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DOJ, city seek order to resolve hiring dispute over firefighters protest

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 by Michael Kanin

The U.S. Department of Justice and the City of Austin filed a joint motion in U.S. District Court Monday seeking a consent decree to resolve claims that the city has discriminated against African-American and Hispanic firefighter candidates.


In the filing, the city agreed to a settlement that would force it pay up to $780,000 to unsuccessful minority candidates, and reserve 12 positions for African-Americans and 18 for Hispanics in future Austin Fire Department firefighter academies.


However, Bob Nicks, the head of the Austin Firefighters Association, said Monday that that the organization plans to intervene in any consent decree between the DOJ and the city. In a post on the association’s website, Nicks was critical of the pending agreement.


“In this context the term ‘settled’ means very little,” Nicks wrote. “As AFA has stated in previous emails, this is far from over. Today the DOJ filed to have the consent decree terms, which the COA is agreeable too, heard in federal court. This was to be expected and AFA is ready to respond.”


Nicks noted that the union’s legal team was studying the filing. He also said that the International Association of Firefighters – a huge organization with roots in the U.S. and Canada – had approved a grant request for assistance with the AFA legal effort. The organization did not name the amount. However, Nicks wrote, “the IAFF will be providing significant monetary support to help stop this infringement on our collect bargaining rights.”


AFA will hold a vote next week (date corrected) on the intervention and other items, including a potential censure of Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr. “The precise wording of the censure will be made available tomorrow,” Nicks wrote on the site. “The wording contains a listing of historical and current issues AFA has experienced with Chief Kerr.”


The filing came almost a month after the Austin City Council voted 5-2 in favor of the decree. If the court approves the consent decree, the Justice Department will have oversightof the city’s hiring process for the life of the decree, which is likely to be between four and eight years.


The consent decree comes in the wake of what both the city and the union agree was a flawed 2012 hiring process, one that raised concerns about the diversity of that class. However, union officials contend that the city’s 2013 hiring efforts produced a much better result – one that appears to have resulted in the highest diversity figures the department has seen in roughly a decade.


Union representatives argue that the 2013 process – one which they endorsed – illustrates positive movement with regard to the issue, and that a consent decree is unwarranted.


The City Council approved the consent decree last month, though some members appear to acknowledge that the most recent process was an improvement. At the time, Council Member Bill Spelman laid out his case: “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 said. (See Austin Monitor, May 16)


The city has not hired any firefighter candidates since last year due to the Justice Department’s investigation. Officials say a court-ordered consent decree would allow the city to resume hiring cadets.

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