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Council accepts DOJ consent decree to settle firefighter hiring issue

Friday, May 16, 2014 by Michael Kanin

With Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley dissenting, Austin City Council members voted Thursday night to move forward with a proposed agreement with U.S. Department of Justice that would settle claims of hiring discrimination that have dogged the department for two years.


The vote, however, may not be the end of the line for the issue. Officials with the Austin Firefighters Association have promised to seek standing to challenge the agreement.


Should they succeed, the union has suggested that it could tie up any further hiring for as long as four years. Union officials worry that the decree could cut them out of negotiations over the city’s firefighter hiring process.


Still, Council Member Bill Spelman suggested that the action was the best possible outcome for the city. “It seems to me that it would be a really, really good idea for management and the union to talk further, but it seems to me that that is completely severable from the question of whether we accept this consent decree or not,” he began.


Addressing the idea of postponing the matter for another week, Spelman said, “And it seems to me that we’re not going to get any more information in the next week on that important issue than we have now – and more important, the acceptance of this consent decree is not going to have any effect whatever on our ability to work with the union on developing the 2014 process and it seems to me that’s the fastest way to get firefighters on the job as quickly as possible.”


At issue are two hiring processes conducted by the city, one in 2012 and the other in 2013. None of the parties at City Hall Thursday disputed the notion that the 2012 process was flawed. However, union officials contend that the 2013 effort was a vast improvement, and landed the city its most diverse potential class of firefighters in at least a decade.


Much of the Council appeared to accept this premise. Still, concerns over the idea that the Department of Justice could quickly file suit against the city should it not accept the decree – a move that would strike all settlement work –won out.


Along the way, Council members ended up in a telling exchange over a suggestion pitched by Riley and Martinez. In an effort to carve out room around a consent decree, Riley wondered if city legal staff could approach federal attorneys and ask whether the suit against the 2012 issues – those universally agreed on – could be severed from the 2013 process. His motion included a week’s delay to process that suggestion.


That prompted a lengthy series of clarifications and questions from Riley’s colleagues. Martinez summed: “It’s extremely frustrating: The motion that was made was simply to go to DOJ and say ‘Look, we don’t have a dispute with your offer on ’12, can we separate that and let the Council vote on 2013, up or down?'” he said.


Martinez noted instances of contradictory information from management and union officials – “it is one story after another, it is one version after another,” Martinez said – and wondered if he could personally step into the discussion. Riley went so far as to suggest a public meeting as a setting for the discussion.


It all proved moot. Martinez suggested that approval of the decree was not an advance. “We will not be moving forward by approving this consent decree, we will be moving very far backward,” he said.


Martinez was president of the Austin Firefighters Association when he was elected to Council eight years ago.

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