Biting the Hand That Needs

From the beach to city hall, Fort Lauderdale puts women and minorities in their place, says an affirmative action specialist who was fired after speaking up

Late in the afternoon of February 9, 1996, Fort Lauderdale City Hall was reeling from an onslaught of reporters who wanted answers. At dawn that day, a disgruntled former employee had shot and killed five city maintenance workers at the beach, then turned the gun on himself. The killer, Clifton McCree, was black; his victims -- Joe Belotto, Mark Bretz, Ken Brunjes, Tim Clifford, and Don Moon, Jr. -- were white.

City officials had been called together to figure out how to handle the crisis and explain to the city's 2000 employees how such a thing could happen. On the way to the seventh-floor conference room, Assistant City Manager Bud Bentley asked Deborah Rice Lamar, the city's affirmative action specialist, to check her records and see if McCree had ever complained of discrimination. A suicide note found in his pocket referred to the "malicious and racist nature" of his firing.

Lamar rushed to her office and rummaged through her files but found nothing. During his nearly eighteen years of service to the city, McCree had never filed a formal complaint of racism. Lamar raced back to the conference room, knocked on the door, and stepped inside, telling Bentley the news. With his hand on the doorknob, he thanked her and began to close the door. Lamar backed out of the room and noticed it was filled with the city's top managers, most of them men, all of them white. Bentley shut the door, leaving outside the one person whose job it was to advise city officials on matters of potential discrimination.

Lamar was confused. McCree had written in his suicide note that he "wanted to punish some of the cowardly, racist devils" who he believed precipitated his firing fourteen months earlier. She thought the note made up for the fact that he hadn't formally complained and suggested that racial discrimination, or at least the perception of it, was one of the reasons he'd taken action. So why wasn't she being asked to participate in the meeting?

In a way, she already had. Less than a year before the killings, Lamar had warned her superiors, in an early draft of her 1995 annual affirmative action report, that many black employees believed the city treated them unfairly, and that tensions would worsen without some kind of response. But she says her bosses -- Personnel Director John Panoch and Administrative Services Director Bruce Larkin -- told her to remove the criticism from the report, which she did.

Considering the McCree shootings and her exclusion from the crisis meeting, Lamar decided not to water down the 1996 report. The first draft, at 61 pages (six times the size of any previous report), consisted of charts, graphs, analyses, and recommendations. Though not scathing, the report does make some strong recommendations for curing racial ills and compares, for the first time, hiring and promotion statistics for minorities and women during a five-year period, 1991 to 1996. Lamar wanted to show evidence that not nearly as much progress had been made as city officials claimed. Previous reports covered only a year's worth of hires and promotions and did not mention how many employees had left the city, thus giving the impression that city government was more diverse than it actually was, Lamar claims. Soon after submitting the final draft to her superiors in July 1996, she was suspended and later fired.

Lamar, age 47, is suing the city in both county and federal courts to get her job back. She claims her bosses violated her civil rights by reacting to her critical report with reprimands, suspensions, and eventually dismissal. Also named as defendants are the four white men who were her bosses: Panoch, Larkin, Assistant City Manager Pete Witschen, and City Manager George Hanbury.

While Lamar's original report was whittled down to two pages, offering nothing more than general statements and statistics, Lamar recently shared her first draft with New Times, making it public for the first time. The report reveals a city that met some of its diversity goals, fell far short of others, and made no progress at all in some areas. Her 1996 report points out three main problems:

*The city's policymakers and senior managers -- overseeing police, public services, and planning and economic development, among other departments -- were all white men. For five years, meanwhile, the city's goal, set up so that departments would better reflect the people they serve, was to have at least one black and two female senior managers among its top eight.

*Women and minorities who had worked their ways into middle-manager jobs had not been promoted to senior-level jobs, despite being qualified, and in some cases had left the city to advance their careers elsewhere.

*Some city departments appeared to shun minorities. For example, over the last 75 years, Fort Lauderdale has hired only one black beach lifeguard, employed for a short time in the early '90s. In 1996 even the beach maintenance crew consisted of only 16 percent minorities, while elsewhere in the city 40 to 45 percent of the maintenance crews were minorities.

The city is "plagued with racism, glass ceilings for women and brick walls for people of color, a tolerance for the perceptions of unfairness and a proverbial silence about it all," Lamar wrote in her original report. She also recommended ways to reach out to the community, recruit qualified minorities, and open channels of communication. But city officials say that Lamar's report -- along with its contents -- had nothing to do with her dismissal. She was fired, they say, because she wasn't doing her job. And while Lamar, who hasn't been able to find work since she was fired, admits that some of her actions in 1996 warranted reprimands, she claims dismissal was unjustified. Her career was ruined, she believes, because she wanted to hold the city accountable for what she deemed discriminatory hiring, promoting, and discipline practices.

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