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Explainer: AFD, AFA, and the consent decree

Monday, February 9, 2015 by Michael Kanin

Each week, the Explainer offers a closer look at stories we have been following. This week, we look at City Council action from last week that restarts negotiations between the Austin Firefighters Association and city management.

It what amounts to its first major non-Council-operations act, City Council members Thursday approved a resolution that instructs Austin city management to return to contract negotiations with the union that represents the majority of Austin’s firefighters. And with Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr addressing Council alongside Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks, it appeared that years of resentment and mistrust between the parties may have begun to heal.

Still, the moment didn’t come without a bit of tension provided by the U.S. Department of Justice. That’s because all parties are under what’s known as a consent decree; an agreement brokered by (some might say thrust upon) the city by the DOJ as part of an effort designed to turn back what Austin Chronicle News Editor Michael King called “a lengthy history of institutional racial discrimination that kept minorities off the force.” King also reminded readers that the issue was a nationwide one.

In short, the deal allows federal oversight of AFD’s hiring process. And as resolution sponsor Council Member Greg Casar made very clear, Council members will continue to act in deference to the Justice Department. Indeed, when the resolution appeared as if it could run afoul of Austin’s consent decree that was agreed to just this past year, Casar reconsidered the apparently offending portion of the resolution. In the end, Casar came up with language that seemed to skirt the issue, and Council’s vote, after some hesitation from Mayor Steve Adler, was unanimous.

Steve Brown urged them all to reconsider their votes. Brown filed the original complaint against AFD with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Brown reminded Council members that just 40 of the roughly 1,100 Austin firefighters are African-American. He also suggested that having the AFA back at the table would signal the notion that those numbers might stay that way.

The AFA might argue differently. At the heart of the debate over the decree — something the association pushed hard against, hard enough that then-Council members Mike Martinez (a former association president) and Chris Riley initially voted against a delay in accepting it — is the process that AFD uses to hire its firefighters. It centered on two specific processes, one from each 2012 and 2013.

The AFA contended that the 2012 process was deeply flawed, and the 2013 process — one it had helped put together — represented a vast improvement. That argument would lead to the notion that the department, management and AFA were on their way to sorting out AFD’s issues, and would not need Department of Justice assistance (read: enforcement) in the matter.

Management continued to stick to the idea that the department was so flawed, DOJ assistance was necessary. With a deadline to accept the decree hanging over the city, it all led to a telling exchange at Council, as reported by the Monitor in May:

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.

After Council’s acceptance of the consent decree, AFA worried that it would be cut out of the bargaining process, thus leaving its members without what the union would consider proper representation. Casar’s resolution puts AFA back at the table. This is, of course, the beginning of a larger process, one that — as Jo Clifton reported — Nicks believes can finally end in a contract in 45 days. Stay tuned.

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