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Harassment policy heads to Council without a commission willing to hear cases

Wednesday, November 28, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

After the Ethics Review Commission declined to weigh in on the city’s newly proposed anti-discrimination and harassment policy, it volleyed the task to the Human Rights Commission, which similarly declined to take on the job.

This hot potato of an issue came to the court of commissions from the city clerk’s office earlier this fall after City Council realized that those city staff policies that include no bullying, harassment or discrimination did not apply to Council-appointed commission members.

However, while the commissions agreed with the sentiment behind the proposed amendment to city code, the members of the Human Rights Commission felt it was not under the body’s purview to hear the complaint cases triggered by violations of the proposed code.

“I see this getting very hairy if we were getting involved in this way,” said Chair Sareta Davis at the Nov. 26 meeting of the commission. Similarly, she noted that “I think (the Ethics Review Commission) is where this belongs in terms of enforcement of any kind.”

She told the Austin Monitor that, hypothetically, if one of her fellow board members were to violate the statute and then had to present their case to the same commission on which they served, it would be a “flat-out” conflict of interest. She explained that it would require parsing hairs to determine who stepped off the dais or recused themselves in the event of this taking place.

Currently, when an issue of this nature arises, the cases are individually handled by Council, explained Heather Lockhart, who is an assistant city attorney in the city’s Law Department. She noted that there have only been a “handful” of such complaints across all the city boards and commissions. “It hasn’t been an isolated issue for a board or commission,” she said.

According to Lockhart, the individuals who violated the city’s policies on harassment and discrimination were asked to resign.

Commissioner Isabel Casas wondered what benefits codifying a specific board and commission-based anti-harassment/anti-discrimination policy would offer. Lockhart explained that officially entering the language into the code would expressly prohibit the behavior, leaving little room for interpretation. “Most of this language came from our (staff) personnel policies,” she said.

As it stands, with no specific language preventing the behavior, there is a risk of silent acquiescence or not having an enforceable statute when a commissioner’s conduct comes into question.

The Council will vote on whether to include this language in the code at its Dec. 13 meeting. Davis told the Monitor that between then and now, there is still time to refine the language and it will be up to Council to decide whether or not it wants an individual commission to hear violation cases or if the Council members will continue with the current approach and hear the cases themselves on the rare chance that they occur.

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