Former employee accuses Seminole officials of race bias

SEMINOLE — A part-time maintenance worker says city officials fired him because he complained about repeated incidents of offensive graffiti that included a noose, swastika and threats.

"In reality, they were trying to cover up what was happening to me," Derrick Cobarris said. "They didn't take it seriously because they weren't the ones (being targeted)."

Cobarris reported one incident to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which is investigating. He has also filed state and federal discrimination charges against the city of Seminole. The city has until Dec. 23 to answer the race bias claims.

Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds was not available for comment.

Cobarris, 32, went to work for the city in April 2008 as a 25-hour-a-week maintenance worker at a pay rate of $10.94 an hour. When he was fired Sept. 10, Cobarris was earning $11.93 per hour.

Cobarris' work with Seminole started well. Cobarris received an overall 2.5 rating on Seminole's 3-point scale in a September 2008 job evaluation.

"Derrick is very good at what he does and the quality of his work is excellent," his foreman noted on the evaluation. "Derrick sets a high standard for how he does his job and the job itself. His attention to detail is high. Derrick has only taken five hours sick in six months."

Cobarris responded, "I like to go on the record and thank the city of Seminole for giving me the opportunity to show my good work ethic and positive attitude towards my job."

The situation deteriorated some after that. Cobarris' performance ranking dropped slightly to 2.1508 on both his March 2009 and March 2010 evaluations. The foreman noted in both that the rating drop was caused by Cobarris' excessive use of sick time. His sick time issues were also the topic of a January 2010 memo in which he was told he would have to have a doctor's note in order to claim sick leave.

Some time after that, Cobarris, whose duties included cleaning the bathrooms at Blossom Lake Park, 10497 Blossom Lake Drive, began finding graffiti written on the walls. Cobarris, as the only African-American in Seminole's public works department, said he knew the slurs were directed at him. Some of the markings were of a noose. Another time, a swastika was drawn. The "N" word was used. And one said to "f--- Obama."

One time, he flagged down a passing deputy who took a picture of that day's graffiti, which said "no blacks."

The situation got so bad that Cobarris feared going to the park. But the city did not transfer him elsewhere.

"They didn't have my best interests at all," Cobarris said. Officials, he said, brushed off the incidents as harmless graffiti. And, he said, their attitude changed: "All they did was tolerate me" after he complained, and they took their first chance to fire him, he said.

Seminole records show that on Aug. 5, Cobarris claimed he was injured on the job while lifting some trash over the bed of a city truck. A doctor cleared him to return to work Sept. 1, but he did not show up that day. On Sept. 10, the city fired him, saying he had lied when claiming workers' compensation and for not returning to work on time.

Cobarris denied that he had lied and said that he did not realize he was supposed to return to work Sept. 1. He went back on Sept. 2.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Former employee accuses Seminole officials of race bias 12/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 4, 2010 3:31am]

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