Local 10 reported last Monday that Deerfield Beach city workers were being forced to lug large water coolers with them while picking up trash from the roadsides -- something that looked like horrendous working conditions. A city union leader reported that the workers walked miles in the hot sun, often without adequate water, and said it amounted to cruelty on the part of the city.
But the following night, the city responded to the story at a packed commission meeting, claiming the video that Local 10 aired was the product of a hoax involving those workers.
“If this isn’t staged, I don’t know what is,” said Commissioner Bill Ganz, who led what amounted to an unannounced one-sided public hearing on the issue.
City officials claimed the videos -- which had been uploaded to YouTube by political activist Sandra Jackson -- were shot on a single day, Thursday, April 24, in an event staged by workers and then fabricated to make it appear as if they were over several days.
“It wasn’t four days, it was one day,” Vice Mayor Ben Preston told Local 10.
“All five or six videos were taken on the same day in the same part of the city and broken up into different dates, then uploaded to YouTube,” wrote city spokeswoman Rebecca Medina in a letter to Local 10 complaining that the original story should be retracted.
So Local 10 went to investigate further and interviewed Jackson, the woman who shot most of the videos.
Jackson exhibited her cellphone, which displayed the original date-stamped videos showing the workers carrying the water coolers on their backs and heads while cleaning trash with pointed sticks and pulling around garbage cans with them.
Jackson was none too pleased about being publicly labeled a liar by her city. One local blog that parroted the city’s version of events even went so far as to call it a fraud and call for a criminal investigation.
“They are liars,” Jackson said. “They are trying to cover something up and it’s not right.”
In a Local 10 interview with several city officials and employees, the city presented employee Albert Hill, who appears in one of the videos shot by Jackson, but when asked if he was working on the Thursday that the city alleges all the videos had been shot, Hill acknowledged that he had never worked on a Thursday and couldn’t have been there.
The supervisor of the crew, George Sullivan, then said to him, “You worked that Thursday. Go look at the time cards.”
The time cards, however, showed that Hill wasn’t working on that Thursday, again disproving the city’s allegation of fraud. Sullivan explained that by saying Hill must have shown up to work that day anyway and been involved in the plot staged by the other workers.
The city later admitted that it was wrong and that the videos were indeed shot over more than one day, killing the city’s conspiracy theory.
Three workers said they were ordered to start carrying the water coolers with them after they filed a grievance with the union claiming in part that they weren’t getting enough water. That grievance came after all three workers were written up on April 22 by their supervisor, Sullivan, who alleged they were loafing behind a store and took a photo of them sitting down. The workers claimed they needed to stop at the store to buy water.
“Why were we carrying them? We had no choice; we were forced,” said Terry Pitts, one of the workers seen carrying the water coolers on the side of the road.
In the same interview with city officials, their road crew chief, Galen Adderly, acknowledged that an order had come from Sullivan to have the workers take the coolers with them in response to the complaint to the union.
“He told me they have to take the water coolers,” said Adderly. “So they have to take the water coolers.”
City officials said the workers had a choice to carry the water coolers in a garbage can, but Wayne McBride, one of the workers in the videos, said that wasn’t true and pointed out that carrying water in garbage cans wouldn’t be sanitary or practical, considering they already each had one garbage can they had to pull behind them to put garbage in.
Pitts echoed that, saying the entire job was demeaning to the point it made him feel “like less than a man.”
“It’s like you’re getting whipped on your back,” said Pitts.
Pitts said he believes he and others were put on the crew as punishment.
A former garbage truck driver, Pitts faces possible termination after allegations he accidentally damaged equipment while driving a garbage truck and failed to report it -- allegations he denies.
Pitts said workers on the crew were forced to walk several miles a day without transportation and often without adequate water.
“I felt like I was actually in prison on a chain gang,” Pitts said. “This is a way to make us run away [from the city]. This is a way to make us feel like we’re nobody, we’re nothing.”
A similar road crew working in Pompano Beach told Local 10 they were never without a truck to take them from place to place with a large water cooler on the front. One worker said a water truck was always minutes away, but Pitts, McBride and Hill all said that at times a water truck would take as long as two hours to get there.
In light of the Local 10 investigation, Ganz said he is now working with the city to make sure the Deerfield road crew has water and transportation at all times.
Pitts said he wants a full investigation.