Executive Oversight: Who's Watching Over City Chiefs?
Public Safety Commission continues probe into harassing behavior
At the March Public Safety Commission meeting, commissioners heard from the chiefs of staff of the city's three public safety departments about their respective administrative policies for addressing harassment of employees by members of the executive staff. The meeting took place three days after we reported that Austin-Travis County EMS Assistant Chief James Hawley retired amid an investigation by the Austin Police Department's Internal Affairs unit into accusations that he had physically and verbally harassed two female medics ("Something Rotten at EMS," March 9). Commissioners learned each department has policies, but that much of the discretion for those cases resides with the department chief those executive staffers serve under.
Moreover, the question of whether executive staff like Hawley should be able to retire in lieu of an investigation remained unanswered; that's an issue for Human Resources, and at the time HR was still updating city policy. And so after the meeting, PSC Chair Rebecca Webber and Commissioner Noel Landuyt requested a follow-up from the three chiefs of staff and HR Director Joya Hayes.
Commissioners heard a presentation Monday, but not one that addressed their specific request. HR Assistant Director Monika Arvelo's presentation came largely from the city's still-being-updated personnel policy, and wouldn't have been out of place at an orientation for new employees. Webber interjected to clarify why Arvelo had been summoned – to speak specifically to the protocols for dealing with accusations against executive team members. Arvelo said she may have misunderstood the request.
Webber reminded that commissioners wanted to know "how allegations of harassing behavior against a chief or assistant chief would be handled" and that "what we heard last time was that each department handles it differently; that they define prohibited behavior differently; and that ... there really was no set process that, for instance, sworn personnel on the street" could consult. Though she didn't cite Hawley by name, she did note that his case never made it to HR. Arvelo admitted she wasn't aware of the incident, but stressed the complicated nature of personnel policies for sworn employees, who "are mostly governed by" state civil service law. APD Chief of Staff Troy Gay said the three departments are currently consulting with city HR on its update to the harassment policy, in particular the chapter governing sworn personnel. He suggested the commission allow them a couple of months to complete the work.
Webber agreed to bring the item back this fall, but said she would like Gay and company to include information about what happens to these investigations if the person retires. Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks suggested that the Office of the City Auditor or another independent entity take control of such investigations. "I think it's contrary to reason to think that any department can police themselves when a complaint is turned in to the executive and expect there to be a just outcome," he said.