Durham News

Human Relations Commission prepares to probe water department

The Human Relations Commission is preparing for another probe of alleged racial discrimination – this time, in the city’s water department.

Anticipating City Manager Tom Bonfield’s report on his own investigation by the end of November, Commission Chairman Ricky Hart last week appointed four commissioners to review that report when it is done, and recommend whether and how the commission should undertake an investigation of its own.

Commissioners hope to hear that recommendation at their next meeting, Dec. 2.

Hart initially wanted to wait until January, after Bonfield’s report is complete, to decide whether the commission should take up the case. Most other commissioners, though, preferred to go ahead with planning what to do and how to do it, if they decide to investigate.

“It would be prudent for us to go ahead and put the structure in place,” Commissioner Susan Austin said. “If we have a structure in place we will be ready to hit the ground running.”

How much ground they have to run on remains to be seen, though. Bonfield said much of the information in his report may be shielded from public view by state personnel regulations.

Earlier this year, the commission completed an investigation of alleged racial bias by Durham police. At its meeting Tuesday night, it heard bias allegations from Nathanette Mayo, a water department employee and City Workers Union secretary.

Mayo said the union “for a number of years” has been hearing complaints from black and female employees of the water department.

“Within the last year those complaints have markedly increased,” Mayo said, and union members are frustrated with the city’s grievance procedure and the city administration.

Among the complaints:

•  Firing black employees for allegedly falsifying records while retaining white employees alleged to have done the same thing

•  Holding a woman employee to higher standards than her male counterparts

•  Subjecting black employees to more severe discipline than whites for similar work offenses

•  Retaliating against black employees when they raised concerns about discrimination

“Our union has documented a number of these complaints,” she said, and raised concerns with city officials, including Bonfield. Nevertheless, the complaints have continued to come in.

“We believe that this (biased) behavior has persisted because it has been hidden in house with very little chance of sanctions being placed on department managers,” Mayo said.

Attempts to contact water department directors for this story were unsuccessful.

“I was kind of stunned to come here today and hear how serious this is,” Commissioner Sejal Zota said.

Mayo had brought the allegations to a City Council work session in October. Mayor Bill Bell, along with Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden and Councilman Eddie Davis, suggested the union take its issues to the Human Relations Commission.

Responding to the allegations at the work session, Bonfield said they were already under review and said “any connotation we’ve been reluctant to investigate it would be grossly inaccurate.”

Last week, Bell said he had not known previously that Bonfield had his own investigation of the water department underway.

“I knew he worked on a particular personnel issue ... but he never told me he was doing an investigation of the department,” Bell said. Taking their complaints to the Human Relations Commission while the city’s internal review remained unfinished was the union’s decision, he said.

“Anybody can go to the Human Relations Commission. ... it’s up to the commissioners to decide whether they want to pursue it or not pursue it,” Bell said. “In view of the fact the manager was doing his own investigation it was up to them to decide if they wanted to go to the commission with their complaints.”

Bonfield said the union’s complaint about the water department is “being reviewed on kind of a global basis. So it has been and continues to be. It’s close to being wrapped up,” he said.

“The report that we’ll be preparing and providing will be to the City Council,” he said. “A lot of the issues are personnel privacy kind of things, so I’m not sure to what extent there’ll be a public discussion about it.”

Bell said he had been aware of discrimination issues “percolating underneath” at the water department, “and we need to get it resolved, get some issues out and make some decisions what needs to be done.

“I’ll wait and see what Tom’s report is and act accordingly,” Bell said. “The (Human Relations) commission is aware of that and are planning on waiting on Tom’s report, I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens there.”