Boston city employees of color Tuesday spoke out against a culture of nepotism and unfair treatment within city departments during a hearing that probed hiring and promotional practices.
“In reality there is no equal opportunity, because if I go to into the interview with 20-plus years of experience, they turn around and give the position to an individual with six months to a year just because he’s a friend of the person who’s interviewing,” said Hector Mejias, who currently works for the Public Works Department, during a virtual City Council hearing Tuesday morning.
Mejias recalled being told he was wasting his time in pursuing promotions because department brass already knew who they wanted. He also said he was threatened for testifying about the nepotism, told by colleagues his work situation “could be a lot worse” should he speak out.
“If you’re not part of their clique . . . they’re just going to blackball you,” he said.
That testimony occurred at a hearing focused on a proposed ordinance that would aim to “eliminate conflicts of interest and implicit biases in the hiring and promotional practices” and establish rules for employment and promotion that would prioritize “merit, experience, and job performance.” The measure was proposed by Councilors Julia Mejia and Ricardo Arroyo.
During the hearing, Jeffrey Lopes, a Boston police detective who is president of Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, described a notable lack of diversity in supervisor roles in the department. More than a third of the department identifies as Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), but that diversity is not reflected in the department’s leadership ranks, he said: Fewer than 9 percent of those holding the rank of captain, for instance, identify as BIPOC. There is not one BIPOC cop in Boston who currently holds the rank of captain detective, Lopes said, and only one who holds the rank of lieutenant.
The city needs to eliminate politics from the hiring and promotion process for specialized units, he said. “There is too much political influence in how business is conducted within the Police Department.”
Written testimony submitted by Boston police Officer Oscar Guerrero, a Hyde Park resident, struck a similar theme. Guerrero wrote that promotions within the department “seem to be based on either who you know or familial ties” rather than merit.
Boston EMS Lieutenant Dennis Bynum said he has been stymied in his attempts to move further up the ranks on 10 different occasions. He labeled the department’s promotional process “horrible.”
“The good old boy network has worked very well,” said Bynum, a 36-year veteran of Boston EMS.
Or, in the words of Jerome Hargrow, president of Local Lodge 100, a union that represents Boston water and sewer workers, “Loyalties also play a big role in why things don’t get looked into.”
Boston fire Captain Darrell Higginbottom, the president of the Boston Society of Vulcans, which represents Black and brown firefighters, said preferences embedded in the civil service system create unintended consequences that limit diversity in departments like the Fire Department, which has come under criticism in recent years for being overwhelming white and male.
“We can’t just hope that things happen, it must be intentional,” said Higginbottom, a Mattapan resident, of the city’s efforts to diversify its various workforces.
Two Cabinet chiefs from Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration were on the Zoom call, and both pledged to work to address the concerns raised in the hearing.
Mariangely Solis Cervera, Wu’s equity and inclusion chief, said the administration is focused on ensuring every department is closing opportunity gaps and she hopes her office will lead the charge in transforming city practices to achieve that end. She noted that the post of chief diversity officer, a position proposed by the council legislation being discussed at the hearing, already exists in the city. She said she wants to “actually operationalize and structure that role so that it’s embedded throughout city departments.”
Segun Idowu, Wu’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, noted that work in local or state governments can be a path to the middle class, calling the anecdotes of exclusion “devastating to hear.”
“Discrimination and retaliation that we’re hearing about today is of course reprehensible and contrary to the work that all of us are working together to do, particularly as it relates to creating opportunities to build generational wealth,” he said.
A recent Boston Globe analysis showed the city’s workforce became slightly more racially diverse in 2021, although white workers still constitute half of the municipality’s 19,000-plus employees.