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Is language becoming a problem in City of Madison?

John Willoughby: Greene Publishing, Inc.

During the Madison City Commissioners’ regularly scheduled meeting that took place on Tuesday, June 12, at 5:30 p.m., it was brought to the Commissioners attention that there have been foul words coming out of the mouths of city employees. What's the next step?

Before the meeting began, Princess Roebuck came before the board to express her concern over profanity being used at the City Barn. She also made mention of employees using profanity against Florida Department of Correction inmates doing landscaping work. "We got one gentleman that works for the city who likes to get out there and curse the inmates. There is no sense in this and y'all know what's going on," said Roebuck. "This is uncalled for. We're adults."

David Lawton, a business owner in the City of Madison came before the board in response to a city employee's discipline after the use of a vile and degrading word. "I'm gonna use a word here that should never be used in any professional setting," said Lawton. "That's the term and the word, [n-word]." Lawton continued to state that the employee openly referred to a rehired worker as an "n-word" on the clock, with coworkers present.

"I'm not a city worker. I have a lot of city worker customers and family members that walk through my establishment every day and every week. This came to me as a major concern. Typically, I don't get into people's business and employment stuff, but the use of this word is very offensive to any person that's of color. Particularly, black or brown people," said Lawton.

The city employee, who will remain unnamed, was warned after using the "n-word" in 2016, under the management of Tim Bennett. The same employee was recently placed on a five-day, unpaid suspension for the use of profanity and the "n-word" in the workplace. Lawton stated he did receive word that the employee was suspended, "which is nothing but a slap on the hand," said Lawton.

"This was bothersome to me and a lot of folks," said Lawton. "I received tons of phone calls at my business and visits from people that I don't even know about this matter. I was outraged. Outraged as a man of color and outraged as a man who has little boys of color."

Lawton informed the Commission that he spoke with then-City Manager Sarah Anderson, whom he said informed him that suspending the employee was the most she could do according to the guidelines and policies she had to follow. He asked Anderson why the employee was not fired, and he stated that she responded by saying he had only done this two times and policy does not directly use language to identify discriminatory terms. Lawton requested that the employee publicly apologize. However, Anderson informed him that having the employee do so would violate employee rights, according to an attorney. "I said to her 'this worker is glad he didn't get whooped or stomped for the use of this word by his coworkers,' cause had it been me, I don't know it would've gone as lightly as it did," said Lawton.

In response, Lawton went to City Hall and asked for a copy of group one, group two and group three policies and procedures, which is the rule and guide for discipline for the City of Madison. In the group two offenses section of the City's policies and procedures, the use of the "n-word" falls under threatening, intimidating, coercing or interfering with fellow employees or supervisors at any time, including using abusive language. The first offense warrants a written reprimand and/or up to five days suspension. The second offense warrants discipline up to discharge."Nothing that this man said falls up under a group one offense, but his punishment was taken as a consequence from group one offenses. This has on his file that he has used this word before, up under the management of Mr. Bennett. He was given a written reprimand or verbal warning," said Lawton. "He should have been terminated for use of that word."

"I hope that we come back and revisit this same five-day suspension and terminate that employee, because it is not good, that in 2018, that my little black boys would have to be in a place where I help pay this person's salary and he can openly refer to me, or anybody else of color, as the "n-word," and still keep his job, (sic)" said Lawton.

"Okay. Okay, Mr. Lawton. We get the point," said Mayor Ina Thompson.

"I'm not finished yet," said Lawton. "So I hope that you all and review this message, Mr. Catron, and review this HR issue, and go back and – I recommend – he be terminated, because of the use of the word and how he used it." Lawton and Anderson both said that the employee did admit he said the word. "If he is that open of a bigot because he was angry, then maybe he needs to go somewhere else, never be able to be rehired again for the City of Madison, or even have a good recommendation," said Lawton. Anderson stated that the employee did, in fact, have an outburst, using a lot of profanity. He was immediately escorted out and put on suspension without pay. He was advised that was totally unacceptable and Anderson did subsequently discuss the situation with the city employment attorney. "The only other thing that we come up with is that we could have sensitivity training," said Anderson. "We made arrangements for training to take place." The training actually took place on Tuesday, June 19 for all employees. There were two sessions: two hours a piece.

The city employment attorney came before the podium to discuss the disciplinary decisions made after the incident. "From a matter of authority, your charter puts all of the personnel decisions and all of the administrative matters in the hands of the city manager. Like it, dislike it, agree with it, disagree with it, the city manager is really your CEO," said Mr. Spellman, who also explained that the Commission only gets involved when a terminated employee files for an appeal. Spellman also explained that the Charter granted the city manager the right to discipline as she did. "I don't think you have an issue before you that you can impose any different discipline."

Spellman continued to explain that once an employee is disciplined, that employee cannot be disciplined again. "So you can't discipline somebody with a suspension, and then hit them with another condition," said Spellman. "I would disagree that a suspension for five days without pay is a slap on the wrist. It is actually the most severe discipline other than dismissal. I'm not here to defend what [the employee] said." Spell continued to state the city manager made a decision based upon the policy. What the employee said does fall into a group two offense. The guide for discipline doesn't say automatic discharge with a second offense.

It was decided that there was nothing immediately for the Commission to look at because ultimately, the employee was not fired and did not file for an appeal. Spellman and Mary Adams, who will conduct the sensitivity, both agreed that the original disciplinary action was stiff.

Commissioner Terry Johnson commented before the board moved to the next agenda item. "Love doesn't have no color," said Johnson. "For an employee to use that word is the representation of the City of Madison. In 2018, with that kind of stuff? That is ridiculous right there."

"Are you saying that a man who's using this word repeatedly in just casual conversation that sensitivity training is supposed to be the resolution? I think you need to take a little bit deeper look at this employee. I think that the city may have a liability on their hands cause who's to say that if he says this again, someone wouldn't seriously hurt him?" said Lawton. "What I'm saying is, you're going to take a chance of having a liability and then continue to allow that representation of that word to be used by that employee or are you going to sit here and say 'Hold on, wait a minute. We've got to do something different here.' Just saying. That's a bad look on the City of Madison and it's going to be a direct reflection on this City Commission if there's no action taken."

The next regularly scheduled meeting will take place on Tuesday, July 10, at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall. Madison City Hall is located at 321 SW Rutledge St., in Madison.

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