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Council puts off controversial appointment

Monday, April 6, 2015 by Jo Clifton

City Council postponed the appointment of a controversial cemetery advocate to two parks committees Thursday, with only Council Member Don Zimmerman, who sponsored Sharon Blythe’s appointment, in opposition.

In the past, Council nominations for city boards and commissions have caused little stir. However, Zimmerman’s nomination of cemetery activist Blythe to the Parks Board as well as the Parkland Events Task Force caused a wave of consternation at the Parks and Recreation Department and beyond.

In making the motion to postpone Blythe’s appointment, Mayor Steve Adler said nothing negative about Blythe. He said that Blythe has been a consistent and passionate advocate, and has not been disrespectful in meetings with him. He also noted that there had been a recommendation that Austin create a cemetery advisory committee.

Adler concluded by saying he wanted to “keep alive but postpone” Blythe’s appointment while approving the others. However, it seems highly unlikely that the city will appoint Blythe to any city commission involving the Parks and Recreation Department, and cemeteries fall under that department’s purview.

Adler and other Council members had received at least 19 emails — most of them from supporters — about Blythe. Negative emails about commission nominees are extremely rare.

Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensley declined to comment on the nomination. However, her department responded to a request for public information by providing a letter that Hensley wrote to Blythe on Sept. 18, 2013.

That letter states, “Parks and Recreation Department management was apprised of an incident that took place Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, at 7 a.m., in which you confronted a newly hired Cemetery Groundskeeper after being accidentally sprayed by a sprinkler head. You directed profane and abusive language at him, inclusive of a derogatory racial slur.

“This is one of many reports in 10 weeks, originating from 12 different city staff members, 2 contractors and 2 citizens, in which you reportedly acted in a hostile and/or abusive manner toward others. Most recently, a police presence is now required at public engagement sessions that you attend at the request of citizens and staff out of concern for their own safety.”

Hensley concluded by advising that staff had been directed to refer all interactions with Blythe to the cemetery manager or the division manager. Additionally, they informed Blythe that staff would reserve the right to call police if they felt threatened, and her visits to Austin Memorial Park would be limited to public areas.

Blythe denied the allegations in a conversation with the Austin Monitor and via email. She wrote, “These allegations are completely false and untrue. Please see the letter from my attorney attached which was my response dated Nov. 19, 2013 to Sara Hensley’s letter denying these allegations.”

Attorney Colin Newberry wrote to Hensley, “My client staunchly objects to the characterization of her behavior in your letter as ‘hostile, aggressive and counterproductive.’ As you are aware, a citizen has the right to voice her concerns about city actions at public meetings. My client believes that her right to free speech has been infringed upon by your department on multiple occasions, and denies ever using any racial slurs.”

Newberry said he was concerned about cemetery staff restricting Blythe’s access to her husband’s grave. “I worry that the cemetery personnel is being given free reign (sic) to wield the threat of police enforcement to obstruct (Blythe’s) right to visit the cemetery.”

Dale Flatt, founder of Save Austin’s Cemeteries, signed up to speak in opposition to Blythe’s appointment Thursday, but he left City Hall thinking that the matter would not be heard. He said that Blythe had used abusive language at previous cemetery meetings.

Emails to the mayor and Council from Beth Pickett and Kata Carbone also urged Council not to appoint Blythe. Pickett wrote, “Although I believe Sharon’s intentions are heartfelt and sincere, she has been disruptive and defiant at numerous cemetery-related meetings, refusing to yield to city staff and clearly demonstrating an unwillingness to collaborate.”

Zoila Vega and Jeanne and Norman Kittredge sent emails on her behalf. In his email, Norman Kittredge said, “Sharon has been a longtime advocate for our city cemeteries and has worked tirelessly to ensure their sanctity. … Sharon is not influenced by any political group or corporate entities and has always worked for the good of the citizens of Austin.”

Vega noted, “There has been some friction between Sharon and the PARD Cemetery Manager. … I disagree with Sara’s claims in that letter as I have observed the opposite.”


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