12-09-2016  10:57 pm      •     

Two Portland Development Commission employees have filed complaints against the commission, claiming race discrimination and retaliation.

Tyrone Henry, a contract/appliance manager, and Christina Cain, a senior executive assistant, have filed complaints with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries. Henry also filed a complaint in U.S. District Court, seeking punitive damages to be determined in a trial.

Both former employees claim that there is a "pattern and practice of racial discrimination at PDC, and, similarly, a pattern and practice of retaliation against those who oppose racial discrimination in the workplace."

Henry and Cain, who are African American, also claim that the commission's Executive Director Bruce Warner should have known about the discrimination, which they both say originated with Executive Officer Lori Sundstrom.

Elissa Gertler, public affairs manager with the Portland Development Commission, said the commission would not comment on pending litigation or personnel matters. However, she said that when the facts are disclosed, it will be shown that the commission acted "appropriately and lawfully."

Hired in October 1999 as a contract/appliance manager, Henry's job was to ensure that women-owned, minority-owned and emerging small businesses were represented when development projects were allocated. He claims he received excellent performance reviews and received several awards for representing minorities.

However, he said in his complaints that, after the hiring of Warner last July and Sundstrom's hiring last November, Henry was unfairly criticized and harassed almost immediately after Sundstrom became his supervisor.

Following a "diversity group" meeting on Nov. 7, and a memorandum was presented to Warner containing complaints about the commission's treatment of minorities at work and in the community, Henry claims that Sundstrom "falsely accused me of insubordination," and he was fired on March 7.

Cain, who was hired in 1977 as a receptionist and was promoted several times until she became executive assistant to the commission, said in her complaint that, following the Nov. 7 diversity meeting, Sundstrom "unjustly criticized my work performance, micro-managed my work, refused me requested time off work and made comments to me."

Cain said those comments included, "You should be happy to still have a job here"; "You should be happy to still be making the same amount of money here"; and "You should be happy that you are still on the seventh (executive office) floor."

Cain also complained that, during a meeting on March 31, Sundstrom falsely told her that Cain has poor interpersonal skills, no communication skills, that she is not well-liked; and that Sundstrom thought Cain was "playing" her and she was "fed up" with Cain.

In addition, Sundstrom has allegedly cancelled previously scheduled meetings with Cain, refused to talk to her and removed her administrative support person from Cain's supervision. Conversations with the commission's human resources director produced no results, according to Cain's complaint.

In the memorandum that developed from the Nov. 7 diversity meeting, the seven employees, including Henry, Cain and Rita McCain-Walker, who recently resigned, noted that the commission has "struggled" to make good on diversity commitments. Specifically, it said the commission had failed to "hire, retain, fairly treat and effectively utilize culturally diverse employees and managers." It also had failed to "increase the number of minority contractors, developers, workers and community-based organizations involved in carrying out" the commission's mission.

The memorandum asked that Warner include a diversity director/coordinator as part of the commission's management team. The coordinator would lead the planning and implementation of an internal and external diversity strategy, similar to that being done by Providence Health Systems and TriMet.

The employees also requested that the commissioners encourage diversity efforts within the organization, tie diversity goals to managers' performance reviews and compensation, establish a diversity development team within the agency to evaluate diversity efforts and establish a diversity committee consisting of employees and managers to carry out diversity activities throughout the agency.
In addition to the complaints filed by Henry and Cain, Rita McCain-Walker, the commission's Homeownership Coordinator, resigned from the commission, effective May 12. Although she said in her resignation letter that she had been hired to head a minority homeownership campaign for another organization, McCain-Walker said she had decided to leave the commission because of its "lack of commitment, value and support for my position … . Professionally, my skills were underutilized and undervalued. There were many strenuous days for me, where I felt less valued as a professional and particularly (as) an African American employee."

In addition, McCain-Walker noted that "PDC's commitment to African American homeownership is seriously lacking as compared to other minority groups. From what I have learned from working in the African American community, there is deep resentment and lack of trust, and based on my personal experience, I can't totally disagree with these opinions."
Commission spokesperson Elissa Gertler would not comment on McCain-Walker's letter but she said that McCain-Walker was a "valued employee and will be missed."

A new position for diversity manager has been created, and recruitment is actively going on, said Gertler, who added that Warner considered establishing the position a "priority" ever since he became executive director last July.

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