Extra Fizz: City Department of Neighborhoods Responds to Discrimination Charges
The city Department of Neighborhoods gives its side of an ugly personnel dispute.
Bernie Matsuno, the embattled head of the city's Department of Neighborhoods, and representatives from DON, the city's personnel department, and the city's Labor Relations Division, sat down with PubliCola last week to talk about Mayor Ed Murray and the city council's decision to put Matsuno's reappointment, originally scheduled for April, on hold. The delay was in response to a complaint by a longtime DON employee, Allynn Ruth, who is black, that Matsuno made a racially motivated decision to pay a new employee in the same position more than her.
Matsuno says the decision to transfer the new employee, Karen Selander, who is white, to DON from the city's Office of Economic Development was made by the city council in 2012, during the economic downturn, "to make the Department of Neighborhoods whole." Selander works in the same position—neighborhood matching fund manager—as Ruth, whose complaint is currently in arbitration with her union, IBEW Local 17.
Because Selander was in a higher position initially, however, Matsuno says she was unable under city rules to lower her salary (or, for that matter, to increase Ruth's, because, Matsuno says, Ruth is at the top end of the salary scale for her position.)
"When that action was taken it was at end of budget process," Matsuno says. "Unfortunately, the council did not have any conversation with the personnel department to determine whether this was going to be a smooth transition. So then, in 2012, I find myself in the position of having an employee with a job title which is a higher classiciation and higher pay rate than those who were already there."
Matsuno says the personnel department did a review of both Selander's and Ruth's positions and concluded that they couldn't do anything about their differential pay rates (Selander makes about $5 an hour more than Ruth). "I had to take the ruling as it came from personnel," Matsuno says. "I followed the city personnel rules."
City personnel director Susan Coskey adds, "There is a personnel rule and also a provision in the bargaining agreement [dictating that] if there is an employee who gets reclassed to a lower position, they get to keep their same pay."
Asked why she hasn't formally implemented the city's race and social justice toolkit for hiring, which has been in effect for more than a year, Matsuno says, "I have always believed that the department should be reflective of the community it serves. Since I came on board in 2011, the department has hired about 16 new employees, 11 of which are people of color."
Jeff Reading, communications director for Mayor Murray, says, "The mayor has asked for Bernie's appointment to be put on hold. This is not a reflection of Bernie; this is a conversation that he had with Bernie during the transition [about] DON's vision and mission around issues of growth and planning and licensing." It's unclear when, if ever, Matsuno's reconfirmation will come up before the city council.