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Austin Opens A Civil Rights Office, Three Years In The Making

With the hiring of a director to oversee it, the City of Austin has its first-ever Civil Rights Office.

“Today marks another step forward in our work toward reimagining public safety and protecting the civil and labor rights of all Austinites,” Council Member Greg Casar, who sponsored a 2018 resolution that asked the city manager to look into creating such an office, said in an emailed statement.

Austin joins cities such as Seattle and Baltimore that have civil rights offices.

The city announced Friday that Carol Johnson will head up the new department as the city’s civil rights officer. She previously worked as the executive director of the Arkansas Fair Housing Commission and the civil rights director for the state of Oregon.

Johnson starts the job Feb. 16.

The department will oversee Austin’s nondiscrimination efforts, including federal civil rights laws. It will also enforce local labor rules such as the fair chance hiring law, which prohibits employers from checking a job applicant’s criminal background until the last stage of the hiring process, and Austin’s rest break ordinance, which requires rest breaks for construction workers.

These laws previously were overseen by at least two departments – the Human Resources Department and the Code Department. But in at least one instance, these departments failed to enforce them. In 2018, KUT revealed that Austin’s HR department had not started investigating any fair chance hiring complaints filed with the city despite the law being two years old.

The new department will have a budget of $1.7 million in its first year; $300,000 of that total comes from the City Council's decision to reallocate millions from the city's police budget.

Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.

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