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

In Fort Lauderdale the affirmative action specialist is responsible for setting goals for the hiring and promotion of minorities and women and for developing strategies to meet those goals. The specialist also handles discrimination complaints and advises department heads and personnel officials on how to meet state and federal standards concerning equal-opportunity employment, among other duties.

Lamar was well acquainted with such duties when she was hired by Fort Lauderdale in 1988. After earning a bachelor's degree in psychology from Howard University, she served as discrimination investigator with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs. Between 1976 and 1978, she investigated discrimination complaints for the Broward County Housing Authority and the county's human-relations division. During the early and mid-'80s, she put together affirmative action plans for Motorola, an electronics company, and Gould, a computer company.

So when McCree killed five white people and then himself and in his suicide note blamed the city for his rage, a red flag went up. Lamar felt it was time to force her bosses to acknowledge what they'd denied for so long: that city employment practices, which include discipline measures, are inequitable among blacks and whites, with blacks getting passed over for promotions in favor of less-qualified whites and receiving harsher punishment for violations.

In October 1994 McCree, who was working for the beach maintenance crew at the time, was ordered to take a drug test after a white coworker told their foreman that McCree had smoked pot off duty. After testing positive McCree was suspended, then fired in December. Lamar says that, after the shootings, some city employees told her if McCree were white, he would have been given drug-abuse counseling and, at most, a reprimand. It was common knowledge, they added, that many maintenance-crew workers were pot-smokers, but that no one else had been tested. This was simply another case of a black employee receiving harsher punishment than a white counterpart.

It's not a new story, but in the case of McCree, it was the last straw, Lamar believes. It's also a widespread problem, according to Carlton Moore, the only black member of the city commission.

"America has institutional racism and so does the city of Fort Lauderdale," he says. "There are certain things that are underaddressed, whether that's by accident or by purpose. Maybe people aren't racist, but their comments and actions are."

The actions of Fort Lauderdale as an institution weren't quite living up to its words, according to Lamar. When she was affirmative action specialist, the city's equal-opportunity employment goals were determined in part by what's referred to as "eight-factor availability," a census-based calculation that takes into account, among other things, minority populations, the size of the work force, and the availability of qualified workers in a given area. On a yearly basis, the formula helps to pinpoint just how many minorities and women should be on the city payroll to meet state and federal regulations. And, every year for five years between 1991 and 1996, the city fell short, Lamar says.

Take the case of the city bosses. By 1996, out of eight senior managers, at least one should have been African-American, two of them women. They were all white men, however. Assistant City Manager Jim Hill, an African-American, had been recognized as "senior," but Lamar changed his classification after determining that his responsibilities, decision-making power, and salary were not on par with the two white assistant city managers. Hill hadn't even attended a management meeting in years, Lamar says. The city finally reached its African-American senior-management goal in July 1997, when it hired Otis J. Latin, Sr. as fire chief.

With her 1996 report, Lamar's intention was simply to put on the record, and thus make public, what she -- and her bosses -- had known for years. But in a deposition for her lawsuit, Lamar notes that Witschen said the original report would be damaging as a public document. And three weeks before Lamar submitted her final draft, Panoch sent her an e-mail, in which he wrote, "We need to regroup... management would like a fresh approach."

"There's probably not enough," Panoch admits today, referring to women and minorities in city management positions. "We've been working on it for years. But we're getting more and more diverse."

Witschen agrees that the city could be more diverse but notes that it must hire the most qualified people for jobs, regardless of race or gender.

"I want to see more opportunity, more training," he says. "I want to see a more available job pool so that, when promotions come up and the opportunities come up... underrepresented classes are there in sufficient numbers with sufficient training so we can make the promotions or hiring decisions."

Such talk is cheap, Lamar believes, because, as her report claims, there are plenty of minority midlevel managers who qualify for senior-level jobs. Because those jobs are not available in Fort Lauderdale, however, many minorities are leaving the city for better opportunities elsewhere. To some degree the numbers support her claim. In 1996 the city was supposed to have as midlevel managers four African-Americans, two Hispanics, and thirteen women. But it had only three African-Americans, one Hispanic, and six women. Not only was the city short of its goals, but in one case, that of women, it was four short of the number it employed in 1991.

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