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Council OKs restart of firefighter negotiations

Friday, February 6, 2015 by Jo Clifton

As its first major action, the Austin City Council on Thursday approved a resolution directing city management to go back to the bargaining table with the Austin Firefighters Association. But it did not, as initially proposed, direct staff to stop the RFP process for finding a vendor to design a procedure for recruiting a racially diverse group of new firefighters.

Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr and Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, surprised most observers by announcing that they had reached a compromise on the collective bargaining question but did not intend to halt the RFP process. It was that compromise that allowed Council to approve the resolution unanimously.

Last November, the city agreed to settle a lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged discrimination against African-Americans and Hispanics in hiring. In the consent decree, 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 firefighter academies. The RFP is part of the city’s attempt to live up to that agreement.

On Tuesday, Delora Kennebrew, chief of the Justice Department’s employment litigation section, wrote a letter to the city to inform it that suspending the RFP process would violate the consent decree.

Kennebrew wrote, “In the event that the City Council implements the resolution, this letter constitutes the notice … of the United States’ intention to submit the disputed issue to the court for resolution.”

It seems likely that Council has avoided further litigation — at least for the moment — related to the settlement agreement.

Council Member Greg Casar, the main sponsor of the resolution, reiterated his commitment to diversity in the fire department as well as to the rights of union members. His original co-sponsors included Council Members Ora Houston, Pio Renteria and Delia Garza. Council Members Ann Kitchen and Don Zimmerman were added this week, making passage of the resolution seem almost inevitable.

However, the objections of the Justice Department were the kind of stumbling block that could have torn the coalition apart.

After the vote, Mayor Steve Adler, who had not been an enthusiastic supporter of the resolution, told the Monitor he voted for the resolution “because my biggest reservation was about pulling the RFP, with the disruption that we were told it would have to the process. When I saw that the chief was in agreement with Mr. Nicks and their association, I was inclined to trust their judgment.

“My last reservation related to the firefighter candidates that had brought the (lawsuit) action,” Adler continued. “But by reaffirming the consent decree, and what we were being told was necessary to uphold the consent decree, I think that we addressed that concern.”

Not everyone was convinced. Steve Brown, who filed the original complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the fire department in 2012, addressed Council, asking it not to approve the resolution.

Brown said he is a student at Huston-Tillotson University and has been a certified anesthesia technician in heart surgery for the last eight years. “I work every day, and so I know that I can do the job of the firefighter. I work under pressure … and under the current practices, they keep guys like me out that can do the job and know they can do the job. And I fear (that) moving forward with the union’s involvement in this process, they will continue to keep guys out that can do this job and do it accurately.”

Brown said it is the union’s fault that there are only about 40 African-American firefighters out of 1,100 in the Austin Fire Department.
Kerr said the department is hoping to get Council action to approve that vendor in mid-May. That means that negotiations must be done quickly.

Nicks said he believes the firefighters and the city’s negotiators can reach agreement on a new contract, including hiring provisions, within 45 days. He said he was willing to make a commitment that negotiations would be completed within 60 days, starting Feb. 23.

Under the resolution, if city management and the firefighters cannot reach an agreement during the bargaining process, the city manager is directed to include the union “in the formation of any agreement for professional consulting services with the hiring process at the Austin Fire Department.”

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