if they are still vacant, then if you could use one of those vacancies as a temporary stop-gap measure?” Martinez asked.


Martinez has been at the front of a Council effort to address the seeming contradiction presented by more than 900 city-wide job vacancies and a staff request for more than 300 new positions in the FY2014 budget. Human Resources Director Mark Washington told Martinez that his office could not use one of the vacancies in his department to address the projected new workload.


Still, Martinez appeared to not wholly believe Washington. “I’ll be supporting a move forward with this,” Martinez said. “I think there is a way we can make it work, and I think there’s even a way to make it work without a budget impact.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell expressed concern about the initial projected cost for the program, a figure that Washington and his staff put at well above $500,000 if city staff were allowed to contribute to the leave bank bi-weekly.


Spelman’s fix made the program a membership-based one that will allow city employees to join should spur of the moment – a fact that would allow sufferers of unexpected events to join, should they need it. With that addressed, program costs dropped to $117,000 and Council approved the ordinance unanimously.

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