A so-called “Office of Civil Rights,” created by the Austin City Council at the height of post-George Floyd mania, is collapsing on itself.
According to Community Impact, the department’s director, Carol Johnson, has been placed on administrative leave following allegations of a “hostile workplace environment.” A main storyline in this Kafkaesque-dramedy is the age-old desire to not show up for work.
One of the primary substantive complaints is that Johnson, more than a year into the pandemic, began requiring employees to work in their office. Or, as they put it:
“We can attest to Ms. Johnson’s lack of transparency, disregard for health and safety, decency, respect, divisive leadership and downright bullying. The OCR is being destroyed from within due to the abusive, exploitative, unprofessional, and retaliatory management style and personal behavior of the civil rights officer,” six OCR investigators wrote in their joint complaint submitted to the city last year.
In response to commission questioning April 11 about the effects of Johnson’s management, multiple staffers acknowledged they had sought out care from a doctor, psychologist or counselor because of the stress of their experiences at the civil rights office.
Despite being phrased in the most hyperbolic way imaginable, Johnson’s alleged desire for in-office work may have been reasonable—except that, according to the complaint, Johnson didn’t show up for work herself.
“In its investigation, [Lynch Law Firm] corroborated 11 of 16 allegations against Johnson, including:
- requiring staff to work in person amid COVID-19 stay-home orders;
- establishing in-person work policies as retaliation against staff;
- demanding that staff work at the OCR while spending ‘no time’ there herself;
- misleading other city staff and the public about the OCR’s work;
- ignoring city staff recommendations about best practices in the workplace; and
- leading a ‘hostile’ work environment while harassing and retaliating against staff.”
Johnson responded to the allegations, calling them “simply not true” and writing that she “treated all employees with respect and fairness.”
“Johnson also said staff who forwarded the allegations had exaggerated the circumstances, and claimed her treatment by Lynch investigators was biased,” the article continued. “She said the investigators, who she identified as white, ‘exhibited similar aggressive, abusive and biased behavior’ to her and other Black interviewees.”
Now on paid leave, Johnson won’t have to show up to the office for the foreseeable future.
There is also, however, an element of “turnabout is fair play” in the whole situation. As the article describes:
Prior to her time in Austin, Johnson was the accuser in a civil rights complaint related to a government office while employed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries. While serving as administrator of the BOLI Civil Rights Division, Johnson alleged “disparate treatment and hostility” based on race carried out through microaggressions by her employees in that office. Additionally, she claimed a BOLI staffer sent a package of feces to her home.
Austin’s “Office of Civil Rights” current budget is approximately $2 million. The investigation has cost taxpayers, to this point, at least $15,000.