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Council approves creation of civil rights office

Friday, December 3, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

The city has created an office to handle civil rights issues tied to existing ordinances covering fair chance hiring, sexual harassment and protections against discrimination.

City Council voted unanimously Thursday to create the Office of Civil Rights, with Council Member Mackenzie Kelly abstaining from the vote. The office will have broad options to investigate and take action on civil rights violations and cooperate with other authorities involved in civil rights issues. The ordinance spells out the many considerations and steps involved in making complaints, conducting investigations and resolving cases where violations are found.

Council began the push to create the office in 2018, asking the city manager to assess the city’s ordinances tied to civil rights and recommend how best to enforce and educate the public on civil rights issues. City staff, including the Equity Office, recommended the creation of a central office of civil rights that could handle enforcement of existing ordinances and give direction on new ordinances to provide new protections.

Council Member Greg Casar, who helped lead the effort to create the office, praised recent work by state lawmakers, including Sen. Judith Zaffirini, to extend the timeline to file sexual harassment complaints against employers, and to lower the minimum number of employees for a workplace to fall under laws to prevent sexual harassment.

While giving direction to Carol Johnson, who was recently named as civil rights officer for the city, Casar said, “It goes to show that previously our ordinances only protected someone from sexual harassment if you were in a business with 15 employees or more, and if you were in a business with only 14 you didn’t have that protection. This asks the manager, your office and the community to come together and look for where there are gaps.”

“This doesn’t say how the ordinances should be written or at what thresholds things make sense, but this asks for you all to come back with recommendations for how to stamp out racism in all forms in all places,” he continued. “The ability of having a local office has always given us needed authority … us continuing to lead in that way allows other places to follow.”

The ordinance also removes the handling of civil rights complaints from the purview of the city’s Human Rights Commission.

Alicia Roth Weigel, a member of the Human Rights Commission, said she and other commissioners were frustrated during the review and adjudication of the one complaint they were recently asked to handle, in large part because of the lack of time given to review documents and take proper procedural steps.

“This is taking some power out of our hands, redirecting it to the civil rights office, which I feel is really important because we do really great work, but ultimately we’re a group of volunteers,” Weigel said. “While our boards and commissions are vitally important to our city, it is important to affirm that we are there to advise you all. We have been appointed, not elected, and focusing our role on that rather than asking us to adjudicate beyond our capabilities as a group of volunteers is important.”

Fabiola Barreto, Austin policy coordinator for the Workers Defense Project, said the new office will be a benefit to laborers seeking protection from workplace discrimination.

“This is a huge victory for working-class people in Austin. We look forward to seeing the Office for Civil Rights take steps toward making sure that Austinites can work without fear of discrimination, especially those that continue to build our city.”

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. This article has been changed since publication to reflect the fact that Kelly abstained from the vote. 

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