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

But city officials aren't too concerned.
"We get sued every day by people," Panoch says. "There's never been a big controversy in the city over racism. There's never been a big finding against the city over racism. Just because people say it doesn't mean it's there."

Katrenia McCutchen doesn't agree. A former member of the city's road crew, she says her male coworkers regularly made derogatory comments to her and her foreman told her that, when she felt the need to urinate, she was to do so on the side of the road, just like her coworkers. McCutchen also claims that, after arguing with a coworker over the use of an office telephone, she was suspended for five days for insubordination while her coworker wasn't disciplined at all. McCutchen eventually filed an EEOC complaint, alleging civil rights violations in the form of reprimands for things she didn't do. Meanwhile, her work performance was never questioned. McCutchen, who quit the road crew last August, says that, from the start, her male coworkers made her feel unwelcome.

"It was their territory, and I wasn't supposed to be there," she recalls. "They would say to me, 'You took a man's job. You took a job away from a man.' I didn't take a man's job. I'm qualified, I'm experienced, I earned it. But they have their own little clique of good ol' boys."

Regarding the issue of punishment, Clyne and Lamar claim that several minority city employees they've talked to don't have a problem with being disciplined for breaking the rules; it's just that whites are not punished nearly as harshly for breaking the same rules.

"There are definite discrepancies in how the road was smoothed for white males and not for blacks or women," Lamar says of her days with the city. "Whites were given alternatives in uncomfortable situations. Those were not things [managers] had to do, but things they would do for whites and not blacks. Management is subtle. It's not the '50s and '60s. Subtleties that are characteristic of the '90s are just as damaging and just as easily felt. And they're even more frustrating, because they are very difficult to prove."

Claims of discriminatory punishment are brushed aside by Witschen, who says the real issue is performance.

"I don't think there's any pattern of discrimination," he says. "It concerns me that there would be any employee that would feel that they were discriminated against and didn't understand the depth of the performance problems with them. That's a communication problem that we'd have to deal with."

Dealing with the problem of discrimination in Fort Lauderdale became public in 1980, after a class-action lawsuit filed by members of the fire and police departments came to a head. The result was a federal consent decree, which called for 30 percent of all future hires to be minorities and/or women, until they comprised 11.25 percent of each department. By 1988 the city still hadn't reached that level, and an affirmative action specialist post was created. Lamar was hired.

For the first few years, Lamar's affirmative action reports were optimistic, pointing out that the city had continued to hire and promote more women and minorities, even if it hadn't quite reached its goals. By 1994, after attempts to diversify all of the city's departments, she began to have doubts. The first draft of her 1995 report suggested that city managers could no longer ignore the fact that, in many cases, the city had not met its affirmative action goals. Nor had it shown any interest in encouraging younger residents to consider city jobs. Lamar knew from her work with at-risk teens, in particular, that minority kids didn't trust the police and had no interest in working for the government in any way. It was the city's responsibility, Lamar suggested, to take an active role in training and recruiting young minorities.

Lamar was told to remove the critiques from her report, but she resisted, arguing that the report would be meaningless without them. In the meantime she missed her deadline and as a result was suspended -- for the first time since she'd begun working for the city -- for one day with pay. When the report was finally submitted, her critiques weren't included.

On the day of the McCree massacre, a Friday, Lamar was at home, recovering from a back injury suffered during an office move. She wasn't due back at work until Monday but decided to head to the office after seeing a report of the incident on the morning news.

Although she was shut out of the crisis meeting, Lamar says she talked to City Manager George Hanbury for two hours that Monday night, warning him that many of the city's employees would believe that the shooting was racially motivated. After the meeting Dr. Cheryl Woodson Johnson, a psychologist recommended by Lamar, was brought in to advise senior managers on how to deal with possible racial repercussions. Two weeks after the shootings took place -- in a beach maintenance trailer, where McCree's former coworkers had gathered prior to heading out for work -- Dr. Johnson told the city's managers that race had played a role in the tragedy. McCree's suicide note, she pointed out, left little to the imagination:

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