Stamford reps raise sexual harassment case in weighing mayor’s cabinet pick
STAMFORD - Some city representatives have reservations about reappointing a member of the mayor’s cabinet because of the case of Charlene McArthur, once the only woman to work on a garbage truck.
McArthur alleges that she was sexually harassed for years in a workplace so inhospitable that some male co-workers decorated an office wall with photographs of scantily clad women that they found in residents’ trash cans.
McArthur questions the leadership of Ernie Orgera, who oversees garbage collection as director of the Office of Operations. Mayor David Martin, recently elected to his second term, is seeking Board of Representatives approval to keep Orgera on as director.
But early this month the board voted to hold Orgera’s reappointment and sent the mayor’s request back to committee.
McArthur, who worked in garbage collection from 2001 until she was fired in 2015, also alleges that racism may have been a factor in her dismissal. She has cited a series of emails that were circulated among city employees during her tenure.
The emails disparaged minorities, including one titled “Proud to be White” that was sent to Dan Colleluori, McArthur’s supervisor. Colleluori forwarded it to Orgera and neither reported it as city policy requires. McArthur is black.
Martin appeared before the board’s Personnel Committee Wednesday saying he wanted to clarify why McArthur was let go.
Early in his first term he learned that about 20 city employees, including McArthur, who’d been injured on the job, were out on long-term leave, Martin said. The jobs were being held open but needed to be filled, so the status of the employees had to be resolved, he said.
McArthur “had not worked for a couple of years - we made numerous offers that were not received,” Martin told the committee.
She was dismissed because she exhausted all the leave allowed her, he said.
“This had nothing to do with Mr. Orgera,” Martin said. “He was not involved.”
McArthur could not speak at the meeting because it was not a public hearing, but she asked that her case be discussed publicly and submitted a letter to representatives that was read into the record.
In the letter McArthur explained how she was hired as a seasonal employee and became a full-time laborer a year later. The sexual harassment began almost immediately, McArthur wrote.
The men in her department told her she should be home baking cakes, she said. She found pornographic material on her windshield. The only women’s toilet was in a bathroom that was used for storage, she said.
McArthur included a 2012 photograph showing images of women in underwear, bikinis or low-cut tank tops posted on a wall in the recycling center office. Her co-workers had found the pictures in residents’ trash cans, McArthur wrote.
“These are private pictures that were thrown out by citizens of this city, and they were collected by city employees for their own personal amusement,” she wrote.
She included another photograph showing a pair of black bikini underwear tacked to an office bulletin board. Employees found the underwear in someone’s trash, McArthur wrote.
They also found copies of pornographic magazines and kept them in city trucks and the recycling center office “in plain sight,” she wrote.
“All of these instances demonstrate a culture and environment that is hostile towards women,” she said in her letter. “In this climate, where politicians, celebrities and men in positions of power are answering to claims of … sexual harassment that happened years ago, it is unclear why Ernie Orgera should be immune from the past. He should be investigated, questioned and called on to respond to claims of ignoring sexual harassment on his watch.”
City Rep. Megan Cottrell, D-4, said during the meeting that McArthur’s complaints seem to have been ignored.
“If you truly took it seriously, you wouldn’t allow these photos to be posted in the office,” Cottrell said. “This is not about one person. It’s about the larger culture and whether we are respecting the women who work for the city.”
She is concerned about the racist emails, even though they were distributed years ago, because some of the employees who shared them run city departments now, Cottrell said.
“It’s hard to believe that any person who would forward this content would be impartial in supervising employees,” she said. “I find that really problematic.”
The emails were discriminatory, racist and unacceptable, Martin said. The city addressed it by strengthening policies and requiring sensitivity training, he said.
Legal Affairs Director Kathryn Emmett said the city investigated the pornographic material left on McArthur’s windshield but was unable to find who did it. The racist emails did not come to the city’s attention until 2014, Emmett said, and since then training has been extensive.
“We are extremely concerned that there not be any kind of culture of discrimination,” she told the committee. “We regularly do interventions in departments where we see issues.”
City Rep. Gloria DePina, D-5, a committee member, said it’s time to move on.
“This happened years ago in a different culture,” DePina said. “The culture has changed tremendously.”
Another committee member, city Rep. J.R. McMullen, R-18, said Orgera “has to be called to the carpet.”
“I don’t think we should reappoint him to this position,” McMullen said.
“We as a city can do better,” Cottrell said.
After the meeting, McArthur said she spent her 13 years in the garbage collection department trying to avoid the men who bullied her.
“I didn’t know who I could trust and who I couldn’t trust,” she said. “They can treat you any kind of way and you are not supposed to open your mouth. They move people around, put you on the heaviest route. It’s favoritism. It’s nepotism. It needs to change.”
The board’s Appointments Committee is set to take up the Orgera reappointment at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 30 in the Democratic Caucus Room, fourth floor, Stamford Government Center, 888 Washington Blvd.