City Hall

Protecting Women from Abuse at City Hall or Just Sticking a Shiv in Somebody?

Many of the employees at City Hall are women, and many of those women work in certain areas — Office of the City Secretary, Office of the City Manager, Office of the City Council — where tensions and tempers can run high. Conflict with elected officials is not just probable but inevitable.

Those employees may well need an extra layer of respect to make their working conditions tolerable. The five female members of the City Council took an important step last week when they wrote to the mayor (see their letter below) asking that he help the council formulate a policy on the treatment of staff by elected officials.

Given the gravity of the issue — after all we are talking not just about people’s jobs but their lives and self-respect — it was all the more disappointing that one member of the group sending the memo, Jennifer Gates, had to turn it into a personal attack.

Gates was quoted in The Dallas Morning News linking the call for an abuse policy to an incident last April in which Dallas Police and the City Attorney pursued felony charges against a male councilmember. Scott Griggs was accused of attempting to coerce a female city employee with a threat of violence.

I thought Gates' quote in the News made it sound as if a new abuse policy would serve as a corrective for situations like the Griggs matter, even though a grand jury refused to indict him and later revelations raised doubts whether any of the accusations against him had ever been true. Gates told me I was misinterpreting what she said to the News

The News reported:

Gates said she hoped to find out whether city policy needs to change to address interactions that make staff uncomfortable, but that may not rise to a criminal level.

“This most recent one [with Griggs] highlighted the fact that if something’s not criminal, it begs the question: Is it OK?” she said.

Hey, listen: Abusive treatment of employees — especially abusive treatment of female employees by male superiors — is a dead-serious issue. Gates told me she has received reports from staff that lead her to believe the problem is worse for female employees than for males at City Hall, and I don’t know why anyone would doubt that is true. But the process of law and the question of false accusation is also a dead-serious issue.

The charge against Griggs was that he attempted to coerce a woman in the City Secretary’s Office to manage a document the way he wanted it done and that he shouted he would break her fingers if she defied him. There were multiple witnesses.

Think about this one. If you heard a man screaming that he was going to break a woman’s body if she defied him, would that not register on your memory in a very clear way? But in this case, not one of the witnesses heard the threat except for the woman he was supposed to have threatened.

And her version of it was always fractured by contradiction. The police report said that Griggs had threatened to “break (her) fucking fingers.” We reported here that documents grudgingly released later by the city showed a pattern of extreme pressure brought on this woman by both police and the city attorney to swear a complaint against Griggs, which she consistently refused to do.

In fact, she finally signed a sworn witness statement saying that she had not felt threatened by anything Griggs had said and that she would not cooperate in a prosecution of him.

This woman had nothing to fear from Griggs at that point. She doesn’t work for him. He can’t fire her. She had a lot more to fear from the people who wanted her to sign that complaint.

And think about these two questions: If he screamed at her that he was going to “break her fucking fingers,” how could she not have interpreted that as a threat? If he screamed at her that he was going to break her fucking fingers, how could multiple witnesses to the conversation have heard the rest but missed that one bit?

Add to the picture a heavy dose of political intrigue and recrimination between Griggs, the city attorney and the city manager. By now it ought to be easy to see why a Dallas grand jury ultimately tossed out the case.

On the one hand, Gates insisted yesterday that the memo to the mayor had nothing to do with the Griggs matter: “That memo was not limited to that incident at all,” she said. “That incident to me is closed. It happened in the past. It didn’t move forward through the criminal process. I respect that. I honor that.”

But on the other hand, she suggested to me as she had to the News that something did happen and it was bad enough to raise serious ethical questions: “I’m not looking at that matter, but is there conduct? If the conduct is not criminal, is that what we’re saying?”

I think she’s having it both ways. For one thing, the question is not whether the alleged incident happened in the past. It’s whether the alleged incident happened.

He either did or did not say the finger breaking thing. It seems obvious that if the grand jury believed that part of the accusation, they would have indicted him. Surely there isn’t a legal or acceptable way to threaten to break people’s fingers if they don’t do what you want, whether they are public employees or not.

So what was it? He raised his voice? Wait. Are we proposing that officials at City Hall, engaged in politics and the people’s business, can’t raise their voices if women are present in the room? Please. What is this? Victorian England? Gates said no. “But there are ways to raise your voice.”

Perhaps the mayor can bring in a coach for that. I’m going to insist that that should be a public meeting. Ought to be great video.

Look, everybody’s ambitious in this picture. Everybody is everybody else’s rival. Both Gates and Griggs are mentioned frequently as mayoral hopefuls.

The timing of the memo from the women council members seemed a tad suspicious to me anyway, so soon after Griggs won a shut-out from the legal system, and Gates’ remarks to the News confirmed my suspicions. In spite of her denials, this was an attempt to stir that old, cold pot one more time. As such, none of it is a service to city employees.

Future Briefing Request Conduct of Ctiy Officials by Jim Schutze

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze