Caroline Johnson (Courtesy of Carol Johnson)
Nelson Linderpresident of the Austin branch of the NAACP, fears that the city’s equity-focused offices are getting dangerously close to a tailspin. Caroline Johnsontown leader Civil Rights Office, remains on administrative leave while the city determines what it can do with the results of an investigation that found his office unfriendly and dysfunctional. Waiting, Brion Oaksthe head of the city Equity Officeleft this month “to pursue an opportunity with another entity”, the city confirmed to the the Chronicle July 19. (Oaks’ LinkedIn hasn’t been updated with a new workplace.) Police control officeDirector Farah Muscadin is on parental leave. With all three offices currently lacking leaders and the OCR situation looking dire, Linder believes the city council bears some responsibility for “not getting involved” in unbearably stressful work environments.
An investigation report obtained by Community impact Through a public information request, July 13 tells a dark story about the city’s fledgling Civil Rights Office, created in 2020 to bring together functions previously in several different departments, including human resources. Johnson took over as the city’s first civil rights officer in February 2021, and by April this year, six OCR employees had together filed a complaint about his conduct. They claimed she forced them to work in person during the pandemic in retaliation while barely being in the office herself. They also said she created unreasonable performance goals so she could document their low success rates and threaten with penalties or dismissals. Finally, they said the high-stress environment contributed to the illnesses of several employees. “OCR is being destroyed from within because of the abusive, exploitative, unprofessional and retaliatory management style and personal behavior of the civil rights officer,” the six staff members said in their initial complaint.
The office is supposed to be responsible for ensuring equity and non-discrimination in housing and employment across Austin (the office of equity focuses on the impacts of the city’s programs themselves) by the investigating complaints and educating the public about their rights. Linder told the the Chronicle that while the Austin NAACP conducts many investigations itself, in 2020 it referred people to OCR and heard good things about its caring staff. But since Johnson took over, NAACP references had found it difficult or very slow to get in touch with personnel there, he said. As a result, the NAACP stopped directing people to the office for help within a few months of Johnson’s hiring. a month from april human rights commission meeting, Linder went public with his frustrations and told the commissioners that Johnson should be furloughed.
While Linder observed a malfunction from the outside, an investigation by the Lynch law firm (at a cost to the city of $15,000) supported most of the employee claims. “The city of Austin has a history of hiring people into these positions that are very stressful and leaving them there,” Linder said. “If you get these complaints, why don’t you take action? … The time to fix this was last year when it started to simmer. They didn’t respond to it and it just got worse to a point which is essentially irreparable.”
“The time to fix that was last year when it started to simmer. They didn’t fix it and it got worse to a point that’s basically irreparable. –Nelson Linder of Austin NAACP
The Lynch investigation also found that Johnson had misled other city employees and the public about what was happening at OCR. “The work environment created and maintained by Ms. Johnson … violates nearly every ‘fundamental objective of good personnel administration’ as set forth in the preamble to the City’s Personnel Policy Manual,” the report said. The results of these practices have included low rates of community engagement, extremely low morale among staff, high staff turnover and at least one failed program, according to Community impact.
Chas Mooreco-founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, said this group hasn’t worked much directly with OCR and expects the office to still find its footing. Often people who come to the AJC are best served by a connection to an attorney, he said, and he’s not sure what people could or should really expect from such an office. “With them trying to figure out who they are – some of these things are going to happen. … I think these entities can become really powerful things if they’re community driven and community led, but the community [itself] can do shit – probably much better and much faster – if we are able to galvanize ourselves and realize that we are our greatest strengths.” He differs from Linder in thinking that the free hand given to OCR (and other offices like this) by City Council and senior management is by design an attempt to empower them to determine how best to serve the public and carry out their missions.
OCR has a budget of $2 million for the current fiscal year, about $700,000 more than the previous year, about $500,000 more than was spent on the unit. of civil rights in human resources two years ago. It has 16 full-time positions, five of which are vacant.