For a municipal employee, Facebook posts lead to an impossible process

Wednesday, July 10, 2024 by Elizabeth Pagano

A city department head who disapproved of one of her employees’ social media posts about city management has filed a human resources complaint against him, an unusual move that gives her the power to validate her own complaint and respond to any appeals that may be filed in the future.

Andrew Rivera has worked for the City of Austin since 1996 and has served in his current position as a Business Process Specialist for the past eight years.

In January, Rivera discovered that a human resources complaint had been filed against her and was shocked to discover that the complaint had been filed by her department head, Planning Department Director Lauren Middleton-Pratt.

“It’s not normal for someone at that level to file a complaint because they’re the boss … The employee is consulted about the concerns that they have,” said Carol Guthrie, who is the business manager for the union that represents city and county workers, Local 1624 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and this is the first time I’ve done it.”

Because Middleton-Pratt took the unorthodox route of going to HR instead of speaking directly to her employee about her concerns, she has the power to defend her complaint under the current system. On June 7, she found that her own complaint had merit and did not overturn the decision to issue a written reprimand. If Rivera wanted to appeal that decision, that appeal would also go to Middleton-Pratt.

The complaint, or at least the part of the complaint that It was supported by human resourcesfocused on Rivera’s personal Facebook posts. In recordings obtained by the Austin Monitor, Middleton-Pratt, Assistant City Manager Veronica Briseño, and Joi Harden, Zoning Officer for the Planning Department, spoke to the Human Resources Department about an August 21, 2023 posting that stated: “The City Manager’s Office is declining to bring a controversial telework policy proposal to the Planning Commission. How about a public discussion?”

He investigation report notes that the City Manager’s Office and other city employees notified Middleton-Pratt about several posts Rivera made on her personal social media account that were “directed toward the Interim City Manager and the City Budget,” though she initially “did not think much of the posts at first as they appeared to have been made outside of work hours.”

However, Middleton-Pratt, who is the lead whistleblower, maintains that the August post is unequivocally based on a confidential memo that revealed that City Manager Jesus Garza would not attend a Planning Commission meeting to discuss proposed changes to the city’s remote work policy.

“Andrew went back on social media and referenced the confidential email that was still internal to the city,” she said in an interview with the Department of Human Resources. “We had not shared any information with the Planning Commission. We had not shared any information publicly at that time. That’s when his personal Facebook page became a concern to me because, in my opinion, he violated confidentiality. He was talking about internal city work on his personal page.”

In his position, as he describes it a 2016 memoRivera serves as a liaison between the city’s land use commissions and the public and staff. He is also responsible for coordinating commission agendas and posting supporting information about those agendas online. As part of that role, he was given the memo to post online as part of the public agenda. But because Rivera posted on Facebook before taking that action and had not made a formal request for the document through the city’s public information system, the city contends that constitutes mishandling of public information.

The investigation report says Rivera received a written reprimand for mishandling information and violating city policy.

“The evidence shows that Rivera received the Response (from the City Manager’s Office) pursuant to his job duties and shared its information, which had not yet been publicly disclosed, to make a detrimental or unprofessional comment because he did not like his senior management’s planned telework policy. The timing and use of the correspondence on his Facebook account disrupted City operations and eroded management’s confidence that he could use the information he received pursuant to his official responsibilities in an ethical and professional manner,” the investigation report reads.

Rivera’s objection to the teleworking policy At the time It is evident through his other Facebook posts, but in his complaint filed in response to the disciplinary actionhe is behind those posts.

“My Facebook post is protected by free speech, even though I am a union member and I am conveying information about working conditions or workplace issues,” he wrote in filing the complaint. “As I have been outspoken about the telework policy, I believe this policy is what prompted the retaliation against me by the city administration.”

Rivera also maintains that his publication did not, in fact, refer to confidential information. Monitorand included in his response to the investigation that he was aware of Garza’s decision not to attend the meeting through conversations about the meeting’s planning in early August, not because of the memo.

Furthermore, it is unclear why the memo would be considered confidential and not public information.

In his presentation to the Planning Commission in May, Neal Falgoust, who is head of the Open Government/Ethics and Compliance Division, explained that The state statute that deals with such things “it doesn’t say anything about posting online.”

“If a confidential memo is posted online, that would raise other concerns for us,” he continued.

Falgoust went on to explain that any information provided to commissioners by staff or the public that is related to their work as commissioners is considered public information.

Rivera has presented a formal complaint which claims Middleton-Pratt’s complaint was made in bad faith and was the result of collusion with Garza and a political agenda seeking to remove him from office.

Rivera is currently on administrative leave. Although he has not received an official explanation as to why he has been placed on leave, he understands it is due to his conduct during the Planning Commission’s Public Information Act briefing in May. While on leave, Rivera has been informed that he is not to conduct city business, including filing an appeal of the written reprimand he received.

“I feel like the city is out of control and they continue to operate out of control… When they don’t do their job, they try to use the system against the worker and that infuriates me, and I think that’s what they’ve done here,” said Guthrie, who told the BBC that Monitor She did not understand why the situation had become “so political.”

“Either you are right or you are not. In this case, they made a mistake and they don’t know how to get out of it,” he said.

Middleton-Pratt refused to speak to him Monitor.

Photograph by M.Fitzsimmons, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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