Former City Forester Charges Harassment, Sex Bias at PARD

Susan Murray alleges her career as Austin's urban forester fell apart after she complained about her boss' conduct.

"Mmm, mmm, you surely win the wet T-shirt contest. I like it! You should go out in the rain more often."

That is one of several remarks allegedly made in late 2000 and early 2001 to Susan Murray, the city's former urban forester and forestry program manager, by her immediate supervisor Channy Soeur, the Forestry Division manager for the Parks and Recreation Dept. In December, Murray filed suit in federal court against Soeur and the city of Austin alleging sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and retaliation. Soeur filed his response to the complaint earlier this month; the city's response was filed this week.

In addition to Soeur, who left the city's payroll in March 2001, Murray has identified eight current or former male employees as playing a part in the activities described in her complaint -- including former City Manager Jesus Garza, former city HR Director Juan Garza (now general manager of Austin Energy), PARD Director Jesus Olivares, and PARD Operations Manager Warren Struss. As part of PARD, the Forestry Division maintains trees in city parks and rights-of-way.

In her complaint, Murray says that in her first few months as program manager, Soeur was "professionally helpful," and said she would soon get a promotion. But soon after, Murray alleges, Soeur began asking Murray out on dates and to have sex with him, "which she declined," and touched her after she asked him to stop. Once, she claims, Soeur asked her to "dress up for him and kissed her hand without her permission and against her will." She also describes a December 2000 lunch (Murray "felt she had no choice" but to go) during which the two ended up at a San Marcos mall, where Soeur allegedly grabbed her buttocks. By February 2001, Murray asserts, coworkers began to notice Soeur's behavior and were "offended" by it.

Murray began complaining to PARD staff about the discrimination, she says, but no action was taken. (Other than its official response, the city has declined comment on Murray's suit.) In March 2001, she complained to the city's HR department, and an investigation apparently resulted. Not long afterward, Soeur "resigned," Murray's brief states.

In his response to Murray's complaint, Soeur denies that he "resigned" as a result of the city's investigation -- of which he claims ignorance -- and categorically rejects Murray's claims of discrimination and harassment. For example, he says that he was present while Murray and another woman were "discussing their breast sizes and breast implants," and commented that they "could participate in a wet T-shirt contest," but he denies making the harassing statement that Murray alleges. He does admit telling Murray that she "would fall flat on her face" regarding her work as program manager, which obviously shows the relationship between them was strained.

Murray believes that her resistance to Soeur's solicitations, and her initial complaints within PARD and to city HR, ultimately resulted in a series of "demotions" that led her to quit working for the city. Not long after complaining about Soeur to staff, she was reassigned to PARD's Operations Division and told by PARD staff that she would not be promoted to Forestry Division manager after all. She lost the right to hire employees, she claims, as well as her right to take action on the Forestry budget. In September 2001, the city reassigned her again -- to the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve program (then located within PARD), where she retained her title as urban forester but lost her status as a city program manager. Her new supervisor, Donald Koehler -- also named in the suit -- told Murray that the BCP "did not need an urban forester, but instead needed a biologist." At her new post, she "performed physical labor, routinely traveled outside of city limits to distant, rural areas to feed feral hogs, empty wildlife traps of live and dead animals, [mended] fences and [patrolled] for illegal and dangerous situations." After several months on that job, Murray was told by PARD staff she would no longer fulfill duties normally assigned to the city's official urban forester. In August 2002, the city sent her to Water and Wastewater Utility (which had inherited responsibility for the BCP), where her supervisor, Willie Conrad, allegedly expressed that his department also "did not need an urban forester." According to one City Hall insider, "PARD seemed to send [Murray] into exile."

After stripping Murray of her duties as urban forester, the city twice last year advertised that position as vacant; Murray says she applied both times but wasn't chosen. Meanwhile, she claims, health problems possibly caused by job stress required her to go on short-term disability. When she attempted to return to work in November 2002 as the city's urban forester, she says, the city "failed and refused" to tell her what sort of work she'd be doing, and for which department and supervisor. Fearing she'd have to return to tasks like fixing fences and feeding pigs, she quit working for the city.

In its response to the suit, the city acknowledges that Soeur was placed on administrative leave after HR investigated Murray's complaints and then later "resigned" from the post. However, the city says Murray's job duties, responsibilities, and salary didn't change until after Soeur left his post; that her reassignment to the BCP was not a demotion; and that her transfer to the utility was the result of a "programmatic policy decision" affecting not only Murray but five of her co-workers. At WWW, the brief alleges, Murray "refused to perform" the work assigned to her by Conrad, who denies ever saying that Murray's urban-forestry skills weren't needed. Ultimately, the brief concludes, Murray "[n]ever held a management position with the City of Austin," and never was the "sole" urban forester. The position for which she applied went unfilled, though the city did appoint an "acting Urban Forester" last April.

Susan Cone Kilgore, a Houston attorney, is representing Murray; U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks will hear the case, and Murray has requested a jury trial.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Susan Murray, Channy Souer, sexual harassment, sex discrimination, reprisal, retaliation, urban forester, forestry program manager, forestry division, PARD, Parks and Recreation Department, Jesus Garza, Juan Garza, Jesus Olivares, Warren Struss, wet T-shirt, Balcones Can

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