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Austin firefighters to again seek input on hiring

Thursday, January 22, 2015 by Jo Clifton

The Austin Firefighters Association will have an opportunity at this morning’s City Council meeting to voice concerns to the new Council about its lack of input on a new process for hiring fire cadets. The firefighters’  hope is that this Council will be more receptive than the previous one to their complaints about U.S. Justice Department requirements that eliminate most of their input into the hiring process.

However, before it hears from the firefighters, Council will meet in executive session to hear from the city’s attorneys on the matter. Mayor Steve Adler said he asked for the executive session in case there was something the attorneys needed to tell Council outside a public setting.

On Nov. 7, the city settled a lawsuit with the U.S. Justice Department over alleged discrimination against African-Americans and Hispanics in firefighter hiring. In the filing, the city agreed to 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.

Adler told the Monitor that he wants to hear from the firefighters as well as representatives of other employee labor groups such as AFSCME and police and EMS unions.

District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman is hoping to derail the city’s plan to hire an outside firm to design a process for selection of new fire cadets. City staff, operating under the Nov. 7 consent decree, issued a request for proposals in late December. The cutoff date for submitting such proposals is Jan. 28, one day before the new Council’s first official meeting.

Zimmerman finds that suspicious. In fact, he finds many of the city’s actions suspicious, including an error in the amount of time given to cadet applicants to take their written examinations in 2012. According to the decree, the test had been “validated as a two-and-one-half-hour examination, but the city inadvertently erred in its administration of the test by reducing the time limit to two hours.”

Zimmerman said that he believes the city’s failure to allot the correct amount of time was not an error, but part of a plan to eliminate firefighter input in the hiring process. Referring to the shortened period for the test, Zimmerman said he “smelled a rat.”

“I can’t accept that as a mistake,” he said. The error allowed the city to cooperate with the Justice Department, which resulted in the firefighters losing input into the hiring process.

However, according to the decree, the test resulted in discriminatory impact on African-American and Hispanic firefighter candidates in a national study where there were no time errors. Despite the fact that the test was found to be discriminatory, Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks asserted that it was the city’s time error that invalidated the test.

In the decree, the city has agreed to develop and submit a new recruitment plan to the Justice Department within 60 days. Firefighters attempted to intervene in the lawsuit, but the request was denied.

The Austin Firefighters Association worked hard to elect former Council Member Mike Martinez as mayor, and also endorsed a majority of the members on the new Council.

(This story was updated to add a comment from Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks.)

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