Minority caucus to examine racial bias concerns within Davidson - WSMV News 4

Minority caucus to examine racial bias concerns within Davidson Co. Election Comm.

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(WSMV file photo) (WSMV file photo)

Multiple accusations of racial discrimination have led Metro Council members to closely monitor the Davidson County Election Commission, according to members of the council’s minority caucus.

The Channel 4 I-Team first exposed a complaint in January in which an African-American employee accused Election Administrator Jeff Roberts of an “inappropriate” racial remark.

The employee alleged Roberts said she resembled a monkey depicted on his coffee mug.

Roberts said he apologized to the woman but did not recall making those comments.

“I don’t remember saying what the employee thought was said,” Roberts told the I-Team in January.

Six months later, the complaint continues to concern Councilman DeCosta Hastings.

“I could not believe that was going on in this day and at this time,” Hastings said.

In fact, Hastings asked the minority caucus of Metro Council to step in after he heard about the complaint. Since then, he said six employees have voiced concerns to him over racial tension inside the election commission.

“Do you think there is a race problem within the election commission?” asked reporter Alanna Autler.

“I will say that,” Hastings replied.

Hastings said out of fear, most employees did not file formal complaints. But their accusations range from discriminatory comments to personnel changes affecting an African-American employee.

That staffer did file a formal complaint in May directed at Roberts and Finance Director Rick Brown.

She wrote their actions have contributed to a “hostile” work environment.

But in a statement, a commission spokeswoman said to “maximize efficiencies” over the past year, several employees had been reassigned to different duties “without impacting positions or pay levels.”

During a meeting in May, election commission members addressed the tension among staff members.

“To think for one second that any employee of this commission would feel uncomfortable or nervous or upset to go to work is something that…it concerns me greatly,” said Commissioner Tricia Herzfeld.

During that planning meeting, Herzfeld said Roberts and employees were not on the same page and morale was not improving.

Roberts was present but said little on the subject.

Instead the commission’s chairman asked for evidence.

“I have had concerns brought to me that they want to know, do we have a racial bias problem within this commission?” Herzfeld said.

“Of equal concern to all of us should be that because somebody floats a rumor out there, we’re not going to assume it’s true,” Chairman Jim DeLanis responded. “We will try to get to the bottom of it.”

Herzfeld then criticized how leaders handled the complaint involving the monkey reference, particularly how Chairman Jim DeLanis responded to our questions back in January.

“Is it ever appropriate to make a reference, to compare a black employee to a monkey?” asked reporter Alanna Autler in January.

“We don’t know that’s what happened. We know she made a reference to a cup,” DeLanis said. “We don’t know what she said, we don’t know what he heard.”

Herzfeld shared what she thought should have been his answer.

“An unqualified, ‘Absolutely not, never, never, ever,’” Herzfeld said.

Councilman Hastings said the minority caucus is now closely watching. That means a member will be listening to staff members and dropping by unannounced to observe the office.

“We have to do this right,” Hastings said. “We have to make sure people feel valued.”

The I-Team reached out to Roberts and DeLanis for an on-camera interview.

Instead, a spokeswoman with the public relations firm DVL Seigenthaler emailed us a statement:

Davidson County Election Commission is committed to effectively managing voter operations and providing equal access to the election process so that our Nashville citizens can exercise their right to vote.  We also maintain an equal opportunity work environment.

Over the past year, we have worked to make improvements in both areas and assure optimal transparency. This has included restructuring our department to maximize efficiencies, including reassigning several employees to different duties, without impacting their positions or pay levels.  Additionally, to enhance morale and camaraderie within our team, this year we have:

·Initiated a series of monthly lunches enabling employees to converse and deepen relationships; and

·Worked with Metro HR department, which facilitated a team building exercise for our staff.

The Davidson County Election Commission represents the diversity found in our city, and we work to foster an environment of fairness that does not tolerate discriminatory behaviors.”

There is a discrepancy over who initiated continued conversations over workplace environment at the election commission.

Through a statement, the spokeswoman asserted the commission reached out to the minority caucus to address the contents of a complaint filed against Roberts.

During the budget hearings, questions were raised regarding the ‘staff camaraderie.’ Since then, the Election Commission reached out to the Metro Council Minority Caucus and arranged a meeting to proactively address related questions.

Councilman Hastings rejected that characterization.

“That is a lie,” Hastings said in a phone conversation Wednesday.

Hastings said during a budget hearing he stated the minority caucus follow up on the issue with the election commission. After that hearing, Jeff Roberts appeared before the caucus on June 5, according to an agenda for the minority caucus.

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