By Eli Wolfe
Two months after city employees and the NAACP raised issues about job discrimination, unfair housing practices, declining health services and racial profiling of African Americans in Berkeley, city officials are taking steps to investigate those concerns.
Berkeley has been in a dialogue with the NAACP since December 2012 regarding complaints from the community about city employment practices. On Sept. 6, City Manager Christine Daniel announced in a memo that the city is preparing to retain Mason-Tillman and Associates to investigate the complaints. It has taken some time to work out major kinks on how to protect the confidentiality of those who participate in the investigation, according to the memo. The firm now has the contract, but no date has been set yet for when the investigation will begin, said Matthai Chakko, the assistant to the city manager.
The complaints about unfair practices, summarized in an August report by the NAACP, are broken into several broad categories:
- EMPLOYMENT: Many complaints cited unfair hiring, firing and promotional practices by the city of Berkeley. Some city employees who openly questioned these practices reported being retaliated against with job relocation, demotion, write ups, bad evaluations, reduced work hours, cuts to program budgets, and sometimes, termination. These problems may be exacerbated by a lack of African Americans in senior management positions in city departments. The report noted that residents are also worried about the high unemployment rate among African Americans in Berkeley, which may rise in the near future with the anticipated early release of thousands of California inmates.
- HOUSING: Many Berkeley citizens fear that the privatization of public housing and overall lack of affordable housing is contributing to a decline in the number of African American and low-income residents living in Berkeley. The NAACP reported that some families relocated by the Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) were not receiving relocation assistance or compensation for their displacement. Some residents alleged that some BHA representatives were disrespectful of tenants, harassing and intimidating individuals who protested this treatment. Tenants have reported leaving Berkeley out of fear of further abuse or eviction, which is threatening to drain Berkeley of its cultural diversity.
- EDUCATION: A major concern for parents and educators in the Berkeley Unified School District is the enduring achievement gap between African American and white students. Although a recent report by the CDE shows that the gap is slowly shrinking, the NAACP reported numerous complaints about education policy at BUSD. This includes the low acceptance of inter-district permits for African American students; the high rate of suspensions and expulsions of African American students, and a tendency to transfer African American students with different learning styles to special education classes. The low number of African American teachers in the district is considered especially alarming because it indicates that African American students along with professionals, are struggling in the district.
- PUBLIC HEALTH/MENTAL HEALTH: There are a litany of complaints targeting the Berkeley Health, Housing and Community Services Department. Some residents and staff claim the merger of the Health Department with the Housing Department has caused a decline in quality of service because the departments have extremely different service styles and priorities. Some African American employees complain that they are not treated as professionals, and that senior supervisors discourage input from staff and leave them out of the information loop by ignoring communications from staff members. Employees describe how the department has shifted focus away from programs like the Community Action Team (CAT) and the Black Infant Health Program that have been successful in supporting Berkeley’s African American community. All of these problems have been enhanced by the recent restructuring of the Mental Health Administration Office during the reshuffling of departments. This move cost Berkeley’s Mental Health Division its most experienced administrative leaders.
- CRIMINAL JUSTICE: The NAACP reported that some residents in south Berkeley feel that the Berkeley Police Department is “over policing” by using racial profiling as a police tactic. The Berkeley Police Department’s Drug Task Force was singled out for allegedly fostering a threatening presence in African American neighborhoods and making members of the community feel generally unsafe.
In late June, the NAACP and numerous concerned community members spoke out at a Berkeley City Council meeting about related issues. In mid-July, the NAACP hosted a town hall meeting at the South Berkeley Library where community activists, residents and members of the council engaged in a candid dialogue about alleged unfair employment practices in city departments.
City officials are paying close attention to the allegations. City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who attended the July town hall meeting, expressed support for the city’s decision to hire an independent firm to investigate the complaints.
“I think we need to actually come up with actual action plans on multiple levels to address their very serious concerns,” Worthington said. “I think this is one very positive step, but it’s not the only step we need to take.”
Councilman Jesse Arreguín said the report drew light to the dismal lack of people of color in Berkeley’s city staff.
“I’m the first and only Latino the be elected to City Council, we don’t have any Asians in any elected positions—our city departments need more diversity,” Arreguin said. “Not only are the complaints alleging improper disciplinary, hiring, employment and promotional practices, but a major underpinning of all of [them] is the diversity of our city staff.”
The NAACP report also recommended action items for the city to implement in the near future while the investigation is proceeding. The suggestions range from grand visions for departmental overhauls to tweaks in specific programs: they include a proposal to create an official Oversight Body for reviewing employment practices by all city departments; the development of a network of policies to build more affordable housing in Berkeley; the hiring of more African American teachers, especially males, in the school district; the resurrection of the Health Services Department for the Berkeley health divisions, replete with experienced senior staff; and the elimination of the Drug Task Force. See a full list of the NAACP’s recommendations here.
The NAACP presented some of these recommendations at city commission meetings last week to get them on the path to the City Council. But, according to members of the council, it’s likely to take at least a month or two before specific action items are pushed forward.
For some, the pace of the independent investigation and commission discussions is not happening quickly enough. The president of the Berkeley Branch of the NAACP, Mansour Id-Deen, said he is frustrated that delays are stalling reforms that are long overdue.
“The NAACP is still to this day getting complaints from the city of Berkeley. Some of the employees that attended the town hall meeting are complaining about retaliation,” Id-Deen said. “We appreciate the city has moved forward with hiring this contractor, but we’re disappointed that we’re still hearing a year later from city employees about the same issues.”
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