SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council will hold a diversity training workshop on Monday in the hope of making municipal government more welcoming to all residents, especially minorities and immigrants.

The workshop is being held at the urging of District 5 Councilor Brad Fox, who believes the more culturally diverse neighborhoods in his section of the city aren’t well represented on the city payroll or on municipal boards and commissions.

“It’s not intentional racism, it’s more structural,” Fox said Tuesday. “People are just unaware of the community over here. It’s like the Little U.N., with people from Somalia, Angola, Bulgaria, India, Native Americans and Latinos. It’s an incredible resource and the city is missing out.”

The workshop will be conducted by Maine Intercultural Communication Consultants of Portland at a cost of $500 for a two-hour session, with the possibility of one or two follow-up sessions.

The first workshop will focus on the basics of intercultural communication, stereotypes and inclusion, according to the consultants’ proposal. A second workshop would delve more deeply into cultural influences and the steps that can be taken to better engage a multicultural community in civic life.

“You can never go wrong discussing issues that plague our communities,” said Mayor Tom Blake. “I think we do quite well in South Portland, but this is an issue that needs to be addressed across our country.”

DISPUTED COMMISSION APPOINTMENT

Fox pressed for the workshop following a highly contentious meeting in March, when the council rejected his nomination of Deqa Dhalac, a Somali immigrant and social worker, to the Civil Service Commission, which oversees police and firefighter hiring and contracts.

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 boards and committees.

Dhalac expressed interest in the city’s Arts & Historic Preservation Committee, and Fox initially considered her for an opening on the Library Advisory Board, but ultimately he decided he wanted her to have a more powerful position.

“She was the better candidate and she would have made a remarkable change on the commission,” Fox said Tuesday.

Other councilors said that while Dhalac was well qualified to serve on the commission, LaRou had already demonstrated significant commitment and professional expertise over the last several months and should be reappointed.

In December, the City Council set a long-term goal to address diversity among city employees and on municipal boards.

South Portland’s overall population is about 90 percent white, at least 2 percent black or African-American, 0.3 percent Native American and 3.8 percent Asian, according to the latest Census data.

DIVERSITY IN CITY GOVERNMENT

It’s unclear how many, if any, minorities serve on city boards or committees, though Fox said none were apparent at a recent recognition night that attracted 70 of 125 residents who serve on municipal panels. The city doesn’t seek racial or ethnic information on volunteers. Women appear to be well represented. Three of seven councilors are women, as are four of seven civil service commissioners.

A March analysis of the city’s 297 full-time employees found that 70 were women (24 percent), two were African-American (0.7 percent), one was Asian (0.3 percent) and one was Hispanic (0.3 percent), city officials said. Among 50 full-time firefighters, two are women (4 percent) and one is a Hispanic man (2 percent). The list of on-call firefighters includes one woman, two African-American men and one Asian man.

So far, the council and municipal department heads have been invited to Monday’s diversity training workshop. It’s unclear whether other city employees or board members will be invited to the workshop or be given the opportunity to attend future workshops.

Fox said he hopes the city develops a plan to offer regular diversity training for all city workers and volunteers. He noted the recent controversy over a comment made by Planning Board Chairman William Laidley about the Brick Hill neighborhood.

At an April 12 board meeting, Laidley praised the planned construction of 120 market-rate apartments near an existing affordable housing development. “It’s a great project for the times and for the space,” Laidley said. “It makes it seem like less of a ghetto, to look at it in very, very harsh language.”

Brick Hill residents and others protested Laidley’s comment, saying that it was inaccurate and hurtful. Laidley made a public apology at the May 10 board meeting, saying briefly, “That was an inappropriate comment and I apologize.”

Laidley didn’t answer a call to discuss what he said or whether he’d attend diversity training.

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

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