Miami Beach Whistleblower Reassigned to Job Filling Potholes

A whistleblower says her reassignment with the City of Miami Beach was retaliatory.
A whistleblower says her reassignment with the City of Miami Beach was retaliatory. photo by Marc Llopart via FlickrCC
Earlier this year, Ida Smart and a handful of her coworkers at Miami Beach Parks and Recreation went public with their claims of racial discrimination within the department. Smart, a bus driver at the North Shore Youth Center, complained of black workers being passed over for promotions and overtime opportunities. Two top department leaders made similar complaints, saying the director and assistant director had referred to black employees as "animals" and "criminals."

Five months later, the city has now reassigned Smart to a public works job filling potholes — a move she believes was made in retaliation for speaking out. Worse, she says the employee who filed the complaint that prompted her reassignment is a man who sexually harassed her in the past.

"He was trying to show me porno movies at work," Smart says. "I think they're trying to just make things hard for me."

Tonya Daniels, a city spokeswoman, denies any retaliation and says Smart was reassigned with the same pay and hours "based on corroborated information that she had acted in a threatening manner."

"Due to the type of allegations made by both parties, we felt that it was in her best interest to relocate Ms. Smart to a different department in the same job classification," Daniels wrote in an email. "This allows her to keep her same work schedule, salary and benefits, therefore not affecting her negatively."

But Smart says the move has definitely affected her negatively. The whole situation dates back to last year, when Smart says her coworker, Malcolm Cobb, pulled her aside in the youth center's kitchen and tried to show her explicit videos on his cell phone. She told Cobb she wasn't interested but says he made at least two other attempts to show her porn while they were working. Smart told her coworkers about the harassment but says she was hesitant to get HR involved because the city had brushed off her earlier complaints about discrimination.

"I never told on him because it was like, 'Who am I gonna tell?'" Smart says. "They never did anything about anything that happened to me."

Several months passed without Cobb making another attempt. Then in February, Smart and several of her coworkers reported their experiences of racial discrimination to New Times, prompting the city to launch an internal investigation.

But far from making things better, Smart says the probe ended up pitting her against Cobb, who she claims was upset that her complaints had brought investigators into the department. At a meeting in mid-July, she says Cobb approached her supervisor and accused him of being "the feds" — meaning someone who snitched.

That tense moment seemed to blow over, but Smart says Cobb then escalated the situation. After the meeting, she says he made a false report to HR that she had started the confrontation, threatened him with violence, and used a racial slur. (Both Cobb and Smart are black.)

Two people who were present at the meeting say Cobb's story isn't true. The supervisor, Albert Knight, wrote a letter to HR echoing Smart's story about "the feds," and her coworker Evette Phillips tells New Times Smart never made a threat or used a racial slur.

"There was no argument, there was no confrontation," Phillips says. "She didn't do anything."

Smart says she told HR about Cobb harassing her with the explicit videos, hoping they would understand the backstory. But because Cobb made the first complaint, the city punished her and not him, reassigning Smart to a hard-labor street crew filling potholes with public works.

"I've never done anything with asphalt or concrete," Smart says. "Just to throw me in there — it was crazy."

Smart believes her reassignment is the city's way of retaliating against her for going public about racial discrimination earlier this year. And she believes the city would have taken her complaint of sexual harassment more seriously if she were white.

"It would be better," she says. "For some reason, they think we [black women] should be able to take everything."

Reached by New Times, Cobb said, "I really don't want to talk about it." He did not respond to numerous calls seeking comment about his complaint against Smart or the allegations about him watching porn at work.

The city says it still has open investigations into Cobb's complaints about Smart threatening him and using racial slurs, as well as Smart's complaint about Cobb watching porn at work.

Two of Smart's coworkers, Tonya Davis and Lee Holmes, confirm that she told them last year about Cobb watching the porn videos. "She had told me, 'Malcolm was showing me porn on his phone,' and she said, 'Boy, I don't want to see that,'" Davis tells New Times.

Holmes, a longtime friend of Smart, says her claims about Cobb are well known within the department.

"There's a lot of other guys in parks that know he watches porno on the job," Holmes says. "It's funny how city hall looks over this girl's stuff about how this all started."

On her third day with public works, Smart says she grew dizzy and nauseated from the smell of the asphalt. At lunch on Wednesday, she drove herself to the emergency room, where she says she was given medication for headaches.

"I think they're trying to torture me," she says of the city.

The city denies that Smart was "retaliated against in any manner." But Holmes, who also reported racial discrimination, believes she's had a target on her back since speaking out against the city in February.

"They sit there and overlook her sexual harassment case, but they've got a guy at North Shore watching porno on his phone," he says. "They overlook that just to target Ida because of the newspaper report... The people who complain are the people who get punished. That's what's going on on Miami Beach."
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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