Seattle Department of Neighborhoods director Bernie Matsuno's reappointment has been placed on indefinite hold, and she may be retiring, after allegations surfaced that she hired a white woman as a project manager and paid her $5 more an hour than other employees, including several people of color and an employee who is deaf, who have worked in the same position for years or even decades.

The decision to pay a white woman more than her minority counterparts (and to make up the disparity by freezing the white employee's pay) angered an employee who is African American, who complained publicly about the pay disparity, which affects not only employees' paychecks but their eventual retirement payouts, to the tune of some $600 a month. 

"It's [her reconfirmation] on hold and it's really up to the mayor [Ed Murray] what is going to happen," neighborhoods committee chair Sally Bagshaw says. "There are concerns," she adds, but "It’s definitely between human resourecs, the Department of Neighborhoods, Bernie, and the mayor."

The employee who made the charges public—in what council members later called an unprecedented public statement—was Allyn D. Ruth, who has been at DON for 25 years and previously worked as a city council aide. She spoke—wearing dark sunglasses and, in one case, a large hat—at two meetings of the city council's neighborhoods committe in April.

"I, of course, being the self respecting black woman that I am, asked for the same gift and I was told, 'No, that can’t happen. What we'll do for you, Allyn, is we’ll freeze her salary.' And I said, 'How does that help me?'"

"I, of course, being the self respecting black woman that I am, asked for the same gift and I was told, 'No, that can’t happen. What we'll do for you, Allyn, is we’ll freeze her salary.' And I said, 'How does that help me?'"

Additionally, Ruth said her complaints have negatively impacted all her interactions with Matsuno (who has not returned calls for comment). "For the last year and a half, she won’t speak to me. When we’re both on an elevator she gets off. When we’re both in the bathroom, she glares at me. I find it appalling that a black woman should beg a brown woman to address this," Ruth says.

(Other city employees familiar with DON agree that Matsuno has chilly relations with some workers, and one source points to the fact that no one from within the department itself applied for the new project manager position as a sign that morale at DON is low.)

In a conversation after the April meetings, Ruth told PubliCola that she "assumed [the new employee] was getting paid the same as us." When she found out otherwise, Ruth says, she asked Matsuno to raise everyone else's pay, rather than freezing the pay of the new employee. "She has a problem with strong women of color, and I'm a strong woman of color," Ruth says. "She hasn't spoken to me in two years. She glares at me, she disrespects me, she undermines me in public—I just decided I'd had enough."

"Mrs. Matsuno cannot hide behind the fact that it's a personnel issue, and the city council cannot hide behind Mrs. Matsuno. This is an issue of pay inequity, and if you are not going to address it or do something about it, that’s one thing, but you cannot ever come to communities of color and be believable when you talk about issues of race and social justice," Ruth said. 

"I am very familiar with Seattle's brand of incipent racism. We don’t use the 'N' word, we just treat people like they are that. ... Mrs. Matsuno asked me would I take something other than money. Please. Read a history book. Black people cannot take something other than money. Our history is of being disrespected and being demeaned. Money is what I’m after."

"We don't use the 'N' word. We just treat people like they are that."

In response to city council questioning on April 22, Matsuno responded that she "definitely disagree[d]" with Ruth's allegations, adding that the new DON employee was already making more money and that the department did not have the ability to reduce her pay.

DON, she said, "conducted an investigation and determined in December 2013 that the preponderance of the evidence showed no race dicrimination and there was no reason to believe that race discrimination had occurred. I regret that these issues, which I believe are personnel matters, are before the committee." 

Matsuno also noted that Ruth's complaint is currently under arbitration between the city and Ruth's union, IFTE Local 17, so it would be inappropriate for her to comment further on the debate. And Local 17 spokeswoman Patty Kieval said, "Because we are in the middle of the grievance process with Allynn Ruth, I am not able to comment at this time." 

Additionally, Matsuno has failed to implement city Race and Social Justice Initative hiring guidelines at the department, despite being aware of the details of those guidelines for more than a year.

 

At a city council hearing on her reappointment back in April, Matsuno was unable to explain why she had not followed the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative guidelines in her hiring practices, saying only, "I could have done more in 2012 to encourage people from within the department to apply for that position," but that she has no idea why no one from within DON chose to do so. "It's hard for me to know why people did not apply for that position," Matsuno said. 

Ruth, for her part, seems determined to continue pursuing her case, even if Matsuno does retire. "I am very familiar with Seattle's brand of incipient racism," she said in April. "We don't use the 'N' word. We just treat people like they are that. ... I don't intend to walk away from $600 a month difference in my retirement because it's uncomfortable for Mrs. Matsuno or because it's uncomfortable for the city of Seattle to deal with."

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