Race proved to be a focal point during last week’s South Portland City Council meeting.
The South Portland City Council met on July 6, 2023, to discuss, among other things, the appointment of Katherine Borelli to the Civil Service Commission for the remainder of Pedro Vazquez’s unexpired term.
The Civil Service Commission is responsible, primarily, for overseeing the South Portland Police and Fire Department’s personnel and hiring.
Although the meeting’s agenda stated that Vasquez had resigned from his position, he was actually removed from the Commission as a result of failing to meet the attendance requirements.
It was explained during the meeting that for the past year or so, Vasquez had been contending with a family emergency, causing him to frequently miss Civil Service Commission meetings.
Once Vasquez had fallen into violation of the Commission’s attendance requirements, members voted to consider whether or not to waive the requirement for him. Ultimately, the Commission voted 3-3 on the matter, resulting in a denial of the waiver.
Consequently, City Councilor Natalie West was asked to find someone to appoint to the Civil Service Commission in Vasquez’s place.
Vasquez, who was in attendance at the meeting, was asked whether or not he resigned from his position on the Commission, to which he answered: “I’m not a quitter. I don’t resign from anything. What actually happened is what I consider to be a controversial vote…There’s some discrepancies in terms of how it was handled. I don’t think it was clean. I have some concerns about it.”
Brendan Williams, also a member of the Civil Service Commission, offered a comment on the matter. Williams first made the case that facing a family emergency should not prohibit Vasquez from being able to serve on the Commission going forward.
Williams then argued that Vasquez ought to remain on the Commission because he is a racial minority:
He’s also a minority. I think we, in all committees, we have a lack of minorities and young people, and if I were to do a line up of committee members I think we’d see a lot in common. Nothing against that, but I think with him leaving, we lost a good opportunity [to have someone on the Commission] who brings in a certain voice that even I can’t bring, that another member can’t bring. Because cops and people of color tend to, you know, and that was important to have that.
Shortly after this, Councilor West spoke to her role in the matter:
I’m not in any way denigrating Mr. Vasquez’s contributions to the community and all that he does in our community. What happened was, I was told there was a vacancy and it was my responsibility to make a nomination.
West also noted that the Civil Service Commission currently only has one woman on it, and as a woman roughly the same age as Vasquez, she too would serve an important representative role.
During her comments, West also spoke about the issue of Vasquez’s absences:
And I think the very fact that he missed a lot of meetings, I mean clearly he had family issues, but there were other issues too. In hearing, I heard that there were two times when he arrived for a meeting, was recorded as present, but then he left, because he had conflicts with the Human Rights Commission, and that’s the problem/ So by appointing someone new, I think that the community will be served and we’ll all benefit from it.
Councilor Linda Cohen also spoke to the issue of Vasquez’s inability to meet the Commission’s attendance requirement.
I’m not one to ever talk about attendance. I don’t give a whole lot of leeway when it comes to that. When I make to a board or committee I’m there, and if i find I’m not going to be able to make that commitment then I resign. That’s just the way it is. We have an attendance requirement for a reason. I wouldn’t want to see that relaxed at all to encouragement more people to participate because those committees rely on at least a quorum in order to do their business.
Councilor Cohen also noted that she would be happy to see an increase in female representation on the Civil Service Commission.
Councilor Jocelyn Leighton then proposed an amendment to the appointment that would serve to reinstate Vasquez to the Commission. This motion was then seconded by Councilor Deqa Dhalac.
Councilor Leighton then went on to argue that being able to regularly attend meetings is a “privilege” that not everyone has:
That ability to attend a meeting is really for people who have that kind of privilege or time and resources to get to every single meeting. That isn’t always the case for some folks, especially when, as Brendan was talking about marginalized communities and disenfranchised communities having a voice on these committees we need to make allowances because the face remains that these things are designed to work for some and not for others.
Councilor Dhalac also spoke at length concerning what she understood to be the impact of Vasquez’s status as a member of a racial minority, arguing that there was a lack of empathy from his fellow Commission members, potentially as a result of his race. Dhalac also stated that the challenges faced by people of color are often overlooked and disregarded:
I don’t see any empathy towards all those things that he experienced this year from the members of the Commission…As immigrants, as people of color, as minorities who have so, so many challenges. I know every human being has a challenge…but we have several more other layers than that, that we have to deal with every single day…I’m just saying the fact that there was no empathy towards Mr. Vasquez for all those hardships that he had, that he asked for – and there’s a letter to ask that – and he got denied.
The history of this country, as we all know, unless we are blindfolding ourselves, it is easy, it is very easy to put down people of color or disregard them or see them as criminals. We know that. It’s nothing new to us. So maybe his pain and his challenges were not seen very important. I’m not sure how it would have been seen had it been someone else. I don’t know that. I’m not sure of that. But what I know is, as a person of color, as people of color, our challenges are not seen easily and can be disregarded very easily.
A few minutes later, Councilor Misha Pride spoke to the dilemma he was facing in deciding how to vote on the matter of Borelli’s appointment to the Civil Service Commission. On the one hand, Councilor Pride felt that there were extenuating circumstances, but on the other hand, there was an alleged lack of communication about those circumstances, as well as other problematic absences on Vasquez’s part.
Pride also shared his thoughts on the meeting during which the vote was taken to deny Vasquez a waiver for his absences:
There were several moments of cringe in this meeting for me. It was pretty obvious that, I don’t know how else to say this, but it was pretty obvious that there was a line down the middle of the room with and it was three older white men on one side of the line and [Williams, Rostampour, and Pride’s appointee] on the other side of the line to an extent.
Pride also commented on Vasquez’s status as a racial minority directly, suggesting that had another person of color been nominated for the position, “the conversation would be different right now” regarding whether Borelli or Vasquez should occupy the seat in question on the Civil Service Commission:
Mr. Vasquez’s voice is one that is badly needed on the Civil Service Commission, of all the committees that we have where we desperately need people of color to provide representation, it really is up there on the list and maybe the top of the list. To her credit, Councilor West told me that she had tried to find a person of color to fill that seat, and I think the conversation would be different right now if she had been successful at that.
Approximately ten minutes later, after some more back and forth between the councilors and Vasquez, Mayor Katherine Lewis stated that while she felt West had done her “due diligence” in selecting a nominee, she nonetheless felt that the move to replace Vasquez with Borelli was racially motivated:
In this case, I can’t seem to overlook the undercurrent here that is feeling like there’s a group of people that’s trying to nab someone is not the same whose asking tough questions and who represents a different group of the community then they might.
Consequently, despite her stated opposition to amending a Councilor’s nomination – a position she adopted after Dhalac was prevented from getting a seat on this same Commission in 2016 as a result of a Council amendment – she voted in favor of amending the motion to reinstate Vasquez to the Commission.
West then brought the focus of the meeting back to her appointee, Katherine Borelli:
I would just urge that if the Council doesn’t want to appoint Katherine Borelli that they respect it as my appointment and let me search for someone else…I believe in following the rules, and the rules were followed…Their vacancy occurred, they didn’t vote to waive the vacancy, so they have a vacancy, and I nominated somebody. If you don’t like that person, then let me go and find somebody else that I can nominate.
West also spoke to what she felt was the politicization of this process.
I feel very sad that this has gotten to be political with people characterizing it as the white man against people who aren’t white, stuff like that because I listened to the full tape [of the Civil Service Commission meeting], and I just didn’t hear that…I feel terrible that this is being polarized tonight the way it is.
Leighton then offered a concluding remark, refocusing the conversation on race and Vasquez’s racial identity:
The fact is, we’re putting rules above justice. And the justice is, Pedro Vasquez dd not resign from this committee. So this is not actually a vacancy. The “resignation” was imprinted on him in a racist way. That is the reality of what’s happening. And it is white men opposed to people of color. That is a reality in our county.
The South Portland City Council then voted 4-3 to accept the amendment to West’s appointment that reinstated Vasquez to the Civil Service Commission.