Feb. 14, 2007 * updated 08/21/12
Story and Photo By Ken Krayeske • Hartford • 12:00 AM EST
Editor's Update: The lawsuit mentioned below resulted in a jury verdict for the state of Connecticut defendants in 2012.
If the racial discrimination and harassment alleged by Connecticut Department of Transportation employee Daphne McKinney in a recently filed lawsuit really occurred, one understands why ConnDOT is among the worst DOTs in the country.
And if what McKinney, who is black, claimed in her Dec. 26, 2006 lawsuit against the DOT is true, from the office assaults to the constant haranguing, then Gov. M. Jodi Rell must change the culture of DOT before she brings in those 200 new employees she proposed hiring in her budget address last week.
Gov. Rell must insure that these new people, as well as everyone currently working there, are adequately trained and prepared to confront the ugly beast of institutional racism.
DOT desperately needs those jobs because Rowland-Rell privatization schemes shipped hundreds of jobs to private firms, some of whom were Republican donors.
"Highway Robbery," a 2005 report by the Connecticut State Employees Association, estimated that outsourcing engineering jobs has cost the DOT at a minimum $7 million annually, not including the costs of those contractors missing an inspection on the storm drains to nowhere on the I-84 construction in Cheshire last year.
DOT stands to lose millions more if McKinney prevails in her racial discrimination claim, and that money probably could have gone to better use, like, say, helping wean our society off the automobile.
McKinney's 13-page complaint, filed by attorney W. Martyn Philpot, Jr. of New Haven, also lists as defendants white DOT employees Lisa Tilum, Michael Sanders and Dennis Jolly, in their individual capacities.
McKinney, a Hartford resident, worked in the Bureau of Public Transportation (BPT) with the three aforementioned defendants. Her lawsuit claims that out of the Bureau's 40 employees, only two minorities remain. Mind you, most who use public transportation are poor, and in Connecticut cities where buses run, that means minority.
One of those two minorities in the BPT, Celeste Martires, a black woman from the Dominican Republic, filed a discrimination claim against ConnDOT in 2005.
Aside from the garden-variety racism of declined promotions and pay raises, Martires objected to regular sexual harassment and a dysfunctional public institution.
"Further contributing to the hostile work environment was the fact that the staff in plaintiff's unit did not speak to each other; people walked around slamming doors and filing grievances against one another and against the defendant's management," said paragraph eight of Martires' complaint.
Martires also described a physical altercation between two DOT employees, which Attorney General Blumenthal acknowledged did require an investigation by building security.
The rest of his answer denies state employees partaking in seventh-grade antics. I'm sure in a few weeks, Blumenthal's response to McKinney will be similar. I won't waste time calling ConnDOT to talk about either suit because the state will never comment on pending litigation.
McKinney is a long-time public servant at the DOT who has a history of filing racial discrimination complaints with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (Martires has one of those pending, as well).
McKinney claims to have been denied promotions because of her protest, and her complaint indicates that she has only received two annual service ratings since 2000.
"The plaintiff has been subjected to a hostile work environment and disparate treatment because of the fact that she has openly opposed discrimination in the work place relative to her race and color," the complaint states.
The last of her five counts accuses DOT of failing to "take adequate, prompt, remedial steps to stop the harassment against the plaintiff, even after she repeatedly complained of said harassment." The complaint also notes that DOT neither trained employees properly, nor monitored employee conduct appropriately.
The lawsuit paints an ugly picture of internal DOT programs. "The fact of the matter is, it has been the pattern and practice of the defendant to treat minorities, including the plaintiff, in the aforedescribed demeaning and discriminatory manner," attorney Philpot writes.
Mike Sanders, McKinney's boss, is the transit administrator of the BPT. He heads the $335 million New Britain to Hartford busway project. Sanders and I have debated the folly of the busway as ConnDOT currently envisions it, and I have written about The Busway Blues.
Thus the implications of the allegations of racism set forth by Martires and McKinney are far-reaching. For example, if true, how can we be sure that Hartford, a minority community, is getting a fair shake in the busway project or any other DOT led project?
In other words, if racism is so pervasive in ConnDOT that employees no longer feel comfortable working there, does that exclusionary, prejudicial attitude carry over into the design and implementation of transportation projects?
In my eight years of bicycle and pedestrian advocacy, my dealings with DOT often leave me feeling like a second-class citizen. Thus I tend to give McKinney and Martires the benefit of the doubt.
I suppose none of this should surprise us, considering that the automobile-dominated transportation system represents a vast socio-economic injustice, where only a particular segment of society can afford mobility.
Don't hold your breath for DOT commissioner Ralph J. Carpenter, the former DMV commissioner, to condone such behavior or even criticize the automobile. Nor do I expect a word from Gov. "Repeal the car tax" Rell about institutional racism, considering the prison system she oversees.
ConnDOT is among the worst DOT's in the country, and lawsuits like this solidify that reputation. Gov. Rell's call for 200 new employees offers a chance to change that. Perhaps she could start by telling us how many of those new employees she thinks should be minorities.