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Activists disagree with no-racial-bias findings

by Eplunus Colvin | November 13, 2021 at 3:41 a.m.
During a news conference Friday, Pine Bluff Social Justice Activists member Kymara Seals presents a letter that was written in 2019 from Mayor Shirley Washington to Street Department Director Rich Rhoden addressing his perceived prejudicial behavior. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Eplunus Colvin)

A local activist group is taking exception to a report issued by the mayor's office that found no unfair treatment or racial bias in the city's Street Department.

Community activist Kymara Seals and state Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), representing the Pine Bluff Social Justice Activists, shared their concerns during a news conference Friday about the investigative report released by Mayor Shirley Washington's office last week that found no employee problems within the department.

The investigation was led by Human Resources Director Vickie Conaway and Mayor Shirley Washington's Chief of Staff Cynthia Anderson. The two looked into allegations of unfair and racially motivated treatment of Street Department employees in a variety of areas including: job assignments, retaliation for voicing concerns, performance monitoring, employee discipline, patterns of discriminatory behavior, job promotions, discriminatory actions, unfair treatment, racial and offensive language and job training.

The investigation was conducted after the mayor's office received complaints from concerned members of the community.

One contention had to do with a locked bathroom and a wall that was installed, both of which were seen as discriminating against Black employees.

According to the report, investigators did not find evidence to substantiate the allegations, but the activists said they found that hard to believe after conducting their own investigation.

"It's a concern to us that everything that has transpired, there were literally no findings of any discrepancies, any discrimination and any racism based upon the investigation that was conducted by the mayor's office and the HR department," said Seals. "That is troubling because we also did an investigation in conjunction with the Pine Bluff Branch NAACP and there were numerous findings."

Seals said her group interviewed past and present Street Department employees who allegedly shared stories of racism and discrimination.

Referencing a letter from Mayor Washington to Street Department Director Rick Rhoden on September 4, 2019, who is set to retire at the end of this year, Seals said the mayor's finding contradicted a letter from Washington addressing Rhoden's behavior.

"From my observations, I find that you struggle with the skills needed to build and develop a cohesive team of street department employees. Many of your employees perceive you as prejudiced, difficult to communicate with and uncaring," said Washington in the 2019 letter. "These are major concerns! You may not agree that these are problems but if the employees under your direct supervision perceive them as such, they must be addressed."

Washington, who has defended Rhoden, said after the press conference that the 2019 matter had been rectified.

"This letter was written two years ago prior to the recent investigation," Washington responded. "Subsequent to the letter, all concerns were adequately addressed."

Washington said the claims related to the Street Department have been thoroughly investigated and no evidence has been found to substantiate the allegations.

Investigators found that when the equipment room was locked in the past, it was locked for two reasons.

"One was to provide privacy to women who worked in the sign shop, giving them a restroom separate from men," the report stated. "Another reason was to protect the machinery in the equipment room from unauthorized use. Only people who were trained to use that equipment were allowed to access it."

Not satisfied with the conclusions from the city's report, Flowers pointed out details she felt were relevant.

"How could there be no findings if the wall came down?" asked Flowers. "If there was a justification for the wall to be up because of equipment even, though I don't know why you would be protecting equipment from your own employees, why did the wall come down? If no one had access to it then, why was the wall even built?"

Flowers made mention of employees who received a "right to sue" letter from the EEOC after submitting written and verbal complaints about Rhoden and the Street Department.

"That federal-level body that oversees civil rights in our country does not issue 'right to sue' letters to people who have no grounds to sue," said Flowers. "This is a large issue because it matters to a citizen who was injured as a matter of civil and human rights."

Seals, Flowers and Michael McCray, who call themselves the "Tri Conveners of the Pine Bluff Social Justice Activists," sent a Freedom of Information Act request to Conaway on Friday morning requesting all documents related to the investigation.

"We know there were two investigations, and we want those reports along with the supporting documentation on how they reached those conclusions," said Seals. "All we have is the conclusions and the methods."

Seals also questioned the fact that the investigation was conducted internally instead of using an outside source not affiliated with the city, saying employees could have felt intimidated when questioned.

"You got people who are doing the investigation who are internal, but you need people to investigate who are not part of city government or municipal government and people who have experience doing investigations," said Seals. "That is very problematic for us."

Seals said her group is fighting for justice for the employees of the Street Department and say that previous conversations with the mayor about such matters have been positive.

Flowers said Washington did agree to work with them in defining what diversity, equity and inclusion would look like in the Street Department and the city. Seals added they would be looking at programs used in other cities that have been implemented by outside professionals.

In the meantime, though, the activists say they will continue to apply pressure on city officials until they see that justice has been served.

"The very first role of government is to serve and protect our people. When people's rights are violated, especially by the government, it is incumbent among us to correct those wrongs and make sure it doesn't happen again," said Flowers. "If it's not done by officials who are in position-- it will certainly be done at the ballot box."

Washington said the city of Pine Bluff will continue to promote racial equality in all city operations.

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