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Hernando Utilities Department is sorting out race conflict

BROOKSVILLE — The county has finished interviews with 11 Utilities Department workers to get to the bottom of racial harassment accusations and officials now have begun acting on what they have learned.

One employee placed on paid administrative leave last week because of the allegations, 14-year veteran Mike Welch, was told Friday he can return to work Monday.

Jason Booker, who was also on paid leave, was told to come back to work Monday.

Two other employees, Mike Smith and Darrell Rose, who have nine years and 18 years of experience, respectively, remain on paid leave. Another employee, Will Wilson, a two-year employee, was placed on paid leave until the investigation is concluded.

County officials are sorting through a list of complaints of harassment, both physical and verbal, made over an extended period.

A separate sheriff's investigation of harassment is ongoing.

County Administrator David Hamilton asked the county attorney to bring in outside legal help to review the investigative files and make a recommendation of further action April 22. Hamilton said that attorneys Mark Hanley and Alysa Ward of the employment law firm Glenn, Rassmussen, Fogarty and Hooker P.A. of Tampa will begin work Tuesday.

They will be charging fees of $325 per hour for Hanley's work and $248.50 per hour for Ward's.

"Given the gravity of the allegations, it's very appropriate and important to have arm's-length, professional advice on the next steps as we work our way through this,'' Hamilton said.

Transcripts of the employee interviews had not been completed and could not be reviewed late Friday.

The county attorney's office, however, did release a memo regarding harassment episodes in the Utilities Department.

The memo, which was found in the utilities director's in-box in an unmarked envelope Friday morning, ostensibly came from wastewater collections supervisor Daniel LeCompte and employee Rose.

It states that on March 24, Booker left a job site and his car broke down. When LeCompte went to pick him up, Booker complained he was "tired of the racial comments specifically made that day by Will Wilson addressed to him and that is why he left the job site.''

The next day, LeCompte, Rose, Smith and Booker met to talk about the incident. Smith said that Booker, who is black, also had made racial comments he needed to stop. Booker agreed.

Since it was a first incident, LeCompte asked Booker if an apology from Wilson would do and he said it would. On March 26, Wilson apologized and he and Booker shook hands.

Human Resources director Barbara Dupre approved the actions at the meeting and suggested having an instructor lead a diversity class in the future.

Booker's grandmother, former county administrative secretary Jeanette Soto, and Booker's mother, Martha Rodriguez, have since complained of several incidents of racial harassment against Booker and another former utilities employee, Floyd Moore. Rodriguez threatened to take the matter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Tampa if the county didn't address it immediately.

Their complaints include instances in which Moore was pushed down and had a noose put around his neck as a "joke," another incident involving a noose in a tree, an instance in which a worker had dirt pushed on him in a hole and another case where an employee told one of the workers to "take your black a-- back to Africa.''

Also on Friday, Hamilton said he and other county staff would attend a meeting that night of the local chapter of the NAACP at the invitation of activist Richard Howell.

The county's Human Resources Department also announced mandatory training on harassment for all supervisory staff April 22 and 23. Human Resources is also arranging countywide mandatory harassment training for all employees for early May.

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

Hernando Utilities Department is sorting out race conflict 04/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 3:31pm]
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