Austin interim City Manager Jesús Garza 'stands firm' in police oversight appointment
Interim City Manager Jesús Garza is standing by his appointment of Gail McCant to lead the Office of Police Oversight, citing the city’s need to comply with the civilian police oversight measure known as Prop A.
Garza named McCant to the job in late September in spite of a national search that was promised to residents by himself and his predecessor, Spencer Cronk. The decision was also done without informing the City Council and some city staff.
McCant's appointment sparked concerns among community members, including social justice group Austin Justice Coalition and several city leaders.
More than half of the City Council expressed concern in a post on the council message board last week. The council members said that while they found McCant “professional, transparent, and accessible,” the decision was sudden.
“We were surprised there would be no national search for her role, as had been previously stated. Given the significance of this role and the high-profile nature of the office, why was the decision made to forgo a search and instead appoint the OPO director from within the City of Austin? We hope the City Manager can further explain his thinking on this decision, not only for our own understanding but for the understanding of the public who we all serve,” Council Members Chito Vela, Zo Qadri, José Velásquez, Vanessa Fuentes and Ryan Alter wrote.
Council Members Alison Alter and Paige Ellis responded in support of the need for more information.
On Tuesday, Fuentes told KUT it was a misstep for the city manager to appoint McCant without community input.
"He had already committed to doing a national search," she said. "For him to backtrack on it I think underscores a lack of understanding of how important community engagement is to our community, especially when it's comes to policing."
But Garza told KUT he stood by his decision.
"That is a charged word, 'backtrack,'" he said. "We didn’t backtrack. We analyzed it, and we decided that it wasn’t necessary. That is different than backtracking. Again, it was boilerplate. And I know it's hard to understand this, but that is how the city does — has done — its operations before I got here and has been doing it since I got here."
In an Oct. 4 memo, Garza acknowledged that the announcement did come as a surprise.
“For that, I apologize,” he said. “It was not my intent to catch you off guard with this very important appointment.”
But he said the decision was made to bring stability to the Office of Police Oversight and answer the calls for implementation of Prop A that council members and the community pushed for last month.
“Had I moved forward with a national search, we would be waiting until next year before being able to name a permanent lead for the office — a delay that would simply add to the already-perceived delay of moving forward with the voters’ will via Prop A,” he said.
Voters overwhelmingly supported the proposition in May.
“With that sense of urgency in mind and based on what I’ve seen during McCant’s performance with the OPO, I know that she is someone very familiar with our community who understands the challenges we have been facing with implementing Prop A,” Garza wrote.
McCant was named interim director in June. She has "over 25 years of experience enforcing civil rights, human rights and employee rights work," according to city documents. She previously served as administrator of the City of Austin’s Office of Civil Rights, formerly the Equal Employment and Fair Housing Office.
In a written statement to KUT, McCant said "under my leadership, the Office of Police Oversight will foster a culture of trust and accountability between the community and the police department. OPO will continue to diligently review and oversee the police department’s compliance with established laws, policies, and regulations. "
Garza said he is confident McCant can do the job.
"The issue wasn't the person that was appointed," Fuentes said. "We all value the work that Director McCant has done for the city and believe she is capable and qualified to lead the division. Really the focus, for me, moving forward is no further decisions are made regarding permanent appointments and selections [without public input]."