City manager launches team to investigate controversial training session

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — City Manager Marc Ott has launched a team to investigate a controversial training session called “Women Leading in Local Government,” offered by the City of Austin nearly two months ago. The training session has led to the assistant city manager being placed on leave.

Austin City Council members last Wednesday said they were shocked about what was relayed in the training session — where one of the speakers suggested women ask too many questions, do not like to deal with finances and should be spoken to differently than men.

“As I assured you in my previous memos regarding this ill-considered and offensive presentation, I promised to take swift and direct action to identify the circumstances that led to the event and take the appropriate steps to ensure that nothing like it happens in the future,” said Ott in a memo to City Council. “I will continue to share status reports as we work through this issue. As city manager, I am fully aware of the impact an event like this has on the community’s image, on our employee morale, and on your ability to focus on the important work before you.”

Ott also addressed any confusion city employees may have about addressing these issues.

“In our discussions since this story came to light, I have grown concerned that our employees may not know where – or how – to report instances where an outside contractor or trainer might behave in a way that is inconsistent with our values. As I’ve indicated several times, I’m also concerned with the vetting process we use to ensure that our employees receive the kind of value they deserve when investing time in City-led training initiatives,” he said. “I am engaging our entire leadership team in a discussion to answer those questions, and we will provide clear and direct guidance over the next two weeks.”Leading the inquiry

  • Police Monitor Margo Frazier
  • Labor Relations Ombudsman Tom Stribling
  • Human Resources Employee Relations Investigator Wendy Riggins

Meanwhile, Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards will act as a liaison representing the city manager’s office.

“I will also be engaging an external reviewer to assist in the inquiry,” said Ott. “The team will begin their work today, and I’ve given them a deadline to complete their draft report by this Friday. Barring any further questions that I may have after reviewing the report, I anticipate making a decision regarding this matter shortly thereafter.”

About the training

City council members did not find out about the March 27 training until early last week, when it hit blogs and social media. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and councilwomen Delia Garza, Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen, Ellen Troxclair, Sheri Gallo and Leslie Pool led a press conference expressing their concern and anger over the speech.

Ott apologized to the city and employees about the training and said he was embarrassed and offended by the speakers at the training. He said he was not there at the time and nor were any council members.

The training was in response to the newly elected 10-1 council which is made up of mostly women. Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes organized the event, and he is now on leave.

Jonathan Allen, a former city manager for Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., started the training about his “aha moment” when he had a conversation with his 11-year-old daughter. He said she taught him a great lesson in communication during a car ride to volleyball, when she asked a lot of questions.

“In a matter of 15 seconds I got 10 questions. I had to patiently respond and then I said, ‘aha, that’s how I have to deal with the commission,'” Allen said in response to speaking with an all women commission.

During the video, Allen put out a disclaimer saying, “This is the part where I have to say, that the expectation doesn’t change, and I say that because my wife told me, ‘Don’t you go down there telling folks that you know just because you got an all-female commission, you got to deal with all these emotions, because you’re going to offend me.'”

He went on to explain how elected officials may come from different backgrounds and it may be their first time.

“If you use, or attempt to use, the same communication techniques in management techniques that you use in a predominately male-dominated environment, you will be making a serious error in your professional development,” Allen continued, “Because they don’t process things at the same way.”

Allen then gave an example from his city on how the agenda would have background information and financial analysis to in an effort to help city leaders make a decision.

Instead, he said he would often hear, “Mr. Manager, I don’t want to hear about financial arguments. I want to hear about how this impacts the overall community, how it impacts the families … It may make good financial sense, but if I want to get it through and get the necessary votes, I have to present it a totally different way.”

“Women don’t read agenda information? We don’t want to deal with numbers? Come on. This is 2015, in Austin, Texas, folks,” said Leslie Pool, District 7 councilwoman.

Allen and the second speaker, Dr. Miya Burt-Stewart, who runs a business development and marketing firm, put out a statement last Wednesday wanting to clarify what they said and apologize for offending anyone because that was not their intent.

We are saddened by the negative reaction to a positive group discussion. It is important that as the global trend of Women in Leadership positions grow, that we as leaders are open to professional development opportunities which aid and prepare us for next level participation. Any interpretation that we do not support and appreciate the growing number of women executives and elected officials in both the public and private sector is absolutely not true. Furthermore, any notion that our presentation sought to outwardly present or show a disregard for minorities or any other groups that are affiliated with the City of Austin is a clear misnomer and not representative of who we are as presenters and professionals.

If our overall intent and message was not clear during the presentation, we sincerely apologize for any miscommunication. Our public presentation and comments were not pre approved and/or endorsed by any City Official at the City of Austin and in no way did we want to offend any person(s) or group(s) within the City of Austin and/or the Austin Community. As professionals, we are always open to constructive criticism and corrections on our performance and presentations in the field of public administration. Again, we extend a heartfelt apology and it is our hope that any misinterpretations are not attributed to nor reflected upon the City of Austin, its Mayor, Council Members, City Manager, or City Staff.

Mayor Steve Adler said during the news conference that he was shocked to learn of the event and said the stereotyping is wrong and damaging.

“It doesn’t represent the values of the City of Austin,” said Adler, as he spoke about his 20 years fighting against stereotyping in the anti-defamation league.

He went on to describe the women in his life — his wife who is a CPA and daughter who is starting a company — and their accomplishments.

Allen was fired from his position as city manager in Lauderdale Lakes last month. The video was posted on the city’s website, but was taken down Wednesday afternoon.

The City of Austin said it did not pay Allen to speak or to travel, but did pay $457.70 for his hotel stay. They did not pay for Burt-Stewart to speak nor her travel and lodging expenses.

Girl Scouts of Central Texas

The Girl Scouts of Central Texas had an immediate and strong response once those talks came to light. Communications Director Lolis Garcia-Babb joined KXAN News on The CW Austin to talk about the Girl Scouts’ response to this.

Organization’s statement

“Girl Scouts of Central Texas (GSCTX) stands in solidarity with the women and men working to uphold Austin’s reputation of being a city that embraces diversity. However, the statements made in the March 27th city council training session highlights the steps yet to be taken toward equality.

This is why, after 103 years, the work being done at GSCTX, and at councils across the country, remains relevant. Girl Scouts works towards the day where female leadership is celebrated, not questioned. When women in leadership roles are questioned, as if they don’t belong, it is crucial to model to young women the value of recognizing their strengths, passions and talents. GSCTX believes in the power of girls and is committed to building girls of courage, confidence and character, whether it be in the classroom, at home, or on a city council.”

Watch the full COA video here:

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