Hernando racial harassment review widens

BROOKSVILLE — The outside attorney brought in to review allegations of racial harassment in the county Utilities Department also will review the policies, procedures and management of the Human Resources Department, which first investigated the allegations.

Part of that review will be the "unilateral actions of the director,'' Barbara Dupre, who did not immediately share the serious racial discrimination allegations with upper management, according to County Administrator David Hamilton.

In fact, Hamilton revealed Tuesday that he and other top managers first learned of the allegations in an e-mail he opened during the County Commission meeting April 1. That e-mail, from Martha Rodriguez, threatened to make a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if the county didn't immediately act to stop harassment of her son, Utilities employee Jason Booker, harassment also allegedly experienced by former Utilities employee Floyd Moore.

The allegations detail incidents in which nooses were displayed and placed on employees, workers had dirt pushed on them when they were working in a hole and a case in which one worker told another to go back to Africa.

While Hamilton and commissioners first learned of the allegations from the e-mail, Dupre had actually investigated a complaint of racial harassment involving Booker and other utility employees a week earlier.

Dupre, who is on probation for an incident late last year involving keeping campaign petition cards in her office, said Tuesday that she understands why an outside attorney has been brought in and she welcomes the review of her actions as well as her department's policies and procedures.

She said she could not comment on the specifics or timing of the initial complaints because the investigation is ongoing.

"But I am definitely looking forward to all of the facts coming out at the conclusion of this,'' she said.

Hamilton has given the Tampa law firm of Glenn, Rassmussen, Fogarty and Hooker until April 22 to review interview notes with 11 individuals and other material in the investigative file and make recommendations.

During that same time, the firm will review the structure, procedures, policies and management of Human Resources. Hamilton said he expects to act swiftly next week after those reports have been prepared.

He has set a limit for the firm's expenditures at $5,000.

Hamilton said another reason for the larger review of Human Resources policies was the fact that the alleged harassment had happened over a period of time and did not seem to be isolated to a single incident.

The processes of county government need to be consistent and proactive, he said, because Human Resources needs a clear plan for staffing, training, management and development. The review should result in recommendations that ensure "that we don't keep stepping backward,'' he said.

"We cannot afford to continue onward in an organization that is reactive in nature,'' Hamilton said. "You also have the costs of management being moved into serious issues and away from the day-to-day strategic management of the organization at a time when we face most challenging budgetary issues.''

Hamilton said the county needs to be working on those issues rather than putting out other fires.

The county will conduct mandatory training for both supervisors and employees in the coming weeks that will "teach respectful behavior in the workplace,'' Hamilton said.

"That's not to diminish the serious racial aspect of this,'' he said. "It's designed to address what is symptomatic of an overall organizational need that cannot wait to be addressed any longer.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando racial harassment review widens 04/15/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 20, 2008 11:49am]

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