Sunday, May 27, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Stronger stand needed against racial discrimination, remarks

There should be zero tolerance in government for employee harassment — particularly from a supervisor. Yet in St. Petersburg last year, a white supervisor kept his job after spraying a black subordinate with white spray paint and making a reference to the Ku Klux Klan. The incident and lax punishment occurred under the former mayor, but Mayor Rick Kriseman's muted initial reaction to a followup investigation under his watch suggests there is more work to be done. City Hall should set clear standards for civil behavior and equal treatment and have no tolerance for racist remarks or discrimination.

As Kameel Stanley reported Sunday in the Tampa Bay Times, the incident occurred last October when veteran stormwater operations supervisor John Paquette sprayed white paint onto the back of veteran city technician Donald Pittman's shirt and said, "It looks like someone sprayed KKK on your back." Those facts are not in dispute. There is a question as to whether Paquette actually sprayed the three letters or just some lines. And Paquette is known as a jokester. But that doesn't matter, as the city's investigator appropriately concluded in December: "The mere act of spraying markings of any kind" was offensive and inappropriate.

Yet rather than fire Paquette as most private businesses surely would, department director Jerry Fortney did little more than slap him on the wrist. Paquette, 51, was suspended for 10 days without pay and told to attend a sensitivity class. Pittman, 51, was assigned to a new crew.

Kriseman told Stanley that Paquette's punishment was out of his hands by January, when he took office. He wasn't familiar with the results from the followup investigation, recommended by the initial investigator, into the department's racial climate by the human resources department. He said he deferred to department heads to handle such matters.

But Kriseman shouldn't have been out of the loop. Finished in July, the climate study mirrors comments heard earlier this year as Kriseman's administration heard from police officers about longtime tension between some black and white officers. The stormwater department climate survey confirmed black employees were not being promoted equally when it came to the position of foreman and that training opportunities were not clearly communicated to all employees. The study also found a sharp divide on the question of racial tension in the department. Black employees perceived tension; whites did not.

By Monday, Kriseman was being more direct. He posted to Facebook that incidences such as Paquette's "will not be tolerated on my watch" and pledged to move forward with plans to address the climate in the stormwater department. That's a good start. The mayor should be sending his strongest message to all city employees that age-old discrimination and unequal treatment in some city departments will be dealt with quickly and directly, not just tolerated and quietly handled when someone complains.

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