Fulton County’s government workforce no longer looks like Fulton County. Census figures put the population at 48 percent white and 45 percent black, but 83 percent of the county government’s 5,500 employees are black and 14 percent are white.
No other core metro county, nor the city of Atlanta, has workforce demographics so divergent from the people it serves. There are indications that the imbalance is exacerbating resentments in a county polarized along racial lines and leading to discriminatory employment practices that are costing taxpayers millions of dollars in lawsuit payouts.
It’s a trend Fulton County officials want to change, but how that can be done is unclear. Job recruiters will be facing an ironic task in the cradle of the Civil Rights movement.
“This is an interesting twist,” said R. Roosevelt Thomas, a diversity management consultant for governments and private companies. “Usually, employers are concerned about attracting more minority or African-American applicants. In this instance, they’re trying to attract more white applicants, it seems.”
A decade ago, racial turmoil within the library system sparked a discrimination suit by white librarians that cost the county $18 million — enough to build two new libraries or operate the entire system for seven months. In the latest example, last month a federal judge ordered the county to pay $1.2 million to a former employee who a jury ruled was snubbed for a promotion because he is white and male.
Commission Chairman John Eaves says the lack of diversity may be partly fueling the movement to dismantle the county, as residents of the northern suburbs become increasingly frustrated with a government that doesn’t reflect their community. The dispute has north pitted against south in a battle for control over hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars per year and services affecting nearly one million people.
The county has launched efforts to attract a more diverse pool of job applicants, but officials aren’t providing details to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The county instead released a statement saying it doesn’t discriminate in employment decisions.
Past efforts to recruit more whites, Asians and Latinos have failed, according to the county’s personnel board chairman. Data obtained by the AJC through an Open Records Act request show that of 72,154 job applications submitted since January 2012, 83 percent were by blacks and 9 percent were by whites.
“I’ve been told that some people who would add to the diversity don’t apply because they don’t feel like they have a chance,” Eaves said. “Or, they don’t want to work for Fulton County.”
During his 21 years with the county, Bob Simmons watched the workforce grow less and less diverse. Before he retired in December as an economic development marketing manager, he was the only white person working in his office, he said.
For anyone interested in applying, Simmons would give the county a glowing recommendation.
“I had no problem getting a promotion,” he said. “It’s a good place to work. I wouldn’t have any qualms about going back, if I was younger.”
Former Human Services Deputy Director Doug Carl said he never felt at a disadvantage working at the county either… until he was passed over for a promotion that went to a black woman and the county manager at the time, Tom Andrews, sat him down and assured him it had nothing to do with race or gender, which Carl said he found suspicious since he hadn’t brought those issues up.
Carl sued the county and Andrews in federal court and has been awarded $1.2 million in damages. He’s seeking another $500,000 in attorneys’ fees.
Perceptions vs. reality
The county faces a delicate issue, as blacks have long viewed government employment as a path to middle-class stability, safe from the pitfalls of private-sector discrimination. After black political leaders gained a majority on the county commission in the mid-1980s, black workers flocked to county jobs and eventually gained a huge majority.
In higher-paying upper management jobs, the disparity is not as stark but black managers outnumber whites two to one. On the County Commission, blacks have a 5-2 majority. When leaders at the top of an organization are black, one public policy expert said, black workers feel more secure working there.
Meanwhile, Carl’s case and other high-profile discrimination lawsuits have given the county an image of being hostile to white employees, which might discourage whites from applying.
Eaves said the county should try recruiting recent graduates of majority-white schools such as Emory, Georgia State, Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State.
The county should also look at the small number of whites who apply for jobs, find out how they got word of the openings, then step up advertising with those outlets, whether they’re newspapers, online job listings or employment agencies, Thomas, the diversity consultant, said.
The chairman said racial differences likely add to the perception of an inefficient county government, which led to several legislative measures awaiting the governor’s signature, including bills that will make employees easier to discipline or fire.
Another Fulton County bill that will come back up in next year’s session could be a massive blow, allowing voters to double the homestead exemption over three years, leaving the county $48 million poorer and threatening funding for health services, senior centers, libraries and Grady Memorial Hospital.
If race isn’t an issue, some Democrats have asked, why are state lawmakers targeting black-run Fulton and not white-run Gwinnett, where commissioners have been indicted recently in cases pointing to endemic corruption?
“I think it’s undeniable that there’s a racial component in there,” Eaves said of the onslaught of bills, which were introduced by powerful Republican lawmakers representing the affluent, majority-white suburbs.
During the session, when asked to identify the fat that Fulton County needs to trim from its budget, state Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, said, “The fat is: It’s been a works program, just like MARTA has been, for years.”
State Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, the sponsor of House Bill 594 which makes all new employees unclassified, said it had nothing to do with the county government’s racial breakdown or a perception of poor work performance.
Currently, Martin said, managers are hamstrung by a merit system where firings, suspensions or demotions can be overturned on appeal. Martin’s bill takes those protections away from newly-hired workers or those that take transfers or promotions.
“The only color that mattered to me was green,” he said. “We were trying to save the county money so it can do a better job of serving its citizens.”
South Fulton Democrats didn’t accept such explanations during the session, and racial tensions flared.
Fueling the flames
During some of the County Commission’s recent heated debate, Commissioner Emma Darnell, who represents west Atlanta, frequently referred to the measure on disciplining employees as the “plantation bill” and called a proposal to redraw commission districts the “re-segregation bill.”
Her name came up in Carl’s case, though she denies playing any role. Her alleged involvement presents another challenge for the county in attracting diverse job applicants — the tendency of public officials to pour gasoline on the fires of mistrust.
The jury heard second-hand testimony that Darnell allegedly told a deputy county manager that she had “too many white boys” in Human Services and the new director should be black and female.
“There was no evidence adduced at trial that I made any statement which could be interpreted as ‘racial bias against’ white male employees in general and Mr. Carl in particular,” Darnell said in a written statement.
The jury disagreed. According to Carl’s legal team, in interviews with jurors after the verdict some said they thought Darnell had influenced the decision, and one joked that a senior center named for Darnell’s mother should be renamed for Carl.
Attorney A. Lee Parks, who represents Carl, and in a separate discrimination case, a white construction project manager, said Fulton has developed a reputation for having a patronage-driven workforce that doesn’t work very hard and has too many people on its payroll. White people don’t want to work there, Parks said, because they fear they’ll face the same discrimination blacks once faced.
“You can’t attract competent white employees to that environment,” Parks said. “You can say that’s wrong, but that’s just what happens when a workforce gets out of touch with an area it represents.”
Fulton County Personnel Board Chairman Paul Zucca agrees that the workforce needs more diversity, but he’s at a loss on how to achieve that.
“I think Fulton County was wrong when it was 80-some percent white. I think it’s wrong now that it’s 80-some percent African-American,” Zucca said. “Because wherever you are, it’s important for the people of Fulton County to feel empowered, to feel equal.”
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