AUSTIN (KXAN) — A third party, city-funded investigation is underway into the head of the city of Austin’s Office of Civil Rights amid allegations of mistreatment and retaliation against office employees.
On Monday, the Human Rights Commission hosted a six-hour meeting to discuss the allegations against Civil Rights Officer Carol Johnson, who began her tenure with the city in February 2021. An initial complaint was filed to the Office of the City Auditor in November, which was then forwarded to the Human Resources Department in January.
The city paid $15,000 to hire Austin-based Lynch Law Firm for the investigation that began in January, with a final decision expected in the coming weeks.
Since the start of the investigation last fall, Johnson has maintained her position despite requests from employees’ counsel she be placed on paid administrative leave, pending the results of the investigation. In an email to KXAN Thursday, a spokesperson said the city’s standard process “is not to place an employee on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.”
“It’s unfortunate that this type of activity has gone on, especially in the Office of Civil Rights,” said Carol Guthrie, a business manager with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and representative serving the office’s employees.
During Monday’s meeting, Guthrie said three employees have recently resigned from the office, including two senior employees who had served for several years and one newly hired administrator, who had been with the office for less than 60 days.
As part of the allegations, Johnson is accused of retaliating against at least one employee through written reprimands. Other allegations include Johnson allegedly changing department standards from completing 50% of cases in 100 days to 75% of cases in 100 days, which some employees and Guthrie said Monday was “impossible.”
For employees who do not meet one or more departmental standards, they are placed on a 60-to-90-day performance evaluation plan to meet required levels; Guthrie said if those standards are not met, employees can be reassigned, demoted or fired from their roles.
Those mid-year evaluations are scheduled in the near future, based on the protocols established and set into effect in October for the current fiscal year,
Commissioner Maram Museitif said Monday she was “disturbed and upset” by the allegations, adding: “We had great hopes for this department.”
An anonymous employee said Monday she has worked in the civil rights sector for more than 25 years and said this office has been “impaled” by toxicity in the past year. She alleged near-constant bullying and degradation, including an alleged accusation made by Johnson against her that questions the department’s COVID-19 protocols caused a strained and hostile work environment.
“It’s like water dripping on our foreheads every day,” the anonymous employee said.
Several employees attended Monday’s commission meeting. An invitation had also been extended to Johnson, who acknowledged the invite but declined to attend, commissioners said.
On Monday, prior to the start of the meeting, commissioners said Johnson sent a separate email that said all board and commission agendas will need to be approved by the director prior to the agenda’s approval and following written approval by the director, the agenda can then be posted.
Chair Sareta Davis said she’s concerned by the timing of this agenda procedures email, given that Johnson remains under investigation. The email came shortly after Johnson declined to attend the meeting.
Davis said that agenda protocol change could impact what subjects the commission can discuss — including Johnson’s investigation.
Commissioner Garry Brown requested employees update commissioners if any retaliations occur as a result of Monday’s meeting.
Commissioners approved a recommendation Monday that all meeting agendas be reviewed by the city’s Clerk’s Office and Legal team “until the conclusion of the investigation.” The recommendation includes a request to the city manager’s office that Johnson be placed on paid administrative leave until the investigation ends, as well.
As part of the recommendation, commissioners also are asking Austin City Council to give the commission authority to “conduct hearings that review findings of cause or no cause.” Council removed that authority from the commission’s purview in December, per documents.
Nelson Linder, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Austin branch, said Monday he often works closely with the Office of Civil Rights in receiving employment complaints and deferring his clients to the city office for resources or further assistance. Based on the allegations made, he said he would never defer anyone to this office under these alleged conditions.
“I can tell you if there’s low self-esteem and a lack of communication, that will have a disparate impact on even some of the clients,” Linder said.
Austin City Council’s next regularly scheduled meeting is April 21, where council could potentially discuss recommendations made by the commission. A city spokesperson told KXAN Thursday the investigation into Johnson is presumed to wrap up in May, and she remains in her full acting capacity.
“Carol Johnson remains the City’s Civil Rights Officer and continues to work during this investigation,” the email read in part.
KXAN has reached out to the Office of Civil Rights for comment on allegations made against Johnson. We will update this story if a response is received.