Donald Pittman is a 51 year old African American who has worked for the city of St. Petersburg for 15 years, whose boss, John Paquette, sprayed the letters “KKK” on the back of his orange work vest 10 months ago.
He did what probably anyone would do in that situation; he went to his human resources office. The incident ended up spawning two investigations and amplified racial tensions within Stormwater, one of the city’s largest departments. Months later, those tensions haven’t eased, according to the Tampa Bay Times. In fact, questions about how the city handled the allegations remained.
The incident took place in late October, 2013, when Pittman was working on a construction crew patching a street just off Central Avenue in west St. Petersburg. He’d recently joined the team of Stormwater workers and John Paquette was his foreman. While they Pittman was sweeping water, Paquette apparently stood behind him with a can of spraypaint, spraying the letters “KKK” onto the back of the bright orange worker’s vest. Pittman he “heard a whoosh of air and felt an accompanying cold sensation on his back.” When he turned to Paquette, “I asked him what had he done,” Pittman told the Tampa Bay Times “He said, ‘I sprayed KKK on your back.’ And then he laughed.”The other workers denied seeing anything, and the crew continued working. “But when he got home that night and stripped off his shirt, he saw the white paint. He showed his wife. The next morning, he took the shirt to work with him, and pulled aside other black colleagues, and one of the other acting foremen took photographs of the vest. Pittman asked to be moved to a new crew, and the city’s Human Resources department said it would investigate.
Some employees of city have argued that the letters “KKK” were not clearly written on the vest.
John Paquette admitted that he sprayed Pittman’s shirt that day and said that “It looks like someone sprayed KKK on your back,” but he says the letters weren’t actually spelled out, and he sprayed “merely lines” on his black colleague’s back. Paquette says he didn’t do it to be offensive. In fact, “To make the case that he wasn’t a racist, he said he’d recently watched To Kill a Mockingbird and ‘had to turn away because he was offended by the KKK’s actions.'”
Labor relations officer Charles Alexander wrote that it doesn’t matter what the intent was, or whether anyone could read the letters clearly; “It is reasonable to assume that Mr. Paquette should have known that an African American man would take offense to spray painting something on his back and then telling the man that, ‘It looks like someone sprayed KKK on your back,’ “.
Officials determined Paquette broke the city’s discrimination and harassment rules, and that the offense was a Group III violation. According to the Tampa Bay Times, city guidelines suggest the punishment for such a violation is termination. “But Paquette, who has gotten high marks on his evaluations, received 10 days off without pay and asked to attend sensitivity training.”
Stormwater’s Pavement and Traffic Operations director Jerry Fortney had the final say; it hardly seems to be a coincidence, then, several workers also told the Times that and Paquette have a friendship outside of the workplace, leaving colleagues with a sour feeling that Paquette got away with workplace harassment with hardly a punishment. Robin Wynn, an acting foreman who has worked for the St. Petersberg for 17 years, said “If anyone else did something like that, they would be fired. This man should have been demoted at least.”
Human Resources director Chris Guella told the Times that officials decided a broader investigation was needed after hearing about some workers’ discontent during the KKK inquiry.
The closer the city looked at the department, more things began to seem a bit “off”. According to the Times,
“Human Resources director Chris Guella told the Times that officials decided a broader investigation was needed after hearing about some workers’ discontent during the KKK inquiry.
Investigators looked into allegations about nepotism, segregation, unfair discipline and promotion practices, and discriminatory training opportunities.
Black workers described racial tensions as high in the department; white employees disagreed. Black workers also complained that they didn’t get hired or promoted at the same rate as their white counterparts, a claim the investigation found supported in statistics that showed African-Americans are underutilized in foreman positions. However, that wasn’t found to be true for other positions…
A second allegation against Paquette also arose. A retired black employee, who had worked for the city for decades, said Paquette once called her a “black b—-.”
Paquette vehemently denied the allegation, and city officials could find no complaint or discipline ever issued.”
A report came out on July 22 detailing the findings. The mayor of St. Petersburg, Mayor Kriseman, said he wasn’t familiar with the KKK incident but vaguely remembered being briefed on it months ago. He said he was “sure the investigation was thorough”, but said that even if he disagreed with Paquette’s punishment, he couldn’t change it. It didn’t happen on his watch.