SAN ANGELO, TX — The City of San Angelo City Council enacted a curious policy Tuesday aimed at gagging complaining citizens. What is called an “Abusive Conduct Policy,” the policy encourages City employees to terminate communication and/or leave a situation where a citizen is determined by the City employee to be engaged in abusive behavior towards him or her.
The definition of abusive behavior is broad. It includes:
- Staring, glaring or other nonverbal demonstrations of hostility;
- Consistent ignoring or interrupting of an employee when they are answering a question or explaining a rule;
- Personal attacks (angry outbursts, excessive profanity, or name-calling);
- Derogatory or hostile remarks about an employee's skills, training, or intelligence;
- Threats of stalking;
- Unreasonable interference with an employee’s ability to do his or her work (i.e., overloading of emails, repeated phone calls, refusing to answer relevant questions);
- Repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets.
City Attorney Theresa James spearheaded the adoption of the policy. She admitted that the policy could have been enacted as an internal policy by City Manager Daniel Valenzuela, but she thought the level of abuse of City employees by citizens she witnesses— an increasing “coarseness” of dialog, she described—merited City Council action.
James admitted that many of the City phone lines now record conversations and can be reviewed by City leadership to determine if the interaction on the phone call crossed the abuse threshold. Likewise, City conference rooms have audio and video surveillance, she said.
The Nag Gag is intended to give City employees the ability to combat citizen conduct that “harms, intimidates, offends, degrades, ridicules or humiliates an employee, whether that conduct is verbal, physical or otherwise,” James outlined.
The remedies the policy affords City employees are: the authorization to hang up on a call or leave the room, secretly record so-called abusive conversations without the knowledge of the other party, and it details specific reporting procedures after an incident.
When Mayor Brenda Gunter asked if other city governments had enacted similar policies, James did not name any.
Councilman Tommy Hiebert suggested that voluminous open records requests could be considered abusive.
Councilwoman Gonzalez asked what the consequences were.
Employees will be disciplined for being abusive too other employees, City contractors can have their contracts suspended or not renewed, and abusive citizens will be handed off to City management to be told their conduct is inappropriate, James said. In extreme cases, James warned that there are Texas Statutes to protect City employees with police involvement. The improved documentation procedures the policy requires, to include the use of recordings, can be used to build a police case, James explained.
Gunter expressed skepticism. There aren’t specific penalties, she said.
James countered that the immediate consequence is that the citizen’s concern will not be immediately addressed. “They won’t get their answer immediately,” she said. “If you’re calling abut your water bill and you get abusive with the employee, you’re not going to get the answer you need because the employee is going to leave the conversation.”
City Manager Daniel Valenzuela said the purpose of the policy is to let each City employee understand there are no repercussions for their decision to leave an abusive situation.
Councilman Harry Thomas said he supported the policy proposal saying large corporations have similar policies in place.
Gunter kept advocating for more specifics and training to be dictated by the policy before she would support it. There’s more definition of repercussions needed in it, Gunter said.
Councilwoman Billie DeWitt said that there is already a certain level of decorum people should use in determining whether or not a City employee could suspend a conversation. The policy as presented is adequate, she said. “I thought it covered all the bases.”
Human Resources Director Bryan Kendrick promised to implement training and to apply the policy City wide.
The vote was taken and passed 6-1. Mayor Gunter voted no. Later, she explained she was not against the policy itself, but she wanted the behavior and consequences in the policy to be more specifically or narrowly defined.