Members of the Austin City Council on Wednesday sharply criticized a training session for city staffers in which a facilitator said women ask a lot of questions and do not focus on the fiscal impact of their decisions.
The March session — designed to help staff members work with Austin’s first-ever female-majority council — drew national attention this week after a report by the Austin American-Statesman.
“I have to question the culture that allowed such a training session to be considered, along with the fact that no council office was aware that the session even occurred,” City Councilwoman Leslie Pool said at a news conference at which the women on the council denounced the training.
The council’s makeup changed dramatically in November, when Austin started electing members by geographic districts rather than citywide and added four new seats. Previously, three of the seven council members were women; now, seven of the 11 members are women.
At the training, speaker Jonathan K. Allen, a former city manager in Florida, told staff members that if they try “to use the same communication techniques and management techniques that you use or attempted to use in a predominately male-dominated environment, you will be making a serious error in your professional development because they don’t process things in the same way.”
For example, he said, women are not as concerned about the fiscal impact of important decisions as they were about “non-fiscal impacts.” He also said that a conversation with his 11-year-old daughter in which she asked him 10 questions in a row prepared him to deal with women, who would ask questions even though the information they sought was in the agenda packet.
Allen, who at the time was the city manager of Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., was fired last month by the all-female city commission because of concerns about his vision for the city, according to a local news report. Allen and his co-facilitator for the Austin training, Miya Burt-Stewart, released a statement on Wednesday that said their comments were taken out of context.
“Any interpretation that we do not support and appreciate the growing number of women executives and elected officials in both the public and private sector is not true,” they wrote. “If our overall intent and message was not clear during the presentation, we sincerely apologize for any miscommunication.”
A video of the training that had been posted on the city website was taken down this week because the event “was not consistent with the City’s culture, philosophy or management approach,” the city said in a statement.
On Wednesday, three of the four men on the council — including Mayor Steve Adler — attended the news conference in support of the women members.
“I was shocked to learn of this training,” Adler wrote on Facebook. “I’m looking into this matter, as this kind of misguided ‘training’ does not represent Austin and its inclusive values.”
City Manager Marc Ott took responsibility for not fully vetting the training, which he said was arranged by Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes. Snipes introduced Allen but did not listen to the talk, Ott said.
“I can tell you that Mr. Snipes, like the rest of us, is disappointed in the speaker,” Ott said. “He was surprised. It was unexpected.”
However, during his introduction of the training session, Snipes said that he had previously heard Allen’s presentation.
“For the first time in Austin’s history, we have a majority female council,” Snipes said during the introduction, according to the video. “How about that for the ladies? Interestingly, I had the opportunity to hear Jonathan give this presentation and thought, ‘That’s interesting. There are similarities.’ … I said, ‘We really need to get you to Austin.’”
Delia Garza, one of the council members elected in November, condemned the ideas presented in the training.
“There is some cultural thing going on that we’re not aware of,” Garza said at the news conference. “I’m glad that this can bring attention to that. As a former firefighter, it’s amazing I’m feeling this here rather than my previous career.”
Disclosure: Steve Adler is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.