Detroit report highlights friction on City Council

Detroit — A city councilwoman concerned about the rapport among council members and internal communications she claims are harassing and intimidating is pushing for immediate workplace training for the panel. 

In a memorandum Friday to Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and the city's directors of the Civil Rights & Inclusion Office and Human Resources Department, Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López called for training on workplace harassment and discrimination; sexual harassment; unconscious and implicit bias; and diversity, equity and inclusion.

Castaneda-Lopez

"I believe any concerns related to workplace hostility, intimidation and/or discrimination should be taken seriously and addressed immediately," she said.

The councilwoman said after a contract vote at Tuesday's formal session, her office "received communications (from colleages) 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."

"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. Both I and my team have experienced different forms of workplace hostility and intimidation since being elected in 2014."

Her memo came more than a year after the city's Civil Rights Inclusion and Opportunity Department issued a report following a request from Jones to delve into allegations of intimidation and a hostile work environment among council members and claims of discrimination.

Jones, in a statement Sunday, called Castañeda-López's allegations of ongoing cultural problems among Detroit's council "disturbing."

The claims, she said, are similar to complaints Castañeda-López expressed on social media in 2019, which prompted Jones to request the civil rights investigation. The probe concluded there wasn't sufficient evidence of intimidation, and "mulitple witnesses" raised concerns that Castañeda-López herself might have engaged in "discriminatory treatment," Jones said. 

"There seems to be a pattern and mindset of victimization ...," Jones' statement said. "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."

Castañeda-López in a statement Tuesday said she was "dumbfounded" by Jones' response, claiming Jones was using the civil rights investigation, which found no council person guilty of hostility or discrimination, to "absolve herself from any responsiblity."

"...the fact that I am being accused, instead of the concerns being taken seriously and addressed, highlights how pervasive cancel culture and gaslighting are even amongst communities of color," she said. "What hope is there for justice if this is the type of response we receive from Council leadership?"

Findings from the civil rights investigation were issued Sept. 16, 2019. The Detroit News requested a copy of the report through a Freedom of Information Act request in October and received it Jan. 19.

The concerns noted in the 2019 report stemmed from several interpersonal conflicts during budget deliberations that spring.

The office interviewed the full council, a member of the council's executive protection unit, mayor's office liaison and parliamentarian, and reviewed camera footage from meetings held between March and April of 2019.

Detroit Councilman Scott Benson delivers a speech during the official opening of Flex-N-Gate Detroit.

In one incident, Councilman Scott Benson was seated next to Castañeda-López during a budget hearing, according to the report, which says he was unable to see past her and after several attempts to adjust his seat, Benson remained unable to gain an unobstructed view.

"Council Member Benson placed his hand on Council Member Castañeda-López’s arm signaling that he would like her to move slightly so that he could see past her. This did not have the desired effect he intended," the report reads. "She considered this action an assault ..."

Castañeda-López called upon an executive protection member to intervene. He informed her it was not assault and requested Benson "refrain from touching her in the future," according to the report, which says Benson, in turn, was offended and considered the claim to be an overreaction and culturally insensitive.

Benson told The News on Saturday that the claims were "false and dangerous." 

"In the United States, there's a history of Black men being falsely accused of assault. As a result of those false accusations, they have been murdered, maimed and ungodly acts done. I'm extremely sensitive to these claims," he said.

"I just thank God that those false claims could be immediately seen on the tape and that the accusations happened at a public meeting, so these claims could be seen for what they were ... false and a dangerous and reckless use of the system."

In another incident, Castañeda-López was locked in a heated budgeting debate with Councilman Andre Spivey, the report says. He urged members to be mindful of finances and the councilwoman became offended and told him so, it states, adding that Spivey stressed the comment wasn't directed at her, but rather the entire panel.

Detroit City Councilman Andre Spivey

"However, a verbal dispute between the parties continued until Council President Brenda Jones called for recess," it reads. "As soon as recess was called, Council Member Castañeda-López left her seat and physically walked around to the other side of the table where Council Member Spivey sat. 

"Council Member Spivey recalls being offended or rather insulted by the conduct, he remembers telling her, 'You’re not going to castigate another Black man at this table,' ” according to the report.

Interviews with Castañeda-López and Spivey did not indicate an intent on the part of either to create fear for someone’s safety, nor to coerce or induce duress, the report said.

Additional conflicts noted were an incident between Castañeda-López and council member Roy McCalister, and an incident between her and Jones, who said Sunday that Castañeda-López "accused me of discrimination against her as well."

Spivey did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

"There was no evidence of deliberate maliciousness or intent to cause a reasonable fear for anyone’s safety, nor evidence of coercion or duress," the 2019 civil rights complaint reads. "There was also no evidence that Council Leadership participated in or condoned bad behavior among council members."

The investigation evaluated whether Castañeda-López, the first Latina member of Detroit's council in history, was discriminated against because of her national origin.

Castañeda-López alleged in a Facebook video she was being interrupted or cut off while speaking and given less time to speak at meetings than others and consistent failure of council to follow rules, according to the report.

"There was consensus among witnesses that Council Member Castañeda-López could be long winded during meetings," the report reads. "It was acknowledged that at times council members felt a sense of frustration or irritation because of the extensive dialogue. However, these feelings were motivated by a regard for time constraints and wishing to move the agenda along."

Castañeda-López is the only Latina council member on Detroit City Council. However, she is not the only female, person of color, or youngest member on the nine-member board, the investigation noted.

"Witnesses unanimously agreed that Council Member Castañeda-López was not being placed at a disadvantage or discriminated against because of her national origin," it adds.

The civil rights investigation concluded that council could benefit from improved relations among members and made several recommendations, including bias and discrimination training and the potential for a third-party mediator to address workplace conflicts. 

"Council Member Castañeda-López was not discriminated because of her national origin while performing the duties and responsibilities of her position as a Detroit

City Council member," it says. 

In a statement Friday, the councilwoman said that before the probe, she shared concerns related to sexual harassment and bias with Jones dating back to 2015, but no action was taken then or after the 2019 investigation.

"I was incredibly shocked and disappointed to read that none of the experiences or narrative I shared during the investigation with CRIO were included in the 2019 report, especially because the behaviors continue to persist today," she said. "Even more disturbing was the framing of the report and the advice I was given during the investigation to not approach things as a victim."

Jones said two training events planned for her staff in 2020 on reducing interpersonal conflicts were canceled by the civil rights division due to schedule conflicts. The city's human resources department offered cultural training at the beginning of the 2014 and 2018 council terms.

"I will continue to provide resources to improve our performance individually and collectively as a body," Jones said.