SOUTH PORTLAND — A human rights discrimination complaint has been filed against the City Council by an African-American woman whose nomination to a municipal commission was rejected in March.

Deqa Dhalac, a Somali immigrant and social worker, has filed a discrimination complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission because the council rejected Councilor Brad Fox’s nomination of Dhalac to the city’s Civil Service Commission.

Instead, the council voted 5-2 to reappoint Phillip LaRou, who had been appointed by Fox just nine months earlier to fill an unexpired term on the seven-member commission. LaRou, a Portland firefighter who is white, had asked to be reappointed to a full five-year term, but Fox said he wanted to increase diversity on city boards and committees.

Dhalac said she filed the complaint because she believes the council rejected her appointment without really knowing her, though she and LaRou had submitted applications listing their interests and qualifications, and the council had heard lengthy testimony from supporters of both candidates.

“I was not given a chance at all,” Dhalac said Wednesday. “They just disregarded me. My rights were not met. People disregarded me way before they knew me. I wanted to give my time to the city of South Portland and they did me wrong. It was not the right way for them to do things. I don’t want anyone else to feel the way I felt.”

Mayor Tom Blake acknowledged that he received a letter Tuesday informing him that a human rights complaint has been filed against the council, but he declined to discuss it further because the matter involves potential litigation.

Blake said he has asked councilors to refrain from discussing the complaint while the state agency investigates whether the council violated Maine’s anti-discrimination laws.

DIVERSITY TRAINING SCHEDULED

The council is scheduled to hold a diversity training workshop on Monday at Fox’s urging because he believes municipal government should be more welcoming to minorities and immigrants. In December, the council set a long-term goal to address diversity among city employees and on municipal boards.

The city typically has several openings on municipal boards and committees and the council rarely has competing candidates for positions. By the time a councilor nominates a potential committee member and the appointment is up for a vote, there’s usually little discussion or debate and mostly thanks and congratulations.

Dhalac had expressed interest in the city’s Arts & Historic Preservation Committee and she applied for an opening on the Library Advisory Board, city officials said. Ultimately, however, Fox said he wanted Dhalac to have a more powerful position and believed that she was the best candidate to bring change to the Civil Service Commission, which oversees police and firefighter hirings and contracts..

In a letter that was read during the appointment hearing, LaRou, who was at work at the time, said he had never met Fox, though Fox had appointed him to the commission nine months before. He also said that Fox had rejected his request to be reappointed and that he failed to answer emails requesting information about his decision.

COMMITTEE SEATS AVAILABLE

Before casting their votes for LaRou, other councilors said that while Dhalac was well qualified to serve on the commission, it would be inappropriate to essentially remove LaRou from the seat given his continued interest.

They also said LaRou deserved to be reappointed because he had already demonstrated significant commitment and professional expertise over the previous months. They encouraged Dhalac to apply for openings on other city boards and committees or run for the council itself.

“I’m disappointed,” Dhalac said outside the council chamber following the March 7 vote. She questioned the council’s commitment to increasing diversity and said she had no plans to serve on another board or committee.

Dhalac said Wednesday that Blake and Councilor Linda Cohen called a meeting with her on March 11 and offered her an open seat on the Community Development Advisory Committee, which addresses social, economic, housing and neighborhood revitalization needs.

Dhalac said she declined the offer.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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