1. Archive

County settles ex-worker's bias suit

In great detail, Donald Harris told county investigators about the time a white co-worker in the Hillsborough Solid Waste Department tied a toy monkey to the grill of a garbage truck and said it represented a black person he had hit.

He described the racial slurs hurled at blacks and said a co-worker displayed a Confederate flag and a white cross in the cab of a garbage truck.

Despite those allegations, investigators with the county's human resources office concluded no hostile work environment existed in the Solid Waste Department.

But Hillsborough County commissioners strongly disagreed Wednesday, voting unanimously to settle a federal discrimination lawsuit with Hayes for $130,000 on the advice of their attorneys, and to offer him an apology.

Harris' allegations left one commissioner crying at the dais and another acknowledging he had cried in private.

"I had to go to the restroom and just lock the door and break down in tears, that something like this could happen in 2003," said Chairman Tom Scott, who like Harris is black. "This puts a black mark on county government and on this board."

Commissioner Kathy Castor broke down during the meeting and left the commission chambers in tears. Meanwhile, Commissioner Ronda Storms blasted the administration for the length of time it took to ferret out the truth when she feels such allegations demand immediate response.

"There should be no way someone should have to feel they have to sit by and endure this _ not for one day, one minute, let alone one year," Storms said.

The revelations _ the second time in a week commissioners have been surprised by an embarrassing lawsuit against the county _ also place County Administrator Dan Kleman back on the hot seat. Even Scott, who fought two years ago to save Kleman's job, chastised him for failing to keep on top of something festering under his supervision.

Kleman said he learned only last Thursday from the county attorney's office about the proposed settlement. Attorneys assigned to the case realized as early as last September that the case would be problematic, according to records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.

"I believe the Board of County Commissioners is appropriately troubled as am I about the activities in the Solid Waste Department," Kleman said. "I'm concerned about information that was not provided to me in a timely fashion in the way that it should have been from a variety of sources."

Several Solid Waste Department employees are now facing investigation. Asked if his top lieutenants could be facing questions as well, Kleman said only, "Oh, yes."

To underscore their anger with Kleman, commissioners also voted to move responsibility for discrimination and harassment claims out of human resources and into the county attorney's office, and to create a discrimination hotline.

Harris worked for about 17 months in the Solid Waste Department driving a garbage truck before he was fired in August 2001 after a series of confrontations with co-workers and writeups on the job. He had threatened fellow employees and had been reprimanded for speeding and getting in a wreck.

In a confidential briefing for commissioners, attorneys concluded that Harris may have deserved to be terminated. However, they said that would be no excuse for the treatment he apparently received beforehand.

Harris filed his complaint in November 2000, alleging he faced a regular stream of racist comments and jokes at the Northwest Transfer Station where he was based. The comments created a hostile working environment, he said.

An investigator with human resources was assigned. Interviews with his co-workers revealed the monkey and flag stories, and some workers there acknowledged hearing occasional racial epithets.

But the investigator said that the interviews did not show that the comments were pervasive enough to meet the legal definition of a hostile work environment. Daryl Smith, the department director, put out a memo reminding employees that such comments were inappropriate and banned employees from adorning their vehicles with mascots, as the monkey was described.

When Harris pressed his case after he was fired, a second investigation was conducted. This time, supervisors within human relations signed off on a report that again confirmed some racist comments. But they noted the issue was headed to court and would be decided by a jury.

The court investigation would prove more damning. Lawyers deposed several employees, some of whom confirmed many of Harris' accusations, then added their own.

They focused primarily on five offending employees.

Several employees said the use of the N-word and other racially disparaging remarks was a common, even daily occurrence.

"The testimony of several witnesses regarding the unchecked use of the word "n-----" in the workplace, is, to put it mildly, very problematic," wrote Stephen Todd, a senior assistant county attorney, in a memo to the county's claims committee laying out pros and cons of the case. "Some have suggested that is just a case of ignorant people running their mouths, but . . . the fact is, the rampant nature of the comments makes them illegal."

Only last week, commissioners chastised Kleman for failing to alert them about another federal race discrimination lawsuit in which a judge ruled against the county's human resources director, Sharon Wall, ordering the county to pay a former underling about $6,000.