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Kitchen steps into planning personnel issues

Tuesday, May 31, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Last fall, City Council Member Ann Kitchen asked Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey to remove the staff member who had been overseeing the formation of one of the South Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan’s contact teams because she did not like what that staff member had said to a community newspaper about the status of the contact teams, among other things.

Kitchen contends that her actions were appropriate, but others believe such intrusion into personnel matters is a violation of the City Charter.

In an email sent to Guernsey on Aug. 31, Kitchen wrote, “I wanted to bring this article to your attention which came out on Friday. I am concerned that once again, (the employee) is showing a lack of understanding of the sensitivity of the community relations with the contact teams for the SACNP, most especially Westgate area.

“From our last conversation, my understanding was that you had let her know she was to take no further action until you, Ken (Kitchen’s aide, Ken Craig) and I met with Leann Land to resolve the language for the Western Trails contact team. … I have no doubt that (the employee) does not intend to be disrespectful of the neighbors.

“But at this point I have to respectfully ask that she be taken off all contact with the SACNP contact teams. This is not the first time, as we have discussed previously, that she has upset the neighbors by her lack of sensitivity and at this point I can see no other solution,” Kitchen wrote.

The District 5 Council member added, “I don’t make this request lightly. I would not normally and am very reluctant to weigh in on personnel matters. But at this point, the policy goal of moving forward with a successful SACNP has been compromised, hopefully not beyond repair.”

Guernsey responded early the next morning, Sept. 1. He wrote, “I briefly read the article and agree the quote isn’t helpful. I did ask my staff to stand down on the Westgate NP Contact Team issue until our meeting in a few weeks. I’ll speak with her and her manager today and get back with you.”

That employee, Neighborhood Plan Contact Team and Education Coordinator Margaret Valenti, was not allowed to speak to reporters about the situation.

Subsequent to the email exchange, Guernsey directed Valenti not to be involved with the Westgate team and took over those duties himself. But when reporters asked him about it in May, Guernsey denied having removed the employee from her job.

“I said I would step in and talk to these groups because they really want to do something different. And also (the employee’s) supervisor, Stevie Greathouse, I worked with her,” he said.

Kitchen told the Austin Monitor that she brought an article to Guernsey’s attention that illustrated complaints she had heard about Valenti from her constituents. In that article, Valenti is quoted as saying the Westgate neighborhood is “very far behind in the process” and had yet to draft a proposed set of bylaws. That assessment, said Kitchen, was inaccurate.

“I just asked that she be taken off contact with this particular contact team. … That’s not the same as asking for her job to be changed or for her to be taken off of the project or anything like that. It’s very limited and it’s because of this particular sensitivity. I mean this was a very, very difficult situation.

“I did not ask (Guernsey) to take over her job. I simply asked him to take her off of being the interface with the neighbors for that particular contact team. … You can see from the email that’s a very limited request. And it does not go to her employment at all,” she said.

“I can’t order him, and I would never attempt to order him,” Kitchen continued. “This was just a request. … I have absolutely no authority to say to him, ‘You’ve got to fire this person, you’ve got to change this person’s position in this organization.’ All of that would be outside (my) boundaries and authority, and I would never make that kind of request.”

In response to a direct question about having removed the employee from oversight of the contact team, Guernsey said, “I didn’t have her involved directly with this neighborhood planning area, but she’s still on neighborhood contact teams. She still assists with training contact teams with areas, but not because of Council Member Kitchen, so much, but because of the two neighbor organizations that are out there that make up this neighborhood planning area. I said I’ll intervene and talk with them.”

When questioned whether other Council members had ever asked him to remove an employee from his or her position or duties, Guernsey said, “Not that I can recall.”

The Monitor received copies of the emails from a source outside the city, and both Kitchen and Guernsey verified their authenticity. However, when reporters requested those same emails from the city, they were missing from the response.

A second request did not produce the emails between Guernsey and Kitchen, either. Guernsey said he had no idea what happened to them. His boss, Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards, acknowledged receiving copies of the emails but told the Monitor that she did not know why the emails did not surface when they were requested.

Kitchen was surprised the emails were absent from the response. She confirmed they had not been deleted on her end and should have been included.

Edwards also said she had nothing to do with Guernsey’s decision to remove Valenti from contact team oversight. She said she did not know about Guernsey’s action until after it had happened. Edwards added that after she found out about the matter, she “tried to tell Kitchen politely” that she shouldn’t direct staff. At the time, Edwards said, the Council members were still new to their jobs.

Kitchen told the Monitor that she remembered speaking with Edwards about the problems between the neighborhood and Valenti prior to sending the email, but denied that she had been told the request was inappropriate.

“Absolutely not. No,” said Kitchen. “In fact, I didn’t talk to her about the request, but you can see she’s (copied on the email). In fact, the only reply I got to this was from Mr. Guernsey. I never talked to her about it.

“I never talked to anybody about this being inappropriate. Anybody at all,” said Kitchen.

A former city employee with knowledge of the situation who wishes to remain anonymous said Kitchen’s intervention in personnel issues raises questions about whether she abused her power and violated the City Charter when she asked to have Valenti removed. In addition, the former employee speculated about whether Guernsey was complicit in the alleged violation when he reassigned Valenti’s responsibilities.

Section 9 of the City Charter says, “Neither the Council nor any of its members shall instruct or request the city manager or any of his or her subordinates to appoint to or remove from office or employment any person except with respect to those offices which are to be held by appointment by the Council under the provisions of this Charter.

“Except for the purpose of the inquiry and investigation, the Council and its members shall deal with the administrative service of the city solely through the city manager and shall not give orders to any of the manager’s subordinates either publicly or privately.”

Kitchen maintains that her actions were appropriate.

“No, there’s no violation there at all,” she said. “What I was doing was representing my district and working with Mr. Guernsey to represent my district.”

Former Mayor Lee Leffingwell said, “That’s a personnel matter that would be prohibited by the charter” and added that “it did come up occasionally” when he was on Council.

“It doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them, of course, but it does mean that you can’t tell them what to do.”

Leffingwell agreed that the charter offers no penalty for violation of this section. He said, “It’s not a crime. That’s for sure. But, a violation of the charter would be something that’s inappropriate and possibly unethical.”

Professor Emeritus at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs Terrell Blodgett said he thought the charter prohibition on Council involvement in personnel matters was “pretty clear.” He agreed that the charter did not offer any direct remedy for such violations and does not specify any particular person or office responsible for calling the violation to the Council member’s attention.

City Auditor Corrie Stokes confirmed that her office had received a complaint about the matter but declined to say anything more. The Office of the City Auditor does not investigate complaints against Council members.

City Manager Marc Ott declined to comment on the situation.

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