Diversity is issue as city’s lawyer clashes with Yancey at council hearing

Gintautas Dumcius, News Editor
Dec. 19, 2012

City Hall’s top lawyer clashed with District 4 Councillor Charles Yancey on Tuesday afternoon, accusing him of “grandstanding” and calling the councillor’s hearing on the racial make-up of city departments a “farce.” The intense back-and-forth drew several members of the municipal police force that patrols City Hall to the doors of the Council’s Iannella Chamber.

The 90-minute hearing, which largely featured testimony from current and former city employees of color who vented about getting passed over for jobs and promotions, turned tense at the tail end, when high-ranking city officials were given several minutes to respond.

“Frankly, I’m mystified as to why we’re left with two and a half minutes of time,” said William Sinnott, the city’s corporation counsel, who was on a panel with Police Superintendent-in-Chief Dan Linskey and Vivian Leonard, director of the city’s office of human resources. The three panelists said the numbers are not where they should be, but the administration was making strides in increasing diversity.

Sinnott said Yancey, who chaired the hearing, had allowed several individuals testifying to slander city officials who were not able to defend themselves. He added that the council does not have jurisdiction over administrative and disciplinary matters. “And I think it’s reckless, I think it’s inappropriate and I think that city government deserves an apology,” Sinnott fumed.

Yancey said he wasn’t going to “dignify that with a response.” Department heads were invited to attend the Tuesday hearing at 3 p.m., he said.

The hearing was originally set for Friday, Dec. 14, but was pushed back due to a City Council scheduling snafu. Because another hearing was scheduled to start at 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday and Yancey allowed members of the public and officials from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, among other organizations, to testify first, city department officials were given little time to respond. Yancey recessed the hearing at 4:27 p.m. after allowing city officials to say a few words.

The back-and-forth between Yancey and Sinnott and shouts from audience members caused a City Council administrative staffer to call the municipal police force, which sent several officers up to the fifth floor to check in on the hearing.

Sinnott, an ex-Marine colonel, has held the post of corporation counsel since 2006. Yancey, a city councillor who has represented Dorchester and Mattapan since 1983, has frequently challenged Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration, to the constant chagrin of its members and of his colleagues on the Council.

In a statement, Menino’s spokeswoman Dot Joyce said the mayor “believes strongly” in promoting diversity among all ranks of city government and business. “Our city has changed and the many cultures, languages and backgrounds contribute to why our city has been such a success,” she said. “The mayor continues to work with many organizations to bring their ideas and solutions to the table and continues to try and find pathways for employment and tracks for promotion for all.”

At the hearing, Yancey said that he often raises questions about the diversity of the city government’s workforce during budget hearings and that Sinnott could bring any concerns to him “offline.”

“I’m chairman of this committee. And I run this committee the way I run it,” said Yancey, who chairs the Environment and Human Rights Committee. “You do not run this committee.”

Sinnott shot back, “Mr. Chairman, with all due respect, with all due respect, if your grandstanding is over, you invited three very busy representatives of the city of Boston to speak.” Yancey told him he was out of order and disrupting the hearing. Providing city officials with just a few minutes to respond to various allegations is “inappropriate,” Sinnott said. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he added.

An audience member yelled at Sinnott to “stop disrespecting the city councillor,” prompting Sinnott to turn around and snap, “Sit down.” Sinnott then turned towards Yancey and said, “This is not a hearing, Mr. Chair, this is a farce.”

Yancey then said Sinnott was unprofessional and called him “offensive.” The law department has some of the worst diversity statistics in city government, he claimed. Sinnott again pushed back, saying the hearing notice that Yancey filed – which said the city’s law department employs 22 attorneys and has two staff attorneys of color – was incorrect.

The department has 28 attorneys, and 5 of them are attorneys of color, Sinnott said. “We’re not happy with that number,” he said, but added that the 18 percent is higher than the percentage of attorneys of color at the city and national level. “We never rest in our attempt to recruit additional attorneys of color,” he said, adding that he has worked with Boston Bar Association’s diversity task force and his staffers seek to mentor attorneys of color.

After the hearing, Sinnott approached Yancey and had a brief conversation, breaking it off with, “Don’t lecture me, okay?”

The committee hearing drew Charles Clemons, a long-shot candidate for mayor who owns a pirate radio station in Grove Hall, District 7 Councillor Tito Jackson, and City Councillor At-Large Felix Arroyo, who joined the hearing after the verbal tussle between Yancey and Sinnott had begun.

Luzmar Centeno-Valerio, a representative of Oiste, a Latino political organization, testified on executive director Alejandra St. Guillen’s behalf. “Diversity within city government and all its departments, including the police and fire departments, is an integral part of our work and speaks to the core of our mission,” she said. “We believe that the opportunity exists to build a pipeline that links talent to jobs available and trainings to access those jobs.”

Several other people of color testified, saying they worked in the city’s treasury department, in the assessing department or at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, and were passed over for jobs. One woman claimed that the Boston Police Department was racist, which prompted a response from Superintendent-in-Chief Linskey when it was finally his panel’s turn to speak. “I take offense to that, I think the officers who I serve with take offense to that,” he said. “Do we have issues and concerns like any agency and any organization in this world? Yes, we do. Are we a racist police department? No, sir, we are not. We take diversity, the mayor takes diversity, the commissioner takes diversity very seriously.”

In an interview with the Reporter afterwards, Linskey noted that two police captains of color were recently promoted to deputy and superintendent and became part of the command staff. Menino has also given the department $2.1 million to revamp the promotions testing process. “We’re not happy with the current process,” Linskey said.

Larry Ellison, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, testified ahead of city officials. He kept his remarks brief, acknowledging the city workforce’s movement toward more diversity while adding that there was room for improvement.

After the hearing, Ellison said he had little to say because he felt there was little action following similar hearings. He added that the hearing was the feistiest one he’d been to on the subject. “This was worth the price of admission,” he said.

UPDATE: This story was updated at 11 a.m. with remarks from a Menino spokeswoman.