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City settles a bias lawsuit

City officials closed the door on an unpleasant chapter in Largo's recent history, settling a lawsuit with a parks employee who alleged racial discrimination.

The city agreed to pay Johny A. Pollock $40,000 to settle a lawsuit he filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court in October 2003.

Largo also paid the 30-year Largo employee $20,000 to settle a workers' compensation claim he filed in May 2002 for an injury to his right shoulder.

Pollock, who worked for the city as parks foreman until Oct. 31, agreed to sever ties with Largo in conjunction with those agreements. His annual salary was $49,233.

City Manager Steve Stanton said it was time to resolve the matter.

"Johny was a nice guy. But if you feel your employer is not looking out for your best interest, it creates a poisonous atmosphere,'' Stanton said.

Concerned about jeopardizing the settlement, Pollock said there was little he could say.

"There's a lot that needs to be said, but I just can't say it,'' said Pollock, 60.

Pollock's lawsuit claimed other employees retaliated against him after he complained about racial discrimination in the Recreation, Parks and Arts Department. His workload increased, his work was intensely scrutinized and he received several unfair writeups, according to the lawsuit.

In February 2002, Pollock, who is black, complained to his supervisors that his co-workers told him that then-horticultural coordinator Gary McNichols used a racial slur when referring to him.

Parks superintendent Greg Brown questioned employees about Pollock's allegations. Employees didn't mention racial slurs, but some said they were offended by sexually explicit jokes McNichols posted on the break room bulletin board, and shortly after McNichols was forced to resign.

Pollock alleged that Brown and another foreman continued to harass him. An internal investigation ensued. Investigators found insufficient evidence to prove Pollock was harassed, but the report showed that McNichols' behavior may have created a hostile work environment that "belittled or demeaned all African-Americans."

In June 2002, Pollock filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC was unable to conclude any violations of statute and closed its investigation in July 2003.

During settlement discussions, Pollock said he felt that harassment against him was a continuing problem. He pointed to incidents when he found tacks in tires and water on his desk, personnel manager Pat Saben said.

In his suit, Pollock contended he was unfairly targeted for coming forward.

In August 2003, Pollock was suspended for three days for failing to carry out the delivery of tables, chairs and a grill, according to his personnel file.

Since then, his file shows three other incidents when he received a written reprimand or one-day suspension for violating the employee code of conduct. The most recent occurred last month. He was suspended for a day for taking time off without getting permission from his supervisor.

Pollock's lawsuit was one of several allegations involving racial slurs or discrimination at the time.

A racial slur by a fire lieutenant in 2002 caused the city to revise its internal harassment and discrimination policy in October 2003.

In 2003, a Largo police officer resigned following allegations he used a racial slur twice during a ride-along with a police applicant.

And in 2004, a fire lieutenant resigned after a human resources investigation found he made a remark demeaning people of Puerto Rican or Cuban heritage.

The city's revised harassment policy emphasizes zero tolerance and prohibits retaliation against those who complain of discrimination. Officials have also tried to address past racial problems by implementing diversity training.

Mayor Pat Gerard said the city has made strides in improving race relations in the workplace, but there's still room for improvement.

"It's a slow process,'' she said. "It's never as fast as you'd like it to be.''

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com.

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