ST. PETERSBURG — City officials say they are taking multiple steps to address issues in the Stormwater Department in the aftermath of a black city worker's claim that his white boss spray-painted "KKK" on his back, and a subsequent investigation that unearthed serious racial friction among employees.
Employees will undergo sensitivity training, and the city will seek an outside group to conduct a formal climate survey, said city spokesman Ben Kirby.
Officials did not specify Wednesday exactly who will get the training. Mayor Rick Kriseman also has not decided whether the survey will be limited to Stormwater or expanded to the city's entire workforce, as sought by the local union.
"If I took you on a tour of the city … you can visually see the separation of the races. And you see that all around the city. It implies that something is wrong," said Rick Smith, chief of staff for the union that represents 1,200 blue- and white-collar city workers. "These are things you just can't ignore. Let's get the facts. It's a problem that exists. You can't stick your head in the sand over it."
The administration's announcement comes after a Sunday story in the Tampa Bay Times revealed, for the first time publicly, an October incident in which construction foreman John Paquette spray-painted marks on the back of worker Donald Pittman, who is black, and then said, "It looks like someone sprayed KKK on your back."
After an internal investigation, the city suspended Paquette for 10 days and ordered him to take a sensitivity class. Paquette's punishment was considered too lenient by some since city guidelines called for termination.
A subsequent, larger investigation into the Stormwater Department found long-standing racial tension and problems with promotion and training.
One Stormwater worker, Robin Wynn, filed a complaint against the city late last month with the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In an interview, Wynn said she and another black worker, Andre Allen, have worked as acting foremen in the department for years, exceeding city limits on the amount of time workers can serve in supervisor roles without being promoted. Earlier this summer, they were told the city was eliminating their positions and creating new "lead" positions for which they could apply.
Both workers believe that was in retaliation for speaking out against the KKK incident.
"If you take the B.S., that means you're content with it. And I'm not content with it," said Wynn, who has worked for the city for 17 years and is one of two black women in the 124-member department. "You just can't sit back and not do nothing. You gotta take a stand. I'm just tired. Tired of being silenced."
The investigation into the department found black workers were under-utilized as foremen. While they make up 34 percent of the workforce, they represent only 17 percent of the foreman positions.
There has never been more than one black foreman at a time in the past seven years, the investigation found.
"It's been kind of lopsided for a long time," said worker Charlie Williams, 47. "It's just kind of discouraging when you walk into an environment like that."
Williams said he tested for foreman several times in his 17 years with the department, but never made the top of the testing list.
He said morale is low among black workers who feel like they get passed over for positions in favor of white workers with less experience.
Blacks also said they were often excluded from training opportunities, with Allen and others specifically mentioning spray and vactor equipment. White supervisors denied they have been selective and said they will train anyone who requests it.
The investigation did note, however, there is no formal procedure to request training and that black workers were under-represented as operators of that equipment.
Desmond Miller has been in Stormwater for a year. A few months ago, he saw a posting on the board for a city leadership class. He said his request to attend was shot down by department director Jerry Fortney.
So the 25-year-old found a leadership class at a community college. He paid for it himself, then asked that his certificate be added to his file.
"It hasn't been the same since," Miller said. "I used to speak to (Jerry Fortney) every day, and he would speak back in a friendly manner. He no longer does."
On Monday, Kriseman issued a statement calling the KKK incident "inflammatory and insensitive."
"I am committed to seeing this department shine and ensuring that all of our employees are treated with dignity and respect," he wrote on Facebook.
Several current and black city workers said they are hopeful things will change.
But some are skeptical. They've made complaints about uneven training opportunities and discipline practices before.
Besides the KKK incident, black workers also cited another instance in which a white employee kept his supervisor position after making negative racial comments.
Thomas Smith, then a foreman and now a supervisor in the pavement division, was accused of using the N-word in the late 1990s. He denied it, but was written up years later after admitting he'd told a worker to "get your black a-- over here and get to work," according to city records. Though Smith said he was joking at the time, the employee told investigators he did not think it was funny and asked to be transferred.
"Our department's not been about building morale," Allen said. "We should be close-knit, brother-to-brother. But it's not like that."
Though the city's investigation did not validate an allegation that segregation is practiced in the Stormwater Department, several workers said the division is noticeable in the break room.
Miller said he sits outside now because of it.
"It's as if there's an invisible line between everyone," he said. "That's the first thing I noticed when I started working there."
LaTishia Staley, 36, used to work in the city's male-dominated Wastewater Department. She resigned her post nearly three weeks ago because of what she called bullying and racially-tinged incidents. She said people were spreading untrue rumors that she and other black workers were sleeping on the job.
"They act like discrimination is dead, and if they don't talk about it, it doesn't exist," said Staley, who now works for Hillsborough County. "And that's what I feel like goes on in the city of St. Petersburg. And that's unfortunate."
Contact Kameel Stanley at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.