Tears, fear, outrage, and other emotions spilled out before a packed room at the Elks Lodge on March 14 as people came out to talk about discrimination and other problems they encountered while living, working, or even passing through the city of Bayonne.
Tales of violence against minorities, favoritism in the schools, and discrimination against city employees of color filled the room, drawing raised voices at times and heated rhetoric Rev. Horace Sheffield III, president of the Michigan chapter of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, strived to contain.
“There is not one black or Hispanic supervisor in the Department of Public Works.” – Karen DeSoto
This hearing, which was videotaped and transcribed for use later, was prompted originally by several lawsuits alleging discrimination and alleged racist abuse of workers.
Ten Public Works employees have alleged discrimination in the workplace and filed suit.
Karen DeSoto, the attorney who represents several city workers who have filed lawsuits against the city, brought the civil rights leaders into Bayonne.
“There is not one black or Hispanic supervisor in the Department of Public Works,” DeSoto said.
City officials, reached for comment on this, do not dispute this fact, but note that the city has actively sought to hire minorities, noting that despite efforts to get minorities, many do not take civil service and placement exams. The city did note that when people did and qualified, the city accommodated them.
“If you don’t take the test, you can’t get hired, and if you can’t get hired, you can’t get promoted to supervisor,” said City Business Administrator Steve Gallo.
But even city records show that there have been incidents in the Public Works Department where racist terms have allegedly been used against African American workers, and one incident led to the firing of an employee.
Gathering testimony for future solutions
Last month, Rev. Sheffield met with many of these same people, as well as local ministers and public officials to get a feel for the problem.
The March 14 gathering was designed to accumulate testimony and evidence upon which a corrective action plan could be constructed.
Sheffield; Rev. William Revely, chairman of the Detroit-based National Association of Black Organizations; Rev. Charles Williams, president of the National Council for Community Empowerment; and others joined local residents Robert Mays and Denis Wilbeck on the panel to document the alleged abuses.
Excluded from the event were public officials, even though prior to this, Mayor Mark Smith had been told he would be invited.
Indeed, the flyer that was issued as a press release said public officials would be invited, but this changed last minute.
“We wanted people to say what they had to say without fear,” Sheffield said. “Ever since I’ve come to Bayonne, I’ve been followed by police.”
Testimony highlights abuses
Most of the people who spoke testified about problems in the Bayonne Parking Authority, the Bayonne Housing Authority, Bayonne schools, and the Department of Public Works.
These complaints dealt with alleged problems in hiring and promotions, but also discrimination when it came to housing.
One testimony even talked about alleged police brutality, where police officers barged into a black family’s house and abused the daughter.
Other testimony claimed political retribution against those who raised their voices against political hiring and other unfair practices.
While Gallo said Mayor Smith and his administration are committed to dealing with any abuses, he questioned the motives behind the March 14 public hearing, noting that the panel was made up of two very prominent political figures: Mays and Wilbeck, both of whom have run for office in opposition to Smith or a Smith-backed candidate.
“It comes as no surprise that Attorney Karen DeSoto has organized this meeting to try and put political pressure on Bayonne to settle the lawsuits she brought against the community. She said this was her plan if the city did not acquiesce to her demands for large cash settlements from the public on behalf of her clients,” according to a statement from the mayor’s office. “It should be noted that Ms. DeSoto’s husband is a top associate and former paid chief of staff to disgraced Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone.”
DeSoto said she had brought the civil rights leaders in because she saw continuing problems in Bayonne, which needed to be more fully investigated.
According to the mayor’s release, “Ms. Desoto continues to spread inflammatory untruths and inaccuracies regarding the Bayonne Department of Public Works. Since Mark Smith became mayor, the department has appointed five supervisors, three of which are minorities. The City of Bayonne maintains a strict policy of non-discrimination and all hirings and promotions are conducted in compliance with New Jersey Civil Service Commission Rules and Regulations.”
Gallo said the Smith Administration takes allegations of discrimination very seriously, does not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and will not allow the existence of a hostile workplace.
Rev. Sheffield disputed claims that DeSoto paid for the hearings and that funding for this investigation was coming from his organization in Michigan. He said the motives behind the hearings and the investigation were to rectify the problems and bring the information to the mayor’s office.
“Rev. Sheffield indicated that he would conduct an investigation and provide the mayor with specific allegations which could be fully investigated,” Gallo said. “The city looks forward to receiving this information.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.