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Biting the Hand That Needs

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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.

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Lucy Chabot

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