Debating diversity: South Portland Council divided

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Is it about diversification or qualifications?

Or both?

That was the question Councilors faced Monday night when deciding whether to appoint a Somali woman to the Civil Service Commission over the incumbent, a white man.

City Councilors wrestled over the value of qualifications versus the goal of diversifying the city’s boards and committees, in a city where the population is more than 90 percent white.

The issue of race, diversity and equal representation on municipal boards and committees came to a head at the March 7 City Council meeting, when Councilor Brad Fox brought forward Deqa Dhalac, of Red Oak Drive, for the District 5 seat to replace Phillip LaRou, who was appointed in June to finish Brian Dearborn’s term after his sudden death in May.

After an hour of public comment and council deliberation, Fox’s appointment was overruled, and the council voted 5-2 to reappoint LaRou to the commission over Dhalac. After the vote to reappoint LaRou, Fox left the meeting and did not return.

It was at least the third time Fox has left in the middle of a council meeting and not returned.

Prior to the vote, councilors praised Dhalac’s resume and qualifications, and urged her to apply for other boards and committees, even to run for the City Council.

The decision to retain LaRou over Dhalac, Councilor Linda Cohen said, has nothing to do with race, but rather specific qualifications for the commission. Moreover,  she said, because LaRou was appointed to finish Dearborn’s term, there is an expectation that, if he is performing adequately in the volunteer position, there is no reason not to reappoint him, Cohen said.

“I think when it comes down to having two qualified candidates for a vacant seat, all things being equal, then we go for a more diverse population,” Cohen said.

“But I think when we have someone sitting in a seat that is as extremely qualified as Phil LaRou is, and has done a great job in this term that he’s been there, he deserves the opportunity to serve a full term, and that’s not saying anything against Deqa,” she said.

The seven-member Civil Service Commission is charged with representing the public’s interest with regard to the police and fire departments, specifically for “the appointment, promotion, demotion, layoff, reinstatement, suspension and removal” of members of both departments, according to the commission ordinance.

LaRou, a native South Portlander, has been a firefighter for nearly 14 years in the Portland Fire Department. He also serves as the vice president of the Portland chapter of the International Association of Firefighters. In the 1990s, LaRou worked for the South Portland Fire Department in the Willard Square station.

Dhalac works as a counselor for refugees, immigrants and victims of torture for the Department of Health and Human Services in Portland, and is the principal of Immigrant Women’s Health, under the Health Leadership Development organization in Portland. She’s also a member of several boards and committees, including the Avesta Housing Advisory Board, the Opportunity Alliance Center for Career Exploration Advisory Board, the Maine HIV Advisory Board and the Somali Community Center of Maine. She has a master’s degree in development policy and is  seeking her second master’s in social work at the University of New England.

“Deqa, you have an outstanding application and, at the end of this year, I’m termed out.  I would love to see you run for city councilor,” Mayor Tom Blake said at the meeting.

Cohen told Dhalac, in the meantime she should think about serving on the Community Block Development Grant Committee, and others urged her to run for the Library Advisory Board or the Arts and Historic Preservation Commission.

But Councilor Eben Rose, who voted against reappointing LaRou and cited the importance of appointing Dhalac, told councilors, “When you run into two candidates who are qualified in qualitatively different ways, then you run into a value choice,” between continuity and the agency of change, he said.

Rose said Dhalac has “extensive qualifications in personnel issues and, most importantly, she has extensive qualifications in dealing with structural racism. Yes, I said the ‘R’ word,” Rose said.

He reminded councilors that at the beginning of the year, in the council’s annual goal-setting workshop, councilors cited a desire and need to diversify its volunteer boards and committees and elected official positions.

“This is the battle. This is the very thing we’re trying to make work,” he said. “The controversy that we’re seeing right now is the very problem that Deqa will help resolve.”

“I understand we balance the idea of tokenism,” Rose said. “This is not about gratuitously replacing someone who is very well-qualified for somebody else as a token gesture.” Dhalac’s perspective allows her to be an “advocate for greater diversity of issues that come before the civil service,” he said.

‘It’s about diversity as a whole’

“I’m qualified; I’m a very educated person,” Dhalac told councilors Monday. “I want you to do the right thing.”

Speaking in favor of Dhalac’s appointment, Regina Phillips, director of Portland’s Refugee Services Program, told councilors, “I do believe you have to have diversity on a committee, as far as women, men, LGBT, black and white, whatever diversity means to you,” she said. “It’s about diversity as a whole.”

Four of the seven commissioners serving on the Civil Service Commission publicly criticized Fox’s decision to replace LaRou, whose expertise and experience they lauded as crucial to the commission, especially as the commission is poised to hire a new fire chief, after longtime Fire Chief Kevin Guimond retired in November.

Lee Harvey, chairman of the commission, told councilors that LaRou’s extensive “background, knowledge and experience is a huge benefit to the commission, especially now that we are in the midst of a fire chief testing process.”

“He was well-qualified nine months ago, but now not qualified enough to be reappointed?” Harvey said.

“I always thought that people were appointed, not for their interest or their civic duty, but for being the most qualified and, in Phil’s case, relatable experience adds an invaluable insight to the commission’s work,” he said.

Kathleen Hanson, commissioner for district 1, told councilors that upon hearing that Fox would not vote to reappoint LaRou, she called Fox to talk about it.

“Fox suggested perhaps that he was the only one in this city who had a real appreciation for diversity,” Hanson said. “I took a real exception to that comment.”

In seeking to be reappointed by Fox for the full five-year term, LaRou said, in a letter read by City Clerk Emily Carrington because LaRou was on duty and could not attend, that he had tried to contact Fox but received no response.

In a Feb. 25 email from Fox, he told LaRou he had “chosen another extremely qualified candidate for the position.”

In the March 7 email that Carrington also read aloud, LaRou said, “This appears to me very one-sided, because I have never met Councilor Fox, nor have we ever had a conversation regarding my background for public safety.”

LaRou wrote two subsequent emails to Fox with questions about why he was not being re-appointed, but Fox did not respond.

At the meeting, Fox apologized for not getting back to LaRou, and said, “I am constantly locked out of my email, which is one of the reasons I don’t use it that much.”

Rosemarie De Angelis, a former councilor, mayor and adjunct professor of English Language Learning at Southern Maine Community College, criticized Fox’s actions on Monday. DeAngelis’ recent appointment to the commission for district 3 drew controversy and accusations of cronyism after Councilor Eben Rose told her she could not run for the state legislature – in the same district where Fox has said he will run – while serving on the commission.

“Mr. Fox touts his commitment to diversity … this has nothing to do with diversity,” she said. “This has nothing to do with color, religion, or Deqa. It has to do with turning away a volunteer who is highly-qualified, contributory and able,” she said.

Course of action

On Tuesday, Mayor Tom Blake said he recognizes that the city “has a shortage” of diverse representation on city boards and committees, which is hard to overcome in a city with more than 25,000 residents that, according to the most recent U.S. Census data, 90 percent of which are white.

Blake said it would benefit the council to have a workshop with public comment about how to increase and facilitate diversity. Some of that facilitation might include strengthening the application process to serve on boards and committees, which Blake has referred to in the past as too vague.

Morgan said Wednesday that Fox’s “misdirected” actions call to question when and how to effectively diversify.

The council’s ultimate decision was “not about preventing the addition of diversity to boards,” but “there are options other than yanking someone off a board just for the sake of creating diversity.”

In general, when filling vacant seats, Blake said, “we go after the best person possible,” and to “tweak that process in an effort to enhance minorities, I’m not sure we need to do that.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Deqa Dhalac, of Red Oak Drive, speaks to the South Portland Council Monday after Councilor Brad Fox recommended that she replace Phillip LaRou on the Civil Service Commission. LaRou was appointed in June to finish the remainder of a term, and asked to be appointed for a full term. The council voted in favor of LaRou, which some say is in conflict with the city’s goal of bringing more diversity to local government.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.