Thursday, May 14, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

City learns how to deal with angry women, men

An ill-advised city training session designed to teach staff how to deal with female City Council members has most of Austin talking, angry and wondering how it happened in the first place. That includes Council members.

During the session, which took place in March, Jonathan K. Allen alleged that women ask a lot of questions and don’t like numbers, with his talk relying heavily on essentialist gender traits. At the time, Allen was the city manager of Lauderdale Lakes, Florida. Last month, Lauderdale Lakes’ all-female City Commission fired him.

Sticking with the theme, Dr. Miya Burt-Stewart followed his discussion with her own take on the differences between men and women.

Though the session occurred earlier in the year, Austin American-Statesman reporter Lily Rockwell broke the story Tuesday night. Citywide outrage quickly followed. By Wednesday afternoon, the story was national news. Austin’s seven female Council members held a news conference that afternoon, with Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Greg Casar and Pio Renteria standing in support.

After the speeches concluded, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said it was important that the training session was not dismissed, nor written off as a situation in which the city selected the wrong speakers.

“We really need to look at how it was that City of Austin upper management felt like this was an appropriate presentation and … what that tells us about the culture — not just at City Hall, but across the organization,” said Tovo.

On Wednesday, City Manager Marc Ott also released a statement and took responsibility for the fact that the training was not properly vetted. At the news conference, he confirmed that Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes had arranged the session. However, Ott noted, neither he nor Snipes witnessed the talk. Though Snipes introduced the session and speakers, Ott said he then left for an executive team meeting.

When asked whether he should hold Snipes accountable, Ott said, “I can tell you that I have had conversations with Mr. Snipes yesterday and today, again. I can tell you that Mr. Snipes, like the rest of us, is disappointed in the speaker. … He was surprised. It was unexpected.”

In his introduction at the training session, Snipes said, “In addition to having district-based representation, for the first time in Austin’s history, we have a majority female Council. How about that for the ladies? Interestingly, I had the opportunity to hear Jonathan do this presentation and thought, ‘That’s interesting. There are similarities.’ … I (told Allen), ‘We really need to get you to Austin.’”

“‘You need to be here,’” Snipes said.

Everyone who spoke at the news conference Wednesday disagreed with that assessment. Instead, the Council members expressed shock and outrage at the choice in speakers and topic.

Council Members Delia Garza, Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, Ellen Troxclair, Sheri Gallo and Tovo all denounced the ideas presented in the training.

“I have to question the culture that allowed such a training session to be considered, along with the fact that no Council office was aware that the session even occurred,” said Pool.

Though the female majority of Council — led by Garza — called the news conference, Adler took to social media earlier in the day to decry the training.

On Facebook, he wrote, “I was shocked to learn of this training last night. Trading in these kinds of stereotypes about women is hurtful and wrong. I am fortunate to serve on this historic first 10-1 Council. I’m looking into this matter, as this kind of misguided ‘training’ does not represent Austin and its inclusive values.”

“There is some cultural thing going on that we’re not aware of,” said Garza. “I’m glad that this can bring attention to that. As a former firefighter, it’s amazing I’m feeling this here, rather than in my previous career.”

 

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

City Manager Marc Ott: Ott was hired by Council members in 2008 and served in that position until his 2016 departure.

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