Although the city of Portland is appealing a lawsuit brought against the city by two African American women, Commissioner Randy Leonard says procedures already are in place that should prevent future complaints.
"I honestly believe if the events had happened now, I would have found some way to intervene and they would have been resolved," said Leonard, who last week voted with Mayor Tom Potter and three other commissioners — all of them White — to appeal the lawsuit to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Leonard oversees the Bureau of Development Services, where the women still work.
Although the women, who won the racial discrimination suit in U.S. District Court, asked the council not to appeal it, the council said the issue could set a precedent for future cases. The council wants the 9th Circuit Court to determine if the same case can be litigated twice — once by the state Workers Compensation Board and once by the U.S. District Court.
"It's a big deal," Leonard said. "It's not small at all."
The lawsuit centers on claims of discrimination based on race and gender occurring during an incident in 1997. Brought by Lisa Washington and Roxie Granville, two code specialists in the Bureau of Development Services, the lawsuit claims that they experienced a hostile work environment because of their race and gender and that they had been retaliated against for complaining about discrimination.
The women claimed that they were singled out for walking together down the street by a supervisor who said they should have been working. They also claimed in the lawsuit that a facilitator hired by the bureau said in a report that other staff members "felt that the African American staff was too cliquish and the two African American staff (Washington and Granville) were friends outside of work."
In Februrary 2001, they said that a supervisor told them that the perception was that the two women were "being seen together too much" and that there was a policy against it. However, the supervisor could not define what being "seen together" or "too much" meant, according to the complaint. In addition, the supervisor couldn't point to any policy in the bureau prohibiting employees from socializing with each other.
Although part of their jobs required them to inspect new construction to determine if building codes were being met, they later were told that a bureau policy prevented them from riding together or being out in the field together. Later, the bureau developed a new policy requiring all staff members to notify a supervisor before going into the field, but the women claimed that the policy did not apply to Caucasian staff members.
In its answer, the city denied the claims.
Efforts by The Skanner to reach the woman for comment were unsuccessful.
A jury in June agreed that the women had been discriminated against, and U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty awarded each $50,000 plus some back pay.
However, the city contends that because Haggerty wouldn't allow the jury to be told that the city had won a decision by the Workers Compensation Board, which had ruled on the same complaint, the jury didn't have all of the information it needed to make its decision.
In addition, said deputy city attorney Jenifer Johnston, Washington and Granville should not have been allowed to sue the city when they also had filed a workers compensation claim because it allows the same issue to be litigated twice.
"This could impact the city in more than this case; in other cases it could have an ongoing effect," Johnson said.
Leonard said before he decided to vote for the appeal he had "grilled" Paul Scarlett, director of the Bureau of Development Services, and Aaron Johnson, the commissioner's liaison with the bureau. Both men are African American.
"I asked about every individual involved in the issue and how they could have felt discriminated against," Leonard said, and added that Scarlett persuaded him that the women's allegations weren't justified.
"I concluded that there were some issues, but they weren't based on race or gender," Leonard said.
He called the bureau's management structure in 1997 "insular," and compared the bureau's rigidity to other city bureaus in those days.
"They did have a rigid view of management and workers that crossed racial, gender and religious lines," said Leonard, whose City Council campaign in 2002 talked about the "dysfunctional" Bureau of Development Services. Leonard, who was president of Portland Fire Fighters Local 43 from 1986 to 1998, is experienced in management-labor issues.
But a new labor-management system is in place in the bureau, Leonard said, and it calls for collaboration of managers and co-workers, not separation as before.
"The same thing could happen today (as happened in 1997), but we have systems to resolve it," said Leonard, who noted that employees often come to his office to voice a complaint. The resolution, he added is "not always to the managers' benefit."
Scarlett, who worked at the city's Bureau of Planning in 1997 and wasn't with the Bureau of Development Services, said he has not personally experienced or seen any discrimination as an African American employee.
"There are concerns about the city and its bureaus — are we doing all we can about cultural awareness and diversity issues," he added. "But we have in place a system to address those issues."
If the issues raised by the women in 1997 and 2001 were raised today, Scarlett said he would have been "personally involved" in determining the problem and resolving it.
"In this bureau right now I believe we have a pretty open and supportive network," he said. "We won't tolerate any disrespect or intolerance of any employees in the bureau. The problems will be addressed and resolved."
The discrimination issue appeared before the Portland City Council just a day prior to a heated Portland Development Commission meeting where state Sen. Avel Gordly and two African American businessmen, along with nearly 90 other African Americans, said the commission practiced "institutional racism" by encouraging gentrification, failing to include minority contractors in construction projects and leaving African Americans out of opportunities to buy homes.
Two African American employees — Tyrone Henry, a contract/appliance manager, and Christina Cain, a senior executive assistant — recently filed complaints with the state Bureau of Labor claiming 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."