Affirmative inaction


Rachel Talbot Ross, right, during the city council meeting at which councilors voted to hire a new, white police chief, Tim Burton, third from right. (photo/The Fuge)
Rachel Talbot Ross, right, during the city council meeting at which councilors voted to hire a new, white police chief, Tim Burton, third from right. (photo/The Fuge)

Affirmative inaction 
18 months after calls for hiring reform, nothing’s changed

By Chris Busby

The controversy earlier this fall over the city’s decision to hire a white police chief over a black finalist for the job is prompting civil rights leaders to demand the city do more to hire and promote minority workers. 

These same calls for reform, however, surfaced a year-and-a-half ago, after the city reached a $45,000-plus settlement with a black employee who claimed she was treated unfairly based on her race. 

It remains to be seen whether the police chief controversy will lead to changes in city hiring practices, but a key test is looming in the coming months as city officials prepare for this spring’s budget deliberations. 

City Manager Joe Gray has held preliminary talks with civil rights leaders who say the city needs to bolster its affirmative action efforts by spending more money on those activities – including, potentially, hiring more staff to lure workers of color to city jobs. 

The city already has a top-level administrator in charge of those efforts, Rachel Talbot Ross, the Director of Equal Opportunity and Multicultural Affairs. However, over two years ago, Ross lost the sole assistant hired to help her with this work when that position was eliminated during budget cuts. And Ross has no direct input in hiring decisions and hiring processes like the recent police chief search.

A factor complicating Ross’ work is her position as president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP. The Rev. Kenneth Lewis, the Portland chapter’s vice president, spoke on behalf of the organization during the police chief controversy and continues to be involved in talks advocating changes in city hiring policy – changes that have much to do with Ross’ job responsibilities. 

Ross made no public statements during the top-cop fracas, and has not returned calls nor kept an appointment scheduled to discuss her work with The Bollard.

Speaking to The Portland Forecaster in June of 2004, after news broke of the city’s settlement with the black employee, then-Portland NAACP President Winston McGill said meaningful change in city hiring practices depends on the city providing Ross’ one-woman office “with resources and the authority and power to implement the changes that need to be made.”

Lacking those resources, Ross is “just a figurehead,” Sharon Moore told the weekly that summer. Moore was Ross’ assistant for three years (the last year as a part-time employee) until her position was eliminated in 2003. That position has not been reinstated.

“Minority hiring in general in the city is nothing the city can be very proud of,” attorney David Lourie told The Forecaster two summers ago. “It’s unfortunate when the city’s affirmative action officer [Ross] is not part of the process,” added Lourie, a former lead city attorney who has since helped the NAACP with legal issues.

After 18 months and another race-based controversy, similar criticism is being voiced again. “Right now, [Ross’] position in the city manager’s office does not have any budget and it really doesn’t have any authority,” Rev. Lewis said recently, in an interview with The Bollard.

In addition to expanding Ross’ role and increasing funding for her efforts to attract minority job candidates, Lewis said city department heads need further training “around hiring and promotional” matters. He suggested one way to do this would be to ask the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to come to Portland, study its hiring and promotion practices, and make recommendations — much like the way federal Justice Department advisors were brought in to help the Portland Police Department make policy changes a couple years ago. 

“We all understand it’s not budget neutral,” said Lewis, but he added that after recent discussions with Gray, he’s optimistic that the city manager and city council will support more funding for affirmative action efforts.

Reached after those same discussions, Gray was non-committal. He said discussions with the NAACP and affiliated groups will continue, but “it’s still an open question” whether any changes will be made.

City Councilor Jill Duson, who questioned the fairness of the police chief selection process during her term as mayor earlier this year, believes the city needs to do more to hire and promote minorities. Alluding to Ross’ role as the lone affirmative action officer, Duson said, “Setting up a particular job in the corner of the hierarchy [is a] ’60s solution…. It sets one employee up for failure…. To me, that’s not a broad enough solution.” 

That said, Duson is not necessarily advocating for more staff. She said greater attention to the issue within City Hall and affirmative action training for current department heads could be effective. 

City Human Resources Director Gloria Thomas noted that the city does have an official affirmative action plan, and tailors its job search efforts with the goals outlined in the plan in mind. 

Updated last October, the plan’s findings actually indicate that the city is doing a good job hiring candidates from minority racial backgrounds, though it says one more non-white person should occupy a senior management position if the city’s workforce is to reflect the diversity of the workforce in Southern Maine as a whole. The plan indicates the city needs to hire over 100 more female employees to reflect the larger workforce, and promote more women into upper management positions. 

Asked what more could be done, Thomas said, “a lot of our contact (with potential job applicants) is by mail and Web sites and things like that. Certainly some personal contact on a more regular basis would be helpful” – like having city representatives attend job fairs and similar events at colleges. 

Gray said the topic of affirmative action was to be discussed during a retreat for city department managers scheduled for Dec. 8. That retreat was postponed, and further discussion is expected early next year.

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