Miami Beach Parks Department Segregated Black Workers, Called Them "Animals," Employees Say

Employees say black workers who were labeled "troublemakers" were sent to North Shore Open Space Park as punishment.
Employees say black workers who were labeled "troublemakers" were sent to North Shore Open Space Park as punishment. City of Miami Beach
At the end of a long workday, Ida Smart and Lee Holmes slide into a booth at a McDonald's near El Portal. The two are still dressed in their uniforms — a blue long-sleeve shirt for Smart and a black jacket for Holmes. Both are embroidered with the name of their employer, the City of Miami Beach.

Combined, the two have more than three decades of experience working for the city's parks and recreation department: Holmes started in 1997, and Smart joined in 2006. But in recent years, the two say, the work environment has grown almost too hostile to bear.

"I'm so tired of being strong," Smart says, wiping away tears. "Since 2012, I've been fighting this."

Smart and Holmes, who are both black, are just two of roughly a dozen employees who accuse the city's Parks and Rec Department of racial discrimination and toxic dysfunction. In December, Smart grew so frustrated that she started a petition on called "Blatant Discrimination Against Blacks." As of this week, 75 people have signed it.

Her concerns are echoed in letters written by two former parks superintendents, the third-most powerful position in the department. In a letter sent to city leaders in December, ex-superintendent Douglas Tripodo called conditions in the department "unlawful, fear-mongering and overall deplorable," laying the blame at the feet of Parks and Recreation Director John Rebar, who is white.

"You have a truly wonderful group of long-term municipal workers who have not only lacked any decent leadership over the last several years under Mr. Rebar's tenure but have faced discrimination, retaliation and threatening behavior," Tripodo wrote.

In all, New Times spoke with seven current and former parks and recreation employees and reviewed complaints from a half-dozen others. Black employees who believe they were qualified for promotions say that in many cases, they weren't even given an interview. Others were passed up for overtime opportunities. Skilled black workers have been reassigned to pick up trash in the parks. And the current director and assistant director have been accused of referring to black employees as "animals" and "criminals" and sending "troublemakers" — almost all of whom were black — to North Shore Open Space Park as punishment.

(After publication, Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales issued a lengthy letter to commissioners alleging that one of those who complained about discrimination resigned after malfeasance was discovered, and that others made false representations. The letter concludes: "There is no evidence to support any claim of discrimination or any other type of inappropriate or illicit behavior conducted by John Rebar, Director of Parks and Recreation, or Jose Del Risco, Assistant Director of Parks and Recreation.")

"We take these allegations very seriously and are looking into the matter," city spokesperson Melissa Berthier Berthier wrote Tuesday. "Miami Beach is a culturally diverse community and prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming to all residents, visitors and employees."

That vision of the city, however, stands in stark contrast to the pattern of discriminatory behavior outlined by employees, who say the harassment trickles down from Rebar and his second in command, Assistant Director Jose Del Risco.

One of the most shocking allegations comes from Tripodo, a white parks superintendent who worked for the city three and a half months before he was fired December 11. In a three-page letter, Tripodo described being tasked with reorganizing workers. When he suggested they all meet in the maintenance yard each morning to get new daily assignments, he says, Del Risco bristled at the idea.

"Mr. Del Risco said... the parks maintenance yard would look like a prison yard, meaning all the black employees would be in one place," Tripodo wrote. "[I] was not sure what that meant until it was explained to me."

Tripodo added there were several employees who felt personally discriminated against by Del Risco, who is Cuban: "They all have said he only will get along with other Cuban people." (Del Risco and Rebar did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

Reached by New Times, Tripodo said he was concerned about the language used by Rebar and Del Risco to describe black employees, including the words "animals" and "criminals." He declined further comment.

After Tripodo's letter began circulating around the city, his assistant Yvonne Sepulveda says Del Risco asked her to write a letter contradicting her former boss' account. "He told me, 'It would be nice if you could tell the city manager that everything Doug [Tripodo] wrote in there is a lie,'" Sepulveda says. "I said, 'I'm not going to do that.' They like to save their skin. They tried to have me fired."

The situation grew so tense that Sepulveda's doctor urged her to take an early retirement, she says. After 13 years, she left the department in mid-January.

"My health just started getting weaker and weaker and weaker, and emotionally, they break you," she says. "I've had four bosses fired by the same person."

The superintendent who preceded Tripodo also wrote a letter to Mayor Dan Gelber about a similar experience working for the city. Vince Muia, who was hired in early 2016, said Rebar and Del Risco falsely accused him of theft and wrongfully ousted him a year into the job.

"For a department to go through two park superintendents that are more than well qualified in less than a calendar year speaks for itself and is an indication of a much larger leadership issue. These issues within the department not only led myself and Doug down a road of failure, it leads all the employees in the entire department to be scared to speak up," wrote Muia, who is white. "I cannot stay silent while these men continue to ruin the lives of good people."

Unlike Tripodo, Muia was hesitant to label his bosses' actions racist or discriminatory in an interview with New Times. But he said when he first came onboard, Rebar and Del Risco told him they purposely split up workers in the maintenance yard for racial reasons.

"The story to me was that the yard was very bad and that none of the blacks got along with the Latins," Muia said.

Muia said he was also aware that "bad" employees had been placed in North Shore Open Space Park.

"People that complained, people that were a thorn in their side, they put them all up at North Shore Open Space," Muia said. "I don't know if it's racial... but it was all black."

Other employees say they have no doubt racism was at work. They say black workers have been regularly passed up for promotions under Rebar and Del Risco's reign. Two recreation leaders who spoke to New Times said that although they were qualified to move up to become program supervisors, they couldn’t get an interview when those jobs opened up. Both noted that of about a dozen program supervisors in the department, only one is black.

“It’s just that one person, and he’s been here for years,” said one of the employees, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “You have other black folk that have applied and you don’t see them working in higher positions.”

Another rec leader said it was clear that white and Hispanic employees had been promoted to program supervisors while black employees had not. “Can I look at it and see that there’s not a lot of African-Americans in high positions? It’s obvious that there’s not,” she said.

Smart, who started the petition, began filing complaints with the city around 2012 after the black supervisor called her a "bitch" and "whore"; in one case, she says, he told her he was hard on her because she is black. Since then, Smart has been transferred to multiple rec centers and her schedule was switched almost monthly, which she believes is retaliation for speaking up. In 2014, her supervisors also forced her to undergo a "fitness for duty" exam, where a doctor determined her mental status was, in fact, normal.

After becoming suspicious about overtime equality last year, Smart requested pay sheets and time logs. She discovered one of her Hispanic peers had received nearly five times the amount of overtime pay as she had earned in a 34-month period despite her seniority. Smart filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Rights, but in early January, her case was denied for "no reasonable cause."

Holmes, who has worked for the city for 20 years, says he has been referred to as a "criminal" — a term he believes is racially charged — after inadvertently running a city vehicle into a sleeping homeless woman in Lummus Park in May 2014. Holmes says police did not cite him, but after the accident, he was sent to North Shore Open Space Park.

"When they stuck me in the park, I knew something was wrong," he says. "I'd heard that was where the bad people go."

Holmes was also banned from driving on the job, a punishment he says is harsher than those given to other employees involved in accidents.

Before, Holmes performed maintenance and did landscaping around the city. But at North Shore, he says, he and other skilled black workers, such as irrigation techs, were asked to pick up trash all day.

"Basically, what you're saying to us is this is all we know how to do," Holmes says.

He has since been transferred to work at the Scott Rakow Youth Center, but without driving privileges. He says he can no longer run errands or leave for maintenance jobs at other parks. Stuck at the same building all day, he says it actually does feel like a prison yard.

"When I come to work, I feel like I'm in jail," Holmes says. "I can see it. I can feel it. That's how I'm being treated."
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb