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The acting planning director for the City of Phoenix is under investigation for making racially insensitive remarks to Hispanics attending a meeting to discuss a new ordinance governing mobile vendors.
Two Hispanic activists say they were mistreated by longtime city employee Dave Richert when he ordered them to "speak English" during an April 7 meeting.
The April meeting was called to discuss a proposed city ordinance that would address health concerns and other issues involving mobile eateries. In attendance were Richert; Ed Zuercher, an assistant city manager; Alma Williams and Paul Barnes, both community activists; and Salvador Reza and Tino Rios, representing the mobile vendors.
"We've been negotiating with the City of Phoenix for a year and a month now," Reza says. In other meetings, "the City of Phoenix went out of their way to have translators."
But none was present at this meeting.
Rios' English "is not that good. So he asked me to translate for him," Reza says.
Reza began to interpret to Rios the technical dialogue being presented by Richert, which Reza says is difficult to understand even to someone who speaks fluent English.
They continued to speak in Spanish until Richert broke in and said: ""Speak English; I have to understand what you're saying,'" Reza says.
He characterized Richert as using "a commanding tone."
""I'm translating for him,' I said," says Reza.
Then, according to Reza, Richert said: ""I don't care. You have to speak English so I can understand.'"
Rios says he felt "truly" embarrassed and belittled.
"I thought I had committed some kind of error, in speaking Spanish," Rios says. "I speak English semi-well, like in a conversation."
But he says his skills weren't comprehensive enough to understand the complicated language of the ordinance, which Rios says must be clear when negotiating with the city.
Richert says no one told him an interpreter would have been appropriate for the meeting, or he would have arranged to have one present.
"It was not the intention of this city bureaucrat to offend anyone," Richert says. "I was there to try to move forward the negotiations."
But others at the meeting say Rios and Reza are right to feel slighted.
Williams says Richert's comment was "rude, insensitive, but it was not out of character.
"Let me tell you. The rest of us have been treated like that for years. The difference is they have a [race] card to play," Williams says, noting that the city planning department has long been hard for citizens to deal with.
She thinks the city is taking the complaint more seriously this time because it's sensitive to the Hispanic issue.
Williams says the situation with Richert "just seemed to be one of those things that happened that finally gave voice to frustration that a whirlpool of people have had for a long time. Maybe this is just what it took to precipitate some dialogue."
Those involved in the investigation say more than 40 people have been interviewed, suggesting that the report will go into other problems with the planning department in addition to the April incident.
Zuercher also says Richert's comment "was certainly something I wouldn't have said to anybody."
He says he offered Reza an apology the following Monday.
"Salvador sent me an e-mail expressing his concern and his dismay. I have a good relationship with Salvador," Zuercher says.
Richert, however, did not apologize right away.
Not until May 12, when Stephen Montoya, a Phoenix attorney representing the mobile vendors, filed a formal complaint with City Manager Frank Fairbanks on behalf of Rios and Reza. Later that day, Richert called Reza and apologized to him.
Richert "apologized to me on the phone, but not to Tino," Reza says.
A few days later, Fairbanks decided to investigate the incident.
"We investigate all citizen complaints . . . . And to make sure the investigation was complete, we hired an outside firm," Fairbanks tells New Times.
On May 31, Prensa Hispana, the Spanish-language weekly, published an interview with Richert about the incident. In the story, he said he was cognizant of what he had done and offered a second apology.
But Montoya says Richert's apology isn't good enough. Any apology now from Richert would be "opportunistic and too late," Montoya says.
Montoya says he and his clients are pushing for an "affirmative disciplinary action" against Richert and want him removed as head of the planning department.
"The head of the department symbolizes the department, and he's a bad symbol," Montoya says.
Reza says he doesn't want Richert involved in the negotiations with the mobile vendors. "We don't want people like him making decisions because we don't trust him, basically. Especially in things that affect our community," Reza says.
"We want it to be known to the city functionaries that this type of behavior is not acceptable in the year 2000. We're not in the 1940s or 1950s," Reza adds.
The Phoenix law firm of Gaona and Moore conducted the investigation. Investigators there did not return calls for comment.