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Ruth: Appalling 'joke' merited stronger response

On the off-chance they might have missed this minor detail over at the city of St. Petersburg's Stormwater, Pavement and Traffic Operations Department: We are currently residing in the year 2014, not 1861.

That might come as some small relief to city employee Donald Pittman, who had the experience last year of thinking he might have been caught up in a Jim Crow time warp.

In October, Pittman, who is black, was at work patching up a street on the city's west side when he felt something on his back, which appeared to be the letters KKK spray-painted on his work vest by — and no, I am not making this up — his supervisor, John Paquette, who is white.

Apparently Paquette is regarded as something of a stormwater department cutup. Heaven knows how spraying the call letters of one of America's most venal, violent racist group of dolts on the back of a black subordinate could not be received as the height of hilarity.

Alas, Pittman did not appreciate Paquette's wacky sense of humor. So he complained to the city's human resources department that he didn't much care for being treated like an object of racially insensitive graffiti.

This is where the city of St. Petersburg is vastly different from any other employer in the city.

The chances are excellent that in any private-sector business, if a supervisor spray-painted an offensive message on a black worker's clothing and laughed about it, to boot, the dope would be tossed out on the street faster than you say "Equal Opportunity Employment Commission complaint."

But not within St. Petersburg City Hall. After weeks of investigation, Paquette was determined to have violated city discrimination and harassment rules and given a 10-day suspension without pay and sent to sensitivity training. But Paquette still has his supervisor's job. At least he's not assigned to community outreach programs.

More surprising was Mayor Rick Kriseman's blase reaction to the spray-paint incident. Hizzoner said he only vaguely recalled being briefed on the incident, and while he felt Paquette might have deserved a more severe punishment, since the event took place before he assumed office there was little else he could do. That's hooey.

Vaguely remembers? A black city employ makes an accusation that his white supervisor spray-painted an offensive symbol on his back and Kriseman has only a vague memory? This isn't as if Kriseman had a vague memory of a lost Bob's Barricade on a city street. The mayor eventually posted an official statement expressing his indignation over the spray-paint incident, but leadership-by-Facebook hardly inspires confidence.

Kriseman should know that a mayor can do a lot more. A mayor can actively set a tone. A mayor can make it clear this sort of on-the-job stupidity will not be tolerated. A mayor can ensure that any form of racial, gender, religious or sexual orientation discrimination is not acceptable.

Kriseman can make the emphatic point that while kidding around in the workplace is certainly important, such a tepid reaction to a twisted joke makes the city and its mayor the butt of a perverse punch line.

Ruth: Appalling 'joke' merited stronger response 08/22/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 22, 2014 3:19pm]
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