Hernando County Administrator David Hamilton may have been on the job for only a little while, but he has sent a clear message that will be heard for a long time: Racial insensitivity and hateful behavior will not be tolerated on his watch.
Once he learned of the serious allegations of harassment against Utility Department employees Jason Booker and Floyd Moore, Hamilton took appropriate and decisive action by placing the three accused offenders on leave, hiring an independent investigator to verify the circumstances of these deplorable incidents, and then promptly disciplining the guilty parties.
Patting an African-American co-worker on the head and calling him "my black sharpei," and telling another that he should "go back to Africa" never would be acceptable conduct. But one could understand how it might happen in certain circumstances, such as an argument or jest between people who have not received adequate diversity training. Utility Department employees Darrell Rose, who received a reprimand, and Will Wilson, who was suspended for three days without pay, should have known better, but probably deserved a chance to redeem themselves.
But when a person in a leadership position witnesses such behavior and does not stop it or report it, and also employs the use of a noose in a distorted attempt at humor, it crosses the line from cultural ignorance to unfeeling meanness. Utility Department team leader Mike Smith chose to resign rather than accept the punishment of a 10-day unpaid suspension and demotion, which was a generous offer from Hamilton.
These upsetting events are indications of bigger issues that Hamilton and his staff will need to address in coming months, which is raising awareness about the underlying cause and serious consequences of harassment, whether it is rooted in race, gender, religion or other constitutionally protected differences. Stepping up diversity training, and making it a continuing education element for employees, should be a priority, and Hamilton may need to persuade the County Commission to allocate extra funds for that purpose.
As spelled out in the investigator's report, there also are numerous defects in the Human Resources Department's procedures for uniformly handling such complaints. Those flaws, among others, will need to be sorted out by the Human Resources Department director who replaces Barbara Dupre.
As challenging and hurtful as this incident has been for everyone involved, it has presented an opportunity to learn, and should serve as a reminder to everyone in the community to be mindful always of the need to respect our differences, and the pitfalls that await those who do not take that shared responsibility seriously.