2016-03-11 / Front Page

Appointment turns into diversity debate

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Deqa Dhalac Deqa Dhalac SOUTH PORTLAND — For the second time in three meetings, the City Council bogged down in controversy over appointments to the volunteer civil service commission.

This time, the charge was racism rather than fears of “Tammany Hall politics” and “blackmail.”

At the March 7 meeting, the racial angle stemmed from Councilor Brad Fox’s unsuccessful nomination of Deqa Dhalac to fill the District 5 seat that was held by Phillip LaRou, whose term had expired March 1, but was reappointed in a contentious 5-2 vote.

A human services counselor for the city of Portland, Dhalac also happens to be a black woman and a Muslim, and Fox had passed over the re-appointment request of a sitting commission member in hopes of increase racial diversity on the South Portland’s boards and commissions.

As Fox noted, a recent recognition dinner for city volunteers featured all white faces. To the commission’s work, Fox also pointed out that the city fire department has no people of color on its roster, while the police department can boast of only a single Asian among its ranks.

Phillip LaRou Phillip LaRou But the council ruled tie goes to the runner, and that the appointment should go back to LaRou.

Like Dhalac, LaRou is a Portland city employee. Appointed nine months ago to fill out an unexpired term in the commission, LaRou is a Portland firefighter with 25 years under his belt.

“His expertise is an asset to the civil service commission, thus the city,” said Kathleen Hanson, who represents District 1 on the commission. “When I called Councilor Fox to ask him to reconsider his appointment to the commission, he suggested that he was perhaps the only one in this city who had an appreciation for diversity.

“However, this is not about that,” Hanson said. “I ask the council to consider the importance of qualifications in making this appointment.”

“Phil LaRou was well qualified nine months ago, but now he’s not qualified enough to be reappointed?” asked commission chairman Lee Harvey, rhetorically. “In Phil’s case, relatable experience adds an invaluable insight to the commission’s work.”

“I have never been so impressed by anybody in my life. He has added immeasurably to the commission,” said Caroline Hendry, who fills its District 2 seat. “While I appreciate Councilor Fox’s mission to increase diversity – I understand it and I applaud it – in this instance I do believe that Phil is the right person for the job.”

Many speakers also pointed out that what councilors already know, that they have a tough job filling committee vacancies, with 11 open spots on Monday’s docket.

“It was a difficult decision for me,” Fox said. “But the city needs to change. I feel this may be the time and place.”

Fox added that Dhalac is “one of the finest people I know,” and “one of the most respected people where I live, on the west side of the city.”

“She is ultra-qualified for any position, including, I hope one day, my position on the city council,” Fox said.

A half dozen people spoke on Dhalac’s behalf.

“I’m sure Mr. LaRou did an excellent job on the civil service commission,” said Portland resident Regina Phillips, “but when you talk about people who are qualified, Deqa Dhalac is also qualified for this position, and I do believe you do have to have diversity on a commission. And I’m not just talking about diversity as far as white and black, I’m talking about diversity as far as women and men, LGBT, whatever diversity means to you.”

Ultimately, the council overruled Fox’s nomination of Dhalac and to instead reappoint LaRou. His new term expires in March 2021.

“I think we already have the best person there,” Mayor Tom Blake said, adding that casting LaRou aside based on skin color “sends the wrong message.”

However, Blake and other councilors said they too support diversity, and the mayor urged Dhalac to submit an application to any other open slot. The list currently includes posts on the arts and historic preservation commission, the conservation commission, the energy and recycling committee, and the library advisory board.

Some also echoed Fox’s call for a city council run. Both atlarge seats are up for grabs this fall and at least one will generate a new face on the council, given that Blake is subject to term limits after nine years, and must sit out the next election.

However, Dhalac, who said she was “disappointed” by the council’s decision, has said she was offended by efforts to get her to choose some other slot, reportedly adding she has no intention to do so.

Her supporters, including Fox, left the meeting after the appointment of LaRou.

It was just the latest controversy surrounding the commission.

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