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City, Firefighters Union Headed for Mediation in Hiring Dispute

This article is written by KUT's City Hall reporting partner, the Austin Monitor

The Austin Firefighters Association (AFA) – the union for City of Austin’s firefighters – and city management are headed to federal mediation over lingering accusations of hiring discrimination. Asked how long the mediation process might take AFA head Bob Nicks Tuesday declined to speculate.

Also, at Tuesday’s work session Council Member Mike Martinez, former head of the firefighters union, announced from the dais that city staff had requested a week’s postponement for council ratification of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

That settlement could lead to both a resolution of the discrimination issue and a new contract for the city’s firefighters. Nicks told the Austin Monitor Tuesday that he wasn’t sure why staff didn’t opt to “table (the item) until the mediation (process) is over.”

City spokesman Kyle Carvell said the item has been postponed because DOJ officials have advised the city that they do not have a final proposed consent decree to present to the Council at this week’s meeting.

“We can confirm that the city has accepted an invitation from the Department. of Justice to attend a meeting in Austin next Wednesday (March 5)  which will include the DOJ, the city, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the firefighters union,” he said. “The DOJ has a mediator to be present during this meeting.”

At issue is the process that the department uses to fill its cadet classes. In the most recent incarnation of the matter, federal officials have raised issues over a lack of diversity produced by 2012 testing – something that Nicks pins on errors made by management in administering the exams. Nicks has also accused management of burying the results of the city’s 2013 hiring process, numbers that achieved a markedly greater amount of cadet diversity, he said.

In late January, Nicks and other union representatives met with Department of Justice officials to discuss the federal government’s findings and a potential consent decree. If issued, the decree would govern federal oversight of departmental hiring practices for a set amount of time.

The decree could also be used to diminish the involvement of the union in future contract negotiations. (See Austin Monitor, Jan. 29.)  City management has declined specific comment about the discrimination and contract issues.

Nicks said Tuesday that he is “hopeful” about the mediation process, suggesting that it could “get the parties to take out the emotion” that has created something of an intense set of negotiations.

“The whole time we’ve been trying to get together and talk,” he added.

As for the potential decree, Nicks said that the union agrees with some of the findings, but that “some we are not agreeable to.” He did not offer any further details.

Nicks said that no date had been set for the mediation, but that the union planned to file a statement with the mediator yesterday.

Though the Justice Department and the City Council could both sign off on the consent decree without union involvement, Nicks has suggested that he would be willing to take the parties to federal court over the matter. Should that happen, it could be years before a ruling, leaving the city, its firefighters, and their union in limbo for some time.

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