City Hall Hustle: Everybody Now – Diversity is Good

What if they threw a race riot and nobody came?

Following several Hispanic business leaders' displeasure with African-American City Manager Marc Ott, what was the takeaway from a hastily called cleanup conference addressing diversity? Why, diversity is good, of course.

Will City Council next reserve the pressroom to sing the praises of kittens, sunshine, and lollipops?

While that may be a little harsh, at least it's direct – which is more than you can say about anything related to the race riot that wasn't, the Hispanic business crowd's clash with Ott. A bumping of big egos first trumpeted by the daily, then driven into the gutter by TV news bozos incapable of framing it in anything other than crass, race-based terms, all the coverage of the conflict – along with the press conference itself – did nothing but obfuscate the issues at hand.

Katherine Gregor spells the story out a few pages over (see "City Hall Firestorm"), but to summarize: Prominent Hispanics, including former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, former Mayor Gus Garcia, and Austin Independent School District board trustee Sam Guzman, plus several representatives from the U.S. Hispan­ic Con­tractors Association, the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and others, met with Ott to raise their concerns about minority business contracting and the firings of former Communications and Public Information Director Gene Acuña and Fire Chief J.J. Adame, among other things. Yet according to a letter widely disseminated at City Hall, they came away "bewildered, disappointed and quite frankly feeling disrespected." This might be because Ott (who hasn't commented on the substance of the meeting) may have felt backdoored by the group, who had previously met with individual council members to raise their concerns. Regardless, as Garcia recollects, Ott supposedly felt "disrespected" and "indicted" by the group, especially considering he'd only been in office half a year. The meeting was headline news in the Saturday, Aug. 23, edition of the Statesman ("Hispanic leaders feel slighted by city manager"), leading to the quickly convened "diversity" presser Monday, where the mayor and most of the council literally stood behind Ott. "An issue has arisen where it appears some folks would like to see our community divided," said Mike Martinez. He didn't mention exactly who those guilty parties were. But if we're going off sheer numbers – the massive amount of cameras, microphones, and notepads present at the event – the media might be the "folks" in question.

Caught in the crossfire is the Statesman reporter who wrote the story airing the grievances with Ott, Sarah Coppola, whose byline has blurred a Rorschach blot onto which the angry project their grievances, real and imagined, with the daily. But the decision of a story's placement and title is almost always made several pay grades above the author's. In that respect, any accusations should be lobbied against the Statesman brass, who, with Coppola's above-the-fold original, a post-presser follow-up, semi-rational Alberta Phillips essay, and Monday op-ed, have made a cottage industry of the kerfuffle. But even then, the most you could accuse them of is sensationalism, not a kneecapping of Ott, or reckless encouragement of racial animosity. No, for the latter, you'll have to turn to the television media, who, incapable of delivering any nuance in their breathless three-minute reports (such as the fact that most of the Hispanic community leaders were actually Hispanic business community leaders, who came to talk to Ott specifically regarding procurement of minority business, an issue some of them would have no small financial stake in) instead decided to spin the black vs. brown element as harshly and simplistically as possible.

Gus Garcia, on hand at the presser, didn't help matters either. A man whose verbal gaffes make Joe Biden look like a zipper-lipped picture of restraint (who else has called anyone – in this case, SOS member Kirk Mitchell – a pendejo on record?), Garcia, instead of getting with the unity gab, goofed this wasn't "the first time this type of issue's come up," as if black-and-brown beefing was some mild seasonal annoyance, on par with cedar fever. At least he didn't shy from addressing some of the underlying causes that spurred his group's displeasure with Ott, specifically minority business contracting and the diversity of his assistant city manager appointments (itself a nonstarter when Ott has two Hispanics in the six-person group): "Department heads are very powerful," said Garcia. "We want to make sure there's a communication at that level" with "contractors, professionals, and businessmen, the people that deal with the department heads." While there's a strong case that the city's minority business procurement is nowhere close to what it should be, that problem also precedes Ott's six months on the job.

As Garcia surmised, "People feel sometimes they're not getting the attention they deserve." Unfortunately, when the media fails to tell us what type of "attention" is sought and to what end, choosing instead to sensationalize, we get a garish spectacle like a "diversity" press conference – which none of us deserves.

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City Council, Marc Ott, Gus Garcia, Austin American-Statesman

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