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Report shows flaws in city’s HR complaint process

Monday, August 1, 2016 by Jo Clifton

While she was the director of Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, Betsy Spencer sought to block the impact of a finding that her chief of construction and development had engaged in sexual harassment. In so doing, Spencer directly disobeyed an order from her boss, Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras, lied to him and then acted to cover up her actions, according to an investigative report released by the city on Friday.

Spencer is on administrative leave until Sept. 26, when she will officially retire, according to a July 18 memo from City Manager Marc Ott.

The report clearly demonstrates how a department director can hijack a finding of wrongdoing by an employee and that the city has no efficient means for preventing or monitoring such an action.

As the Austin Monitor reported on Friday, city documents show that employees in NHCD have made numerous complaints involving inappropriate behavior, a hostile work environment, sexual harassment and retaliation over the past five years. Many of those complaints revolve around Steve Ritchie, director of construction and development, and Spencer’s alleged favoritism toward Ritchie.

Attorney Gary Bledsoe, who represents both Ritchie and Spencer, called the Monitor last week to say that Ritchie, who still holds his position in the department, has done nothing wrong.

Before coming to the NHCD, which is responsible for the city’s affordable housing program, Spencer and Ritchie worked together in San Antonio. When Spencer took charge of the department in 2010 as acting director, she brought Ritchie on as a consultant, and then hired him in 2011 after she became director. He is the third-highest paid employee in the department after the director and the assistant director, making $110,000 a year.

But according to documents the Monitor received through a member of the public who made an open records request, Ritchie has been the subject of a long string of complaints dating back to 2011. His alleged actions pushed several employees, including one executive employee, to leave the department.

Not only did Spencer disagree with the findings of an investigation performed during 2015 concerning Ritchie’s alleged sexual harassment of a female employee, she offered a lengthy rebuttal to Lumbreras. In a memo dated Aug. 13, 2015, Spencer offered not only a defense of Ritchie but also a defense of her own actions.

Spencer wrote, “I was hired for the position as Assistant Director in December 2009. I reported directly to Ms. Margaret Shaw, then director. Within a short period of time, it became very obvious that the department had some serious cultural issues, lacked structurally sound practices and skills necessary to fulfill the mission of the organization. There was a very strong presence of paranoia, dysfunction and betrayal.” Some members of the department say that there was a heavy sense of paranoia under Spencer as well.

Shaw was removed from her position in May 2010 and Spencer took over, first as acting director and then on Jan. 1, 2011, as director.

Spencer then detailed various financial problems and the challenge that she faced in completing “long-stalled real estate developments that had remained dormant for more than 10 years.” She wrote, “I have an excellent working relationship with many diverse stakeholders within the community. My integrity and my leadership have been challenged the past year and I find this harassing and offensive.”

Spencer said that she was investigated for displaying a picture made by her daughter depicting a suicide, after members of her staff complained about the image. African-Americans in her department saw the artwork as the depiction of a lynching. Spencer said the meaning of the artwork was misconstrued, but she received a Memo of Concern, a form of reprimand. She said she disagreed with the memo but accepted it.

Addressing the investigation of Ritchie, Spencer criticized the investigator’s report, including its methods and accuracy. She then provided a rebuttal on Ritchie’s behalf and said that she could discern “that some NHCD staff have a bias against Mr. Richie as they are demanding a specific decision. They have, in fact, stepped across the line and are insisting on an action that would constitute discrimination against Mr. Richie. My analysis of all the information leads me to conclude that Mr. Richie was engaged in excessive horseplay, and some of that was unwelcome, but it is clear to me that it was not sexually motivated.”

She then recommended that Ritchie receive “a written reprimand for excessive horseplay,” a term not found in city of Austin regulations. She concluded, “I have a responsibility to act based upon my own independent investigation, not on the demands of the HRD–Employee Relations Division, which would likely expose the city to potential litigation. I will not participate in gender or sexual discrimination against Mr. Ritchie nor any other employee.” It should be noted that Ritchie is white and that most of the complainants are also white.

Tom Stribling, the acting labor relations officer for the city, wrote the report on Spencer, which was released on Friday. He found that she was insubordinate in her failure or refusal to issue a written reprimand to Ritchie after Lumbreras ordered her to do so.

It seems clear from the report that Lumbreras did not anticipate Spencer’s insubordination and expected her to follow through with the reprimand. However, Spencer said that she issued a “verbal written reprimand,” a term not used in city regulations.

The report found that Spencer created a backdated reprimand in May 2016, nine months after Lumbreras told her to issue the reprimand. In addition, the report says that Spencer never delivered the reprimand to Ritchie. Spencer, the report says, was dishonest in backdating the document to make it appear that she had created it in November 2015. She then sent the backdated document to Lumbreras, claiming that it was given to Ritchie last November.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said Sunday that she sponsored a resolution concerning investigations of sexual harassment last spring as a direct result of the now-notorious workshop put on by a friend of former Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes telling city employees how to work with female City Council members. That workshop resulted in an avalanche of criticism and Snipes’ decision to resign.

Tovo said that she intends to keep working to add another avenue for city employees who feel their claims of workplace abuse have not been properly addressed.

Referring back to the hearing on her resolution, Tovo said, “We clearly heard a need within the city of Austin employees to look at the general practices and really make sure that our standards – that the way the investigations are handled, the ability for staff members to appeal – are all strengthened in a way to make sure that we’re upholding that commitment to have a discrimination-free workplace.”

Tovo said she was concerned because city employees who were upset about the sexist statements made during the workshop did not have a place to go to air their grievances, and instead of talking to someone at the city, they went to the media.

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This story has been corrected as it originally identified the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development department as the “Neighborhood Housing and Community Affairs” department.

Photo by That Other Paper made available through a Creative Commons license. The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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