Detroit City Council Member Raquel Castañeda-López is calling for additional workplace harassment and discrimination training for her colleagues following WDET’s report of a 2019 civil rights investigation of the public body.
In a statement, City Council’s sole Latina member expressed frustration over the City’s Civil Rights & Inclusion Office’s (CRIO) handling of the investigation and claimed that she had raised concerns of sexual harassment and bias to City Council President Brenda Jones in 2015.
“When discrimination is minimalized to personality differences and interpersonal communication, it fails to address the systemic problems and prevents people from working collectively to change workplace culture and policies,” Castañeda-López wrote. “I strongly believe that at a minimum the recommendations from the investigation should be implemented immediately and an investigation be conducted by an entity outside of the city.”
As previously reported by WDET, CRIO’s investigation was prompted by Jones and focused on claims of “intimidation and hostile work environment” within City Council. Civil rights investigators also investigated whether Castañeda-López was being discriminated against based on her national origin.
Castañeda-López issued a memo addressed to Jones, CRIO Director Charity Dean and Human Resources Department Director Denise Starr. The District 6 councilmember cited City Council’s recent approval of a contract funding Detroit’s civil litigation against Black Lives Matter protesters. Castañeda-López voted against the $200,000 contract for a law firm working with city attorneys.
“After the vote on the Clark Hill contract on January 26, my office received communications expressing frustration about online harassment received due to the vote and the belief that my office was partially responsible for inciting the vitriol and cyberbullying,” wrote Castañeda-López in the memo. “These claims in of themselves foster a culture of intimidation, hostility, and fear. Sadly this is not the first time my office has experienced this type of interaction from my colleagues.”
The request calls for annual training on workplace harassment and discrimination, sexual harassment, unconscious and implicit bias and diversity, equity and inclusion.
Other City Council Members React
But not all council members agree with Castañeda-López’s account of workplace discrimination.
“If you read the report, all fingers point in one direction when it comes to creating a hostile environment,” City Council Member Scott Benson told WDET. “The report and the interviews point directly at Member Castañeda-López.”
During the 2019 civil rights investigation, Castañeda-López recounted an incident where Benson touched her arm. While Castañeda-López said his actions were unwelcome and had sexist undertones, Benson considered her reaction to be racially insensitive and was offended.
“Black men have been murdered over the history of this country with accusations of being inappropriate,” said Benson. “To call the police on a colleague in a city council meeting and accuse someone of assault is a bit disturbing to me.”
Castañeda-López refutes the characterization of the event as an ‘assault’ but acknowledges that a sergeant with the Executive Protection Unit was called over to diffuse the situation.
“It’s just about professional boundaries and respecting people’s personal space,” Castañeda-López told WDET previously.
In a statement from her office, Council President Brenda Jones called Castañeda-López’s email “disturbing” and part of a “pattern and mindset of victimization.” Jones’s office has received “various complaints from African-American staffers… as well as residents of the District 6 community,” according to the release.
“It is my hope that Member Castañeda-López will take her own advice, face up to these perceptions by colleagues, staff and the community, and make the changes necessary to conduct healthier relationships with those she interacts with on a professional or personal level,” wrote Jones.
Jones also addressed a 2015 claim of sexual harassment against a Council Executive Protection Unit officer made by a staff member in Castañeda-López’s office, saying the officer was “briefly reassigned” while individuals were interviewed. The inquiry ended when the complaining staffer “declined to proceed.”
CRIO’s recommended implicit bias and discrimination training for city council members was canceled by the civil rights office in early 2020 due to “scheduling conflicts and instructor constraints,” according to Jones. The council president’s statement did not address CRIO’s suggestion to bring on a third-party mediator to address disputes between council members.
“I take workplace allegations and claims very seriously,” Jones wrote. “Since being elevated to Council President in 2014, I have worked to establish an environment that respects all; led a professional legislative process; restored decorum and dignity; and attempted to rebuild the relationship with the community through accessibility and vigorous outreach and engagement.”
This story was updated at 10:20 on Feb. 1 to include a statement from Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones.