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Employees petition to have boss fired

City workers, whose complaint last week led state environmental officials to order the city to clean up its act in disposing of sewage, say they only scratched the surface of serious problems in the city's administration.

Employees in the Public Works Department say the department is rife with racism, favoritism and mismanagement. They say that they plan to present a petition to the City Commission today that calls for the dismissal of department director Ronnie E. Owen.

"I've had many people in Public Works explain to me the problems are caused by one person, Ron Owen, and I'm sick of hearing about it," said Jeffry Moss, who said he will present the petition to city commissioners.

The petition bears 30 signatures of people in the 41-person department, Moss said.

City Manager Peter G. Lombardi said he was not aware of the petition or morale problems in the department. "No one has come to me with complaints," he said. He said a racial discrimination complaint against Owen about five years ago was declared unfounded by the Human Resources Office in St. Petersburg.

A woman who answered the phone at Owen's home said they would have no comment and that he was unavailable to come to the phone.

Mayor Walter Stubbs said he knew about the petition but thinks it amounts to nothing more than one disgruntled employee persuading others to complain.

"The others were more or less inveigled to sign it, but it was (started) by one man who was disgruntled about being demoted," Stubbs said. "We have the utmost confidence in (Owen)."

Moss, who works in the pollution control division, was demoted last week from Service Worker III to Service Worker II. He keeps the same pay but his authority was reduced. "The demotion spurred me into action" but has no bearing on the charges leveled at Owen, Moss said.

In fact, he said, it adds validity to one of them _ that Owen uses his position to seek reprisal. Moss said his demotion came a week after he argued with Owen about overtime pay.

Other workers also criticized Owen. Several said Owen often used slurs and made disparaging remarks about black workers, and routinely passed them over for promotion.

Phoebe K. Peacock, a secretary from 1986 to 1989 in the department, signed a statement to be delivered along with the petition. She said she witnessed a plot to ensure William Anderson, a black man, would not be promoted. Owen and another Public Works manager invented a math test, Peacock said, as a requirement to be considered for the job.

Other workers said the test was made up overnight. Anderson refused to take it.

The mayor, however, said the claims of racism were groundless. "When someone gets disgruntled the first thing they complain about is racism."

Moss also plans to present photos he says show misappropriation of city employees and equipment. Dave Roberts, a maintenance worker since 1980, said that in one photo he is operating a machine called a payloader to remove a tree from the city manager's yard.

Lombardi said he did not recall having the tree removed when the photograph was described to him.