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Outside firm to review culture at Boston Water and Sewer Commission after discrimination complaints

The Boston Water and Sewer Commission, which is facing a lawsuit filed by two employees who allege the agency is beset by unchecked gender and racial discrimination, said Tuesday that it is enlisting an outside firm to conduct a “thorough review” of its culture.

The board that leads the commission decided on the independent review after consulting with the office of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, according to a statement from Dolores Randolph, a commission spokeswoman. The outside firm hasn’t been selected yet, she said.

“The expectation of the board of commissioners is that only the highest levels of respect and professionalism are displayed by employees of the Boston Water & Sewer Commission,” the statement said.

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The board is led by Michael J. Woodall, who was named chairman in February 2015, according to the commission’s website. Cathleen Douglas Stone, the city’s first chief of environmental services, and Muhammad Ali-Salaam, a retired Boston Redevelopment Authority official, also sit on the panel.

The commissioners are appointed by Walsh and confirmed by the City Council. Through Randolph, they declined an interview request Tuesday, citing the pending litigation.

The outside review is aimed at ensuring “that the right policies and procedures are in place so all employees feel safe and supported,” Randolph said in a statement.

Last week, commission employees Barbara Gillis and Daniel Rose filed a civil lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court which alleged workers get their assignments in a room with separate white and black sections divided by a “Mason-Dixon line.” The complaint contends that racial slurs were regularly used and tolerated by supervisors and that assignments were made on the basis of race. Women were “mocked and harassed,” and those who complained faced retaliation, the lawsuit stated.

The suit was filed against the commission; its executive director, Henry F. Vitale; and supervisors Phil Smith, Brian Lee, and Richard Sullivan. Randolph declined to comment on their employment status, citing commission policy.

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In a statement, Gillis, 33, a Charlestown resident who has worked for the commission since 2013, said the complaints she made to managers and supervisors fell on deaf ears. “My complaints were pushed aside and I was retaliated against. It’s sad that it took a lawsuit for them to listen,” she said.

Nick Carter, an attorney for Gillis and Rose, said his clients endured years of “mistreatment and unequal treatment” because of their skin color and gender before the city took action. “Barbara and Daniel have courageously stepped forward to fight this fight and will do so until Boston Water and Sewer roots out the racism and misogyny that fester there,” Carter said.

City Council president Andrea Campbell said she welcomed the investigation.

“It’s important that we hold not just our elected officials to the highest standard, but also our city departments, and no city department should tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind,” Campbell said in a statement.

Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents East Boston, said she plans to follow the investigation. “Every office serving residents of Boston should be a welcoming place to work regardless of one’s race or gender, and I am alarmed by the allegations,” she said in a statement.

Councilor Kim Janey, who represents Roxbury, said the accusations highlight the importance of antibias and antiharassment training in the workplace. “The message has to be that this will not be tolerated,” she said.

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Records from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination show the agency has faced 10 complaints alleging gender or racial discrimination since 2001. Four cases, including complaints by Gillis and Rose, were withdrawn because the plaintiffs pursued lawsuits in civil court. In three cases, investigators didn’t find evidence that antidiscrimination laws were broken.

One case was settled and another was withdrawn by the plaintiff, records show. The outcome of the last case couldn’t be determined because the records were destroyed under a provision that allows files to be discarded three years after adjudication. Randolph said the commission already conducts antibias and harassment trainings, but has scheduled additional, mandatory sessions with outside professionals to begin on Friday. The agency also plans to establish a Diversity Advisory Committee.


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.