ST. PETERSBURG — A string of city workers, union officials and community members went before the City Council on Thursday to demand that the city do something about racial tension within its workforce.
"We have real issues here," said Robin Wynn, a stormwater worker who recently filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the city for what she calls discriminatory treatment. "This city promotes institutional racism."
Wynn is one of several black city workers who spoke out in recent articles in the Tampa Bay Times about issues in some departments, most noticeably in Stormwater, where a white supervisor spray-painted marks on the back of a black man's work vest and made reference to the Ku Klux Klan.
Kurt Donley, a member of the NAACP and past president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said the "KKK incident" was a stupid, harmful act.
He criticized the city's response — the supervisor was suspended for 10 days, though guidelines called for termination — and said it was an example of institutional racism.
"That told 70,000 in the city of St. Petersburg that it was no big deal and were going to let it go," Donley said. "Taxpayer money shouldn't be paying for a good old boys club."
Subsequent investigations by the city's human resource department confirmed many of the longstanding concerns raised by Wynn and others over the past several months about uneven promotion and training opportunities for black workers in Stormwater.
On Thursday, Wynn and others questioned whether the city's new plan to hold sensitivity training, announced days after the newspaper's stories, will go far enough.
Rick Smith, chief of staff for the city's workers, told the council it has a moral obligation to fix the issues, even if much of the authority to make changes rests with the mayor.
Council members apologized for the KKK incident and demanded top officials provide them with more information about it. City Administrator Gary Cornwell promised to turn over the reports the city already has generated on the issue.
"This incident is indeed painful and shocking," said council member Darden Rice, who also revived her idea to have the city hire a diversity officer.
Donley and others urged the city to conduct a citywide climate survey. Officials have said that is their intention.
Council chairman Bill Dudley said the public should know that the city does not tolerate racism, but urged people to allow the city time to address things.
"Institutional racism, homophobia, sexism . . . we should be way beyond it," said council member Steve Kornell, who said he wants all employees to know they should he comfortable coming forward with complaints. "Unfortunately we're still dealing with it."
Contact Kameel Stanley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.