City Hall Hustle: Fiery Colors

Reorganizing the AFD is about money ... and justice

Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr
Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr (Photo by John Anderson)

The Hustle was looking for a respite from the campaign trail, and what did he find? Political drama far more steely than anything on the stump. That would be Item 13 before City Council last week.

Taken up shortly before noon – normally a little early for fireworks – the proposal would reorganize the upper ranks of the Fire Department. At the behest of new Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, it would name three new assistant chiefs, bringing the number to five. As the assistant chiefs have recently numbered, more often than not, only four, Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald noted: "We wish the timing had been better, due to the budget struggles ... but you know there's another struggle that is taking place here as well. And that's working toward making the Fire Department more progressive." (The other word of the day was "diversity.")

For Kerr's supporters, "progressive" carried the day, used throughout by all manner of speakers, especially African-American community leaders the Rev. Sterling Lands and Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder. Item 13 would maintain the meager diversity in the upper echelons of the department, long maligned as melanin-deficient. (The lower ranks are even less diverse, a central issue in last fall's suspended union contract talks.) With two of the four assistant chiefs either recently retired or about to retire – Flo Soliz and Greg Keyes, both minorities – Kerr's recommendations would elevate two department lieutenants – Richard Davis (African-American) and Matt Orta (Hispanic) – to take their places, while boosting Battalion Chief Harry Evans (white) into the fifth assistant chief spot.

Calling the department "an embarrassment," Linder said bluntly: "It is very important, based on my conversations, my experiences in the city, that you begin to change this culture that keeps Austin as white as possible. That is unacceptable." Lands noted that Kerr, who was "brought in to make changes that are going to benefit this community, should be given the opportunity to make the change." Moreover, he said, "I represent hundreds of people, and if necessary, we can bring all of them down here – I just didn't think that we'd want to do that today."

Lands was talking up his public support as earlier speakers (from the department itself) had testified in opposition. Palmer Buck, a self-described 15-year veteran of the department, said it was irresponsible for the council to approve "two unneeded executive-level positions" while facing a tight budget. Firefighter Matthew Cox criticized "a lack of process" in Kerr's selection; citing dozens of division chiefs and battalion chiefs in the officer pool from which assistant chief candidates have conventionally been promoted, he said the recommendations skirted the tradition of rising through the ranks.

Council had plenty of its own questions, but they largely concerned the budgetary ramifications. Although two promotions were described as revenue-neutral, bumping Evans to assistant chief was described as having a $10,000 budgetary impact. Asking council to support her recommendations, Kerr said, "I think it's really important now, more than ever, to have key people in place," and, "The benefit will far outweigh the small cost." (Kerr tag-teamed with McDonald in responding to members' questions.)

Sheryl Cole moved approval, until Mike Martinez offered a substitute motion for a delay. "It's obviously very difficult to be put in a position where you're being told you're not embracing diversity if you don't vote for this item," he said. "And that's simply not true." Adding, "I don't question Chief Kerr's selection – that's a personnel decision that she makes," Martinez went on to cite "process issues" that hindered council's ability to act immediately.

Those issues included a broad, almost scattershot collection of concerns: state legislation that might affect departmental regs, grumbles from local Hispanic and African-American firefighters' associations and the Austin Firefighters Associa­tion (which Martinez led before joining council), plus the obvious financial concerns – the council as a whole is painfully aware that it must either raise taxes or cut $43 million from next year's projected budget.

Citing one of the existing assistant chief vacancies, Mar­tin­ez said: "Diversity can happen right now. ... It could take place and have absolutely zero budget impact. And I'm not sure why that's not considered at this point." Martinez moved to postpone Item 13, saying it "doesn't mean we can't come back in two weeks, after we find out what the recommendations for budget-saving measures will be." (City departments are expected to submit proposed cuts to the city manager May 22.) After originally proposing to revisit the issue June 18, council voted instead to bring it back on June 11.

In very tight times, all city financial decisions will be increasingly tough. Add to that pressure the festering concerns about race and politics – and the money suddenly seems the least of it.

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Rhoda Mae Kerr, Michael McDonald, Nelson Linder, Mike Martinez, Sheryl Cole, Austin Fire Department

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