Biting the Hand That Needs
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.
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.
In her report, Lamar concludes that the city was suffering from "affirmative action cycle," a five-year period in which a female and/or minority is hired and eventually leaves because, in Lamar's words, "the internal organizational culture does not match our stated goals, and recruits become disillusioned about being able to obtain career expectations and decide to leave the organization." The phenomenon is common, Lamar says, and typically overlooked when annual reports don't offer statistical comparisons.
Promotions, of course, are available at more than just middle and senior levels, and Lamar claims that, at all levels, minorities complain about the lack of opportunity in Fort Lauderdale.
Keith Hudson, a white parks and recreation employee, says he was offered the chance to go from Level I for maintenance workers to Level II back in 1981, soon after he was hired. Because Hudson was planning to move to Colorado at the time, he suggested the promotion go instead to Willie McIntyre, the black employee who'd trained him and been with the city for five years. Hudson says that, because the promotion was meant only for him, the supervisor ripped up the paper on which it was written in front of both men.
"I got real pissed at that," Hudson recalls. "But Willie just said, 'No man, that's just the way [the supervisor] is,' and we went about our jobs. To this day they are like that. I'm probably the only white guy who will say this because we're all afraid of losing our jobs. That's one of the biggest fears people have in this city today -- speaking out will get you fired, especially if it's against management. But I'm tired of being messed with. They treat me just as bad as they treat some of the black guys."
Hudson assumes that he was offered the promotion because, at the time, his then-mother-in-law worked for the city. "They figured I was somebody," he says. "Willie was nobody to them." Hudson says McIntyre eventually quit because of the unfair treatment.
Lamar's 1996 report shows that, in some cases, minorities weren't able even to get a foot in the door. The racial makeup of the beach patrol is the most telling. In 1996 at least two African-Americans, two Hispanics, and ten women should have been either patrol members or beach lifeguards. The numbers, instead, were zero, one, and one, respectively. On the other hand, the numbers for minority and female detention officers were higher than the city's goals. Because both jobs are listed under the "non-sworn protective services" category, the overall tally suggested the city was meeting its goals. But Lamar's detailed look at the years 1991 to 1996 concluded that, on the beach at least, that wasn't the case.
"The city says blacks are hired for the jail [detention officer jobs] because they apply," Lamar says. "Well, blacks apply for detention officers because they know they can get those jobs. If you have a 75-year history of not hiring blacks [as lifeguards] on the beach, it doesn't take long for them to get it. You tend not to apply because you know you won't get it.
"That is what systemic racism is," she adds. "A system is in place -- and it's perpetuated for three generations -- that has eliminated an entire section of the population. [City managers] cannot fix the problem by waiting for [minorities] to come in and apply."
Look around, and you'll see black lifeguards at the city's pools and parks every summer, but you'll find none on the beach. In her deposition Lamar says that she's been told by black applicants that the city won't hire black lifeguards because white tourists don't go to Fort Lauderdale "to see niggers on the beach."
Meanwhile, blacks are fixtures on beach maintenance crews. In fact, the first black hired for the job was McCree, in 1977. What's interesting to note, Lamar says, is that beach maintenance workers start work before dawn and finish by noon, a time when tourists are just starting to head to the beaches.
Lamar's report was never made public, her bosses say, because it was inaccurate. Larkin did not return phone calls for this story, but Panoch and Witschen say the report's conclusions were Lamar's opinions and not based in fact.
"Her draft was all screwed up, and that's one of the reasons she's not here any more," Panoch says. "Her job [was] to give conclusions based on facts, not on opinions."
But in depositions taken two weeks ago for Lamar's lawsuit, three black midlevel managers currently employed in the planning, public services, and city manager's departments claim they had either experienced or received reports of discriminatory employment practices.
"I wouldn't be so up in arms about this if it was an isolated incident," says Lamar's attorney, Reginald Clyne. "I get at least one or two calls a week from city employees [about discrimination]. I'm hoping that if I create a big enough stink, they will react by firing some of the top management and hiring people who will enforce the laws."
Since taking on Lamar's case in late 1996, Clyne says he's come across two dozen current and former employees with strong-enough cases to file formal complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). At least eight have filed formal complaints, and he's using the others to prove in court that Fort Lauderdale treats black and female employees more harshly than white male employees.
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:
None of this would have never happened. All the hope, effort and opportunity at employment only prove to be futile after being terminated by the city of Fort Lauderdale (job references). I felt I was treated very unfairly by the city after 17 years. The malicious and racist nature of how my situation was 'set up' and handled. The economic lynching without regard or recourse was (is) still something very evil. Since I couldn't continue to support my family, life became nothing. I no longer wanted to live in this kind of world. I also wanted to punish some of the cowardly, racist devils that help bring this about, along with the system. I am glad I did it. It became war. There should have been a more humane system. But no. All too often, the disease (racism) is personified in the white race of devils. After nearly 41 years of life as a black male there's been too many negative experiences and encounters.
"Well, that's kind of clear," Johnson says of the note today. "Even if it wasn't racial, it becomes a racial issue by virtue of this world and society that we live in. It was racial just because it happened that way [a black man killing all white men]. And you're sticking your head in the sand if you choose not to see that."
After Johnson's visit with the city's managers, she was not asked back to lead counseling sessions with employees. Instead, Panoch and Larkin hired a crisis-management team with experience in workplace violence, not racism.
"It was my conclusion after spending time [analyzing the shooting] that that act was not racially motivated," Witschen says. "Nothing I see warrants that conclusion."
That's because neither Witschen nor any other white manager was looking in the right place, Lamar says. Whites didn't think race played a part in the killings. Blacks did.
"No one wanted to address what could have been the real cause of that tragedy," says City Commissioner Carlton Moore. "If an individual has not lived it, if an individual has not felt it, they cannot understand it."
Even more important to Lamar, at the time, was to be at least involved with the recovery process.
"In my opinion, for the city not to have the city's [affirmative action specialist] involved in all phases of analysis and remedy of this tragedy will prove to be a mistake when the final chapter is recorded and read," she wrote in an e-mail to Panoch in early March 1996. "I am trying not to let that happen."
Though she wasn't invited to her bosses' meetings, Lamar nevertheless talked to dozens of black employees at funerals and memorials for days after the shootings, and most admitted to understanding how McCree could have done what he did. "The black men felt anger and fear, because they had traveled down that same road and weren't sure how far they were from McCree," Lamar says. "Maybe McCree went fifteen steps, and these men went twelve, thirteen, fourteen. They didn't know where that point was for them, and that scared them.
"The city did something worse than not dealing with it," Lamar says. "They used their lack of dealing with it to state that it was a nonissue. I think the same powder keg is building just like it did before."
Eventually Lamar's managers responded to her pleas. In an e-mail sent to Panoch, Larkin wrote that he would "prefer that Deborah spend her time on the specific assignments she has already been given." Two days later she was reprimanded for missing deadlines on four projects. Three of the deadlines had passed while she was out sick. The fourth was actually a government contracting expo she'd missed seven months earlier. On March 31, 1996, Lamar was suspended for four days with pay.
"When my questions and advice challenges the status quo... I was to be silenced by personal discipline as a distraction, and set up for future termination," she alleges in a written appeal of her suspension. "Missing manning a booth at an expo seven months ago is insufficient grounds for a manager career to be put on the line or for any formal discipline."
During her suspension Lamar decided it was time to submit a detailed affirmative action report, no matter what the consequences. She submitted the 61-page draft to department heads on July 10, 1996, five months after the shootings and several months past deadline. On July 26, Larkin asked her to resign, saying that if she didn't he would recommend she be fired, Lamar claims. He cited incompetence and missed deadlines as the primary reasons.
Lamar refused to resign, and a week later she was given notice of eleven charges against her, including more missed deadlines, violations of e-mail and computer policies, and spending $600 on outside printing to get her affirmative action report prepared.
Larkin suspended Lamar without pay for twenty days and recommended to Hanbury that she be fired. As she served her suspension, other charges trickled in, including using the city's computers to conduct personal business on city time and exceeding the budget of a summer youth program she oversaw by about $4500. Lamar claims that these are false charges, because in each case she was doing her job and had the approval of her superiors. Despite her claims, she was fired.
Incredibly, Lamar wants her job back. She says as much in the federal lawsuit filed in August, charging that the city, Hanbury, Witschen, Larkin, and Panoch discriminated against her as a black manager and punished her for trying to make public the city's discriminatory employment practices.
"Do I really want to go back into that snake pit?" she asks today. "I really think I could do a lot of good in a short period of time. It won't be comfortable, but the struggle is not about being comfortable. It's about having equality."
What Lamar, a single mother of two, doesn't have these days is a full-time job. Aside from a few consulting jobs, she's been unemployed since she was fired. She claims she's been passed over because her personnel file in Fort Lauderdale does not include her written defenses. Her family has already been evicted from one apartment, and she periodically has to decide which utility to have shut off when money runs out at the end of the month. She drew her last unemployment check in April.
At City Hall in Fort Lauderdale, meanwhile, it's business as usual. Lamar's job was posted while she was still on suspension in September 1996, and it was filled in April 1997 by Yolanda Goodloe Cowart. Since that time Cowart has developed a diversity action program that includes cultural diversity training. She also created a Managing Diversity Committee, a board of top city managers charged with developing diversity policies, creating goals, and guiding the city as it pursues those goals.
"We're not just looking at reactive things but proactive things," Cowart says. "Sure, some employees have issues, but we're trying to resolve them internally."
Not all get resolved. Clyne says he's taking on only cases involving incidents that took place within the last six months, and his plate is full with more than twenty.
Clyne has just begun taking depositions in Lamar's case, and a trial date is nowhere in sight. The top managers named as defendants have filed dozens of motions to avoid answering questions under oath. Lamar isn't surprised. The city, she says, is doing what it's always done: refusing to acknowledge that it tolerates racism, sexism, and favoritism. What's even worse, she adds, is that the white managers are responsible for making decisions that effect all of the city's residents. So why not listen when a black woman, who is an expert in racial issues, says that something is wrong?
"It's like you're stepping on my toe," Lamar says, "and you're telling me not to holler. You don't feel it or understand why I'm hollerin', but you have to trust me that I feel it and get off.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.