ST. PETERSBURG — Zero tolerance for racism has been a city policy for employees dating back many years.
But this week, dozens of city workers were ordered to take sensitivity training classes after an internal investigation found evidence of racial tension and that black workers were not hired or promoted at the same rate as white workers in the city’s Stormwater, Pavement and Traffic Operations Department.
The issue came to a head this week when city workers and union leaders attended a city council meeting and claimed black workers are treated differently from white workers, and that those who complain about their treatment have suffered retaliation from supervisors.
They also accused the city of tolerating discrimination by not taking allegations seriously or firing employees found to have broken anti-discrimination policies.
“We have real issues here,” said Robin Wynn, a stormwater employee. “Mayor Kriseman, he failed us on this one. Where is the equality and justice in this city?”
Almost 400 workers from the city’s stormwater and water resources departments have been scheduled to take the eight-hour training session titled “Unique like You” at a cost of about $8,000. Workers in more departments may be ordered to take the class once the city has reviewed the results of a citywide climate survey it is planning to conduct to see how widespread any problem may be.
“Based upon the results, we’ll design a citywide cultural competence program,” City Administrator Gary Cornwell said. “That will take a little longer because of the process.”
The review of the stormwater department was triggered by a November investigation of John Paquette, a white foreman in the department who was accused by a black worker of spraying markings on the back of his orange work shirt and then saying it looked like “KKK.”
The investigation concluded there was no evidence Paquette sprayed the acronym for the Klu Klux Klan, but that he showed disrespect by spraying the worker’s shirt and through his comment.
He was suspended without pay for 10 days and ordered to attend sensitivity training.
Local NAACP activists said Paquette got off lightly, sending a message to the city’s black population that the city was not taking racism seriously.
“That told 70,000 people in St. Petersburg that this is no big deal and we’re going to let it go,” said Kurt Donley, chairman of the St. Petersburg NAACP public safety committee.
Since the incident and the investigation happened before Mayor Rick Kriseman took office, the mayor is powerless to retroactively mete out further punishment, said Ben Kirby, Kriseman’s communications director.
But concern over race relations among city workers led Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin recently to send a memo to all 2,200 city workers reminding them of the city’s anti-discrimination policy.
“The Mayor’s expectations are clear,” Tomalin wrote. “Discrimination against any person for any reason is unacceptable.”
That followed a memo sent at the beginning of this month by Public Works Administrator Mike Connors to Stormwater, Pavement and Traffic Operations workers warning that the city would take serious action against any employee found to have retaliated against another worker who makes a complaint or participates in an investigation.
The investigation of the stormwater department concluded in May. It looked into allegations that black workers were not offered training or more favorable work assignments that often come with overtime, that there was segregation and that experienced black workers were passed over for promotions in favor of less qualified white workers who were “allowed to grow on the job.”
City human resources staff who conducted the review found that black workers felt there was racism and racial tension, while white workers were sure there was none.
It also found black workers were underrepresented at the foreman position in the stormwater division of the department.
Wynn, the stormwater worker, and another black employee worked as acting foreman for two years without being promoted to the position, which the report described as unfair.
After the review, department director Jerry Fortney agreed to change promotion processes to “more effectively promote equal opportunity for all employees.”
City council members said they were disturbed at the allegations and asked Cornwell to keep the city informed of the results of the climate study.
“This incident is indeed painful and shocking,” Councilwoman Darden Rice said.