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Water Management boss says he’s changed culture that fostered racism

Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner (left) and department spokesman Gary Litherland (right) prepare for Friday's budget hearing. Fran Spielman | Sun-Times

Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner claimed Friday to have “changed the culture” of the department at the center of an email scandal, even as he defended his decision not to fire a supervisor who received those racist emails and failed to report them.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson recommended that the unidentified supervisor be fired and placed on the “Do-Not-Hire” list for remaining silent for years, even after receiving several emails in which the senders “reference or mockingly imitated Ebonics,” traded racist jokes and denigrated an African-American employee.

Instead, Conner, who is African-American, reduced the punishment to a 14-day suspension.

On Friday, Conner defended those actions before taking his first turn on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings.

“She was a lower-level employee at the time. Three of her immediate supervisors were on there and they didn’t do anything about it. There wasn’t any sense of penalizing her when her immediate supervisors knew about it and didn’t do anything about it,” Conner said.

In June, a housecleaning triggered by racist, sexist and homophobic emails swept out Water Management Commissioner Barrett Murphy, managing deputy William Bresnahan, district superintendent Paul Hansen and two other top managers.

Four current and two former Water Management employees — all African-Americans – have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the department at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals of “a hostile and abusive work environment” based on race that includes violence, intimidation and retaliation that “weave a tapestry of hostility that dominates every aspect” of their job.

That includes less-desirable shifts and work assignments and being denied promotions, transfers, overtime and training opportunities. Black women were routinely referred to as “bitches and whores,” the suit contends. Those who dared complain were also punished with “unfair, arbitrary and capricious” discipline, plaintiffs claim.

Conner acknowledged Friday that his department remains a male bastion with only 252 women –13 percent –among 1,892 employees.

But he pointed to sensitivity training already completed by 75 percent of the workforce that will be reinforced every year as evidence that it’s a new day.

“The [new] culture of the department is one that’s welcoming and inviting. People understand that homophobia will not be accepted. Racism will not be accepted. Any of those things that are gonna make employees feel uncomfortable,” he told aldermen.

“You can’t necessarily change the way the person thinks. But you can change the way they act in the environment.”

Conner said he would “love to see more women” and more minorities in Water Management. But he’s at the mercy of the building trades, that “represent 96 percent of our department.”

Conner was a popular choice among aldermen—and not just because he’s black. He has earned the City Council’s trust after 20 years of management experience in the Departments of Transportation and Streets and Sanitation.

That’s apparently why Friday’s questioning of Conner was more like a “love-fest,” as Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) put it.

“I want to thank you for stabilizing the ship,” said Ald. Ray Lopez (15th).

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) told Conner he hasn’t gotten “enough credit” for changing the hate-filled culture at Water Management while “preserving the part of the culture that performs at a high-level.”

“Your department has had a reputation for a long time as the department that gets the job done under difficult conditions, challenging weather,” Hopkins said.

“To be told you have to change the culture without altering the work product is…like trying to fix a car while you’re driving down the Kennedy. We knew you were up to the task and you’ve done nothing but confirm that.”

The closest thing to tough questioning came when Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) led the charge in complaining about a private contractor that apologized earlier this year for inconveniencing and endangering North Side residents with its slow and slipshod water main replacement work.

“We had vehicles sink. We’ve had injuries…I’m gonna call it the ‘Nightmare on Broadway.’ I could lose an election for what has happened on Broadway,” Tunney said.

“It was completely mismanaged. If we didn’t have the marathon, you’d still be working on the street…Between Procurement and yourself, we need to really be on top of this….I have never gotten as many complaints on any issue in the fifteen years I’ve been aldermen. And you know what? The citizens are right.”

Conner said the complaints involve a “contract I inherited.” But he said, “No one gets a pass with me. Absolutely no one.”