SA River Authority executive ousted after sitting on racism complaint for 8 months

John Chisholm resigned Sept. 26 after reprimand for leadership failure

SAN ANTONIO – A top official with the San Antonio River Authority resigned late last month after an investigation determined that he failed to report a possibly racially charged act for eight months.

Director of Operations John Chisholm resigned Sept. 26 after demonstrating a lack of judgment, poor decision making and a failure in leadership, according to records released by SARA to the Defenders.

The ouster of Chisholm is the latest incident to stain the public entity in charge of preserving the San Antonio River Basin.

Late last year SARA leadership, including Chisholm, was recorded discussing a culture of racism that had pervaded the agency's utilities department.

The November 2018 meetings came after the firing of two employees and the resignation of a third employee accused of throwing a PVC pipe from a second-story loft, hitting a co-worker in the face. The third employee, Alfred Rakowitz, was later indicted for aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury.

Rakowitz remains free on bond awaiting trial.

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SARA employees were ordered to take part in sensitivity training and were told that any future incident they perceived to be offensive or inappropriate should be reported up the chain of command to human resources.

"Mr. Chisholm knew it was an expectation at the highest level of this organization that we make sure these reports occur," said SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott.

In January, two months after the training, two utilities department employees came forward to say a co-worker had twisted a small piece of rope into a noose and then hung it on a nail outside a shop.

The employees who found the rope were described as being upset by the incident, according to internal SARA records.

The employee who twisted the rope later told management he had no malicious intent and apologized to his two co-workers, according to records.

Although Chisholm was briefed on the incident and how it was ultimately resolved, he failed to report it to Scott or to the agency's human resources department, records show.

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Late last month, an employee mentioned the incident during his exit interview, leading officials to open an investigation into whether it was properly reported when it first happened.

In a statement provided to SARA's director of human resources, Chisholm said he was shown the rope and did not believe it resembled a "hangman's noose."

"It's very important that they come to HR so that investigations can be done," said Scott.

Scott confirmed that Chisholm would have been terminated had he not resigned.

Reached by telephone Oct. 10, Chisholm told the Defenders he had nothing to add.

According to his personnel file, Chisholm made more than $200,400 a year, a substantial increase from his starting salary of $120,000 when he joined the river authority as its director of operations in the spring of 2008.

"Counter to our culture."

After the pipe tossing incident last November, Rakowitz told SARA officials he had been "very angry" with the victim prior to throwing the 3- to 4-foot-long pipe but did not mean to injure his co-worker.

The injured employee, who the Defenders have chosen not to name, was forced to go through reconstructive surgery to put his nasal septum back in place.

Two other maintenance supervisors, utilities manager John Gomez and assistance maintenance supervisor Clarence Kiolbassa, were terminated less than two weeks after the pipe throwing incident.

SARA officials attempted to block the release of Gomez and Kiolbassa's personnel files, but the agency's request was denied by the Texas Attorney General's Office.

According to termination letters in bother of their personnel files, SARA officials conducted a "thorough investigation of the working environment within the utilities department from November 7, 2018 - November 16, 2018" after they were informed of "racial incidents and a hostile work environment."

The letters state that as leaders within the department, they "knew or should have known that these violations occurred and (they) failed to address them."

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A worker who witnessed Rakowitz throwing the pipe also said that he witnessed Kiolbassa hit the victim on the head during an earlier incident, according to SARA records.

Rakowitz was also accused of hitting the same victim during another incident. That workplace assault apparently never got reported to SARA's upper management after a then-SARA employee told the victim not to talk to anyone about what happened to him, according to records.

"These situations that occurred last fall hit us deeply. It's so counter to our culture, counter to my personal belief," said Scott.

"We have made significant changes to make sure that that culture will not be accepted and I think our employees are very clear about that now."

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