For one city employee, Facebook posts lead to an impossible process – Notice Global Web

Wednesday, July 10, 2024 by Elizabeth Pagano

A city department head who disapproved of her employee’s 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 field any appeal that might be made in the future.

Andrew Rivera has worked for the city of Austin since 1996 and has been in his current position as a business process specialist for the past eight years.

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

“It’s not normal for someone at that level to make a complaint because they are the boss. … You counsel with the employee about your concerns,” said Carol Guthrie, who is the business manager for the union representing city and county workers, Local 1624 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “I have been doing this work for 30 years, and this is a first.” 

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

The complaint, or at least the portion of the complaint that was upheld by human resources, centered 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 with the Planning Department, all spoke to the Human Resources Department about a post from Aug. 21, 2023, that read “Office of City Manager refusing to present at Planning Commission regarding a proposed controversial telework policy – What you scurrred of brah, public discussion?”

The investigation report notes that the Office of the City Manager and other city employees notified Middleton-Pratt about several posts that Rivera made on his personal social media account that were “directed at the interim City Manager and City Budget,” though she initially “didn’t think much about the posts at first since they appeared to be made after work hours.”

However, Middleton-Pratt, who is the main complainant, maintains that the August post is unambiguously based on a confidential memo that disclosed City Manager Jesús Garza would not be attending a Planning Commission meeting to discuss proposed changes to the city’s remote work policy. 

“Andrew went back to social media and made references to the confidential email that was still internal to the city,” she said in an interview with the Human Resources Department. “We hadn’t shared any information with the Planning Commission. We hadn’t shared any information publicly at that point. That was when his personal Facebook page became a concern for me because he, in my mind, breached confidentiality. He was speaking about internal city work on his personal page.”

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

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

“The evidence shows Rivera received the (City Manager’s Office) Response pursuant to his job duties and shared its information, which had not yet been publicly released, to make a harmful or unprofessional comment because he did not like the telework policy planned by his upper management. The timing and use of the correspondence on his Facebook account were disruptive to City operations and eroded management’s trust 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 telework policy at the time is apparent through his other Facebook posts, but in his grievance filed in response to the disciplinary action, he stands behind those posts.

“My Facebook post is protected free speech, including as a union member conveying information about a condition of work or workplace issues,” he wrote in the grievance filing. “As I have been outspoken on the telework policy, it’s my belief the telework policy is what spurred the retaliation towards me by City Management.” 

Rivera also maintains that his post did not, in fact, reference confidential information. He told the Monitor, and included in his response to the investigation, that he was aware of Garza’s decision not to attend the meeting through conversations about planning the meeting in early August – not the memo.

In addition, it’s 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 chief of the Open Government/Ethics and Compliance Division, explained that the state statute concerned with such things “doesn’t say anything about posting online.” 

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

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

Rivera has filed a formal grievance that claims Middleton-Pratt’s complaint was made in bad faith and a result of collusion with Garza and a political agenda that seeks to remove him from his position.

Currently, Rivera is on administrative leave. Though he hasn’t received an official explanation for why he has been put on leave, he understands that it is because of his conduct during the Planning Commission meeting briefing about the Public Information Act in May. While on leave, Rivera has been advised that he should not conduct city business, including filing an appeal to the written reprimand that 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 Monitor she didn’t understand why the situation had become “so political.”

“You’re either right or you’re wrong. In this case, they were wrong, and they don’t know how to get out of it,” she said. 

Middleton-Pratt declined to speak with the Monitor.

Photo by M.FitzsimmonsCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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