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St. Petersburg mandates for city workers to stem racial tensions

St. Petersburg city officials closed an investigation into allegations in which one stormwater department employee accused a colleague of spray-painting the letters "KKK" on the back of his work vest. [City of St. Petersburg]

St. Petersburg city officials closed an investigation into allegations in which one stormwater department employee accused a colleague of spray-painting the letters "KKK" on the back of his work vest. [City of St. Petersburg]

ST. PETERSBURG — A consultant began conducting sensitivity training classes for employees in the city's stormwater and water departments this week, following recent reports of racial tension.

From now to October, the city plans to hold 16 such sessions to ensure all employees, from directors down, complete a four-hour course called "Unique Like You!"

Hundreds of staffers across the two departments will get the training, which costs the city $500 per class, said Chris Guella, director of human resources.

"At this point it does not include administrators or mayor's staff," Guella said. "We are looking at a much broader, citywide effort that will be a second phase."

The training comes after articles in the Tampa Bay Times chronicled racial tension among city employees, most noticeably in the stormwater department, where a white supervisor spray-painted the letters KKK on the back of a black man's work vest, a reference to the Ku Klux Klan.

Since then, other black city workers have come forward with frustrations about the work environment and discrimination they feel is happening.

After the Times' story about the "KKK incident," the city said it would hold the diversity classes as well as conduct a cultural climate study, which local union officials have long sought.

Guella said details about the climate study are still being discussed.

Union officials have been pressing the city for months about the need to conduct a survey of the entire workforce to see where things stand, not just one or two departments.

Guella said it looks like that may happen, but nothing is final. The city would send out a request for proposals to find a firm to do the work and coordinate when it could be done.

"That's going to require a lot of logistics," Guella said.

The city has turned to Tampa poet James Tokley, who has run a human resources training firm since the 1990s, to conduct the sensitivity classes. He's not new to St. Petersburg. He teaches classes to city workers several times each year, Guella said.

Tokley's course, according to curriculum materials, aims to "help establish and work toward maintaining a climate of openness and respect, where individuals who bring their own traditions, beliefs, values, lifestyles, and fears, may congregate to create a product or accomplish a task."

Guella said officials have decided to provide the class to anyone who hasn't taken it in the past three months. That means some people who had the class before will take it again.

"It's not going to be a problem that they hear it twice," Guella said.

Employees also recently got a reminder of the new city vision that Mayor Rick Kriseman has emphasized since taking office.

In a memo to all workers dated Aug. 21, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin told employees that one of chief values of that vision is diversity and inclusiveness.

"Recent media coverage regarding race relations among our team presents an opportunity for us to affirm our commitment to a culture of inclusivity where everybody is treated with dignity and respect," Tomalin wrote.

Anyone who works at the city is accountable for that, Tomalin said.

"The Mayor's expectations are clear. Discrimination against any person for any reason is unacceptable," she wrote. "The City's policies have long reflected zero tolerance for discrimination. The Mayor is committed to the assurance that all of our practices deliver on that promise."

Contact Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.

.fast facts

The memo to employees

To read the entire memo sent to city employees about recent racial incidents, go to tinyurl.com/q3wj7tm.

St. Petersburg mandates for city workers to stem racial tensions 08/27/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2014 5:05pm]

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