MSD vice chairman quits, apologizes after 'animals' remark

MSD vice chairman quits, apologizes after 'animals' remark
Tom Austin (Source: MSD)
Tom Austin (Source: MSD)
Screenshot of the text message. (Source: James Craig)
Screenshot of the text message. (Source: James Craig)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Tom Austin, vice chairman of the Metro Sewer District board, resigned Tuesday and apologized for calling MSD workers "animals."

Austin submitted his notice to Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer on Tuesday, according to a statement from the mayor's office.

[VIEW: Tom Austin's resignation notice]

Austin, in a July text message provided by MSD's former board chairman, said he would be "videoing the animals" in reference to a union rally. MSD's board and the union representing about one-quarter of its workers are in a contract dispute, and labor leaders put pressure on Fischer to dump Austin over the remark.

"Recently, a text was taken out of context with suggestion by some that there was racial undertone, which is absolutely untrue," Austin wrote in his resignation letter. "I offer my apologies to those who found the text offensive."

Austin called his choice of words "careless" and "unfortunate."

"I hope with my resignation the MSD board can move forward and continue to serve the community without distraction," Austin wrote.

In his resignation letter, Austin cited a "contentious" negotiation between MSD and LIUNA Local 576, as both sides worked toward a new deal for about 160 of MSD's 600 employees.

"There's some element of race in (Austin's comments)," said Bill Londrigan, the state AFL-CIO president. "You can figure it out for yourself when somebody calls somebody else an animal. We're tired of it."

House Speaker Larry Clark, D-Louisville, had called on Fischer to demand Austin's resignation. Clark said Tuesday afternoon that he agreed with the resignation decision.

"It's pretty obvious (Austin) was anti-labor from the word 'go,'" Clark said. "Calling people from organized labor 'animals' is disappointing."

In the text conversation between Austin, former board chairman James Craig, and MSD executive director Greg Heitzman in July, someone wrote, "Big rally planned by union tomorrow. Wouldn't want you to miss it."

"Good, I will plan on videoing the animals," Austin responded, according to a screengrab provided by Craig, who resigned last month.

Austin said in his resignation letter that he would also drop two ethics complaints against Craig and another board member. In a statement, Craig said he was "glad" to hear Austin wouldn't pursue his complaints further.

MSD and LIUNA Local 576 have been negotiating a new contract for more than two years. At the most recent MSD board meeting, members voted to suspend recognition of the local union because of the impasse.

Lawrence Wilburn Sr., LIUNA Local 576's business manager, said a strike wasn't off the table for the 160 employees that the union seeks to represent at MSD. The union has created a 30-second advertisement about the situation that it plans to run on local TV.

MSD believes a strike would be illegal in Kentucky because the workers are public employees, said Steve Tedder, a spokesman for MSD.

In the same news release that announced Austin's resignation, Fischer said he would move quickly to fill the vacancy his resignation created on the board.

"I appreciate his role in helping MSD and its board respond to the state audit, implement reforms and move towards the One Water model of greater efficiency and accountability, and also his decision to step aside for the greater good of MSD and the entire community," Fischer wrote.

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