2016-07-01 / Community

Civil rights complaint filed against South Portland

By Wm Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A city councilor’s unsuccessful nomination of a minority woman to the South Portland Civil Service Commission last March is the apparent subject of a civil rights complaint just filed against the city.

Although most city officials are keeping mum, City Councilor Brad Fox confirmed via email that the issue involves his attempt to get Deqa Dhalac on the District 5 seat.

In the name of diversity, Fox had championed Dhalac, a female black Muslim and Somali immigrant who works as a human service councilor for the city of Portland.

But the nod went to the then-current seat holder, Phillip LaRou, a white male also employed in Portland, as a firefighter.

While praising Dhalac’s experience, Fox’s peers on the council essentially decided the tie goes to the incumbent, reappointing LaRou by 5-2 vote.

As a consolation prize, the council invited Dhalac to apply for any number of current openings on South Portland’s many boards and committees. She declined to do so.

Fox said in an email it was Dhalac who filed the complaint.

“But I can’t discuss the contents at this time,” he said.

Outgoing City Manager Jim Gailey said on Wednesday, June 22, that he “cannot confirm or deny” the existence of any complaint.

City Attorney Sally Daggett denied a Freedom of Access Act request for any documentation on the grounds that “Maine Human Rights Commission complaints are confidential until the case is either administratively dismissed or placed on a MHRC agenda for action.”

“To the extent that any such complaints against the city currently exist, which the city can neither confirm nor deny, they are confidential,” Daggett wrote in a message forwarded though Gailey’s administrative assistant, Mary Perry, who handles FOAA filings.

On Tuesday, June 28, Gailey continued to hold the line on “cannot confirm or deny.”

However, Mayor Tom Blake did confirm via telephone June 22 that a complaint against the city was filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission and delivered to him by ground mail the previous day.

“I can’t say anything other than the fact that one has been filed,” Blake said. “State statute clearly requires that human rights complaints are incredibly private and protected. All of the city councilors have been advised by our counsel to not say a word, out of respect for the person who filed the complaint.”

Blake, meanwhile, said “there is no truth whatsoever,” of any link between the complaint and a racial diversity training workshop held Monday, June 27. Blake also said the seminar, led by the Portland-based Maine Intercultural Communications Consultants, also was not related to a separate racial controversy that occurred in April, about a month before the scheduling of the sensitivity training.

Following an April 11 planning board meeting, Chairman William Laidley was widely criticized for saying of a proposed housing development in the city’s Brick Hill neighborhood, “It’s a great project for the time and the space. It makes it seem like less of a ghetto”

Fox took great umbrage to that comment, faulting Laidley for expressing a “microaggressive” view that, he said, was fraught with “racial undertones.”

“That whole thing was blown way out of proportion and, in fact, Mr. Laidley was quick to publicly apologize,” Blake said.

Blake said the scheduling of the sensitivity training is “completely coincidental [with] no connection whatsoever” to either incident, despite the claims of racism levied by Fox in both cases. It stems instead, he said, from Fox’s work with the police department and the school system this past winter on diversity issues. Since taking office in 2014, Fox has repeatedly pointed out that the South Portland fire department has no people of color on its roster, while the police department can boast only a single Asian among its ranks.

City boards and committees are also “a sea of white faces,” he has said, often referring to the Brick Hill and Redbank sections of South Portland, with their high minority and immigrant populations, as second-class neighborhoods on the city’s priority list.

While Blake declined to name Dhalac as the source of the complaint against the city, he did say the filing blazes new ground for South Portland.

“I’ve been on the council nine years and I don’t remember a complaint like this ever being filed,” Blake said. “Right now the council has scheduled no dialogue on this. It’s fresh, not even 24 hours old. We’re just trying to go through the proper process on this.”

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