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City moving forward with centralized office for enforcing civil rights laws

Thursday, January 30, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The city appears to be moving ahead with a proposal to create a central office for the enforcement of civil rights ordinances, which are currently handled across an assortment of city departments with no formal framework for how to best take and adjudicate complaints.

At last week’s work session, project manager Candice Cooper briefed Council members on the work done since the summer of 2018. That’s when Council passed a resolution directing the city manager to look at how the city could better enforce civil rights laws and improve citizen education about such protections.

Currently, all matters pertaining to civil rights laws are handled by the departments of fair housing, equal employment, immigration and veterans affairs. Cooper said a study of 60 major cities performed by the Government Alliance for Race and Equity found that the best results in civil rights enforcement came from cities that had an office dedicated to overseeing all civil rights matters.

“You may ask what benefit we have as a city to centralize these enforcement efforts, in addition to (asking) what kinds of outcomes do we anticipate for our Austin residents,” Cooper said. “This centralized entity would create synergy. It would enhance public engagement opportunities. It would shift to a more proactive approach for civil rights enforcement and in addition it would align our existing resources we have with these measures.”

The team overseen by Deputy City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde is planning to begin a public engagement process next month focused on four specific groups: decision-makers including Council and top city staff; project teams made up of staff and community members involved in civil rights; influencers such as members of city boards and commissions and related advocacy groups; and residents who have experience with civil rights projects and issues.

Cooper said that data will be compiled in March with a planned presentation to City Council in April that would include staff recommendations on how to structure the office most effectively.

Council Member Greg Casar praised Cooper and other staff and urged them to work with Council or top city management to continue moving forward “at this good clip.”

“As we see more and more retreats at the federal level from educating and enforcing protections for working people and on civil rights and important issues we find more and more places where the city has to step in to fill the gaps,” Casar said. “But here is a place where I think we’ve actually been doing that, but sometimes potentially in too many places, and finding a way to centralize that and put a lot of focus on it makes good sense to me.”

Council members Pio Renteria and Kathie Tovo said they hope one of the priorities of the new office will be helping the city implement its right-to-return policy, which has come under legal fire because of concerns it would violate fair housing laws.

“It looked to me that our staff have crafted a very solid program that is going to allow for the right to return without violating fair housing policies, and so I think it would be welcome for those working on this to continue to monitor that,” Tovo said. “I feel really good about … both launching that longtime community priority but also that we’re doing it with solid recognition that we can do it without running afoul of fair housing. This is another longtime community priority and I’m excited about the direction you’ve crafted here.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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