A white employee of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority has filed a State Supreme Court lawsuit accusing the Housing Authority and its executive director, Sharon West, of racial bias.
Catherine Talty, former administrator of tenant relations, alleges that soon after Ms. West was appointed two years ago, she began a pattern of racial discrimination and harassment directed at Ms. Talty and other white employees. Ms. West is African-American.
Following Ms. West's appointment, the lawsuit claims, she remarked about the "sea of white faces" at the authority and made it clear she was going to be favoring black employees over white.
Additionally, Ms. West held a meeting of only black employees and engaged in a pattern of promoting only black employees and demoting and harassing white employees, the suit claims.
On an individual basis, the suit claims, Ms. West ordered white employees -- but not minority employees -- to do menial tasks such as bringing her tea with lemon and purchasing a newspaper daily and placing it, folded, on a chair outside her office.
"You have to learn to tolerate white people," the suit quotes Ms. West as saying to a minority staff member.
In her lawsuit, Ms. Talty accuses Ms. West of arbitrarily eliminating her old job and creating a new post with virtually the same duties in order to hire a politically connected black woman. She also claims that jobs held by other white middle managers at the authority were similarly targeted.
Ms. West, on the advice of attorneys representing her and the Housing Authority, declined to answer specific charges. However, she denied engaging in any type of racial discrimination.
"I have never discriminated, nor do I intend to discriminate," Ms. West said. "If you look at the composition of the senior staff, it is evident by who I have appointed and who I work with. I think my record speaks for itself."
Ms. West further suggested that a small number of white employees at the Housing Authority may be unhappy that an African-American woman is at the helm.
"As recently as last year, this agency was guilty of racial discrimination, and those people that perpetuated those practices still work here, and I think that they
are upset because they have a minority female at the head of this agency who has tried to become sensitive to residents and . . . change the direction of our agency," Ms. West said.
Ms. Talty, who has worked for the Housing Authority since 1985, said she served five years as administrator of tenant relations, a permanent appointment that required a Civil Service test. Four months after Ms. West became executive director, Ms. Talty said she was demoted to a lesser position in another department at a cut in pay of more than $20,000.
Subsequently, she said, a new job, "deputy director of management and family support services," was created with virtually the same responsibilities and specifications as her old job title. Though the job was not posted and no interviews held, the new post was given to a black woman, Donna Rice, Ms. Talty said.
Ms. Rice did not place high enough on a Civil Service exam to keep the post but has since been given a provisional appointment as a policy analyst and development specialist, sources said. That job title, Ms. Talty said, was created for another black woman and friend of Ms. West who has since left the authority. The post of deputy director of management and family support services remains unfilled.
In July 1996, the authority's board of commissioners, upon Ms. West's recommendation, voted to eliminate Ms. Talty's old job of administrator of tenant relations and four of five subordinate positions -- a senior tenant specialist and three tenant specialist posts.
Ostensibly, this was a cost-saving measure, but Ms. Talty pointed out that at the same meeting the board was asked to approve the creation of a case manager and a social worker position, with duties similar to the jobs that had been cut by the board.
Ms. West later hired a black woman and a Hispanic woman to fill two case manager positions, and hired a black woman in the social worker post.
All three were hired at higher salaries than approved by the board, Ms. Talty said, and the funding for those jobs was shifted from the authority's operations budget and paid for with grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"Not only did (Ms.) West have no problem with eliminating positions held by (white) people and creating new ones for African-Americans (with the same responsibilities as the old positions), she was using grant money to do it and getting it approved by the authority's board of commissioners," Ms. Talty claimed in her petition.
In August 1996, Ms. Talty said she was transferred again, this time to the only remaining tenant relations specialist position, which she said pays less than the case managers doing similar work.
In the following months, Ms. Talty said she watched the appointment and promotion of at least six non-white employees, "seemingly all in the furtherance of (Ms.) West's racial favoritism and prejudice."
Thomas A. Williams, the authority's assistant executive director, who is white, said 102 new employees have been hired at the authority since Ms. West took over in August 1995. Of those, 62 are white, 30 black and 10 Hispanic.
Ms. Talty's lawyer, Andrew P. Fleming, however, insists statistics do not tell the story. "We're basing our claim on the direct evidence that Cathy Talty's race was a motivating factor . . . in eliminating her position and reviving the position with slight modifications of the job specifications (and giving the job to Ms. Rice)," he said.
Ms. Talty is seeking reinstatement to her old job, back pay and $1 million in damages.
Modesto Candelario, chairman of the board of commissioners, said some employees may be unhappy about the authority's attempt to diversify the staff of an agency that serves a predominantly minority community, adding: "We don't have a plan to displace whites over minorities. What we want is to diversify (the staff) . . . through attrition, through opportunities as they become available."