Racism reigns at James Rolph Park, San Francisco

by Allen Jones

On May 12, 2016, Black gardener Byron Gill, who works for the City of San Francisco, was informed that a San Francisco Superior Court jury rejected his retaliation claim against his employer, SF Recreation and Park.

Byron Gill
Byron Gill

Gill, represented by attorney Gregory P. Brock, described the matter in his closing arguments as “death by a thousand cuts.” He painted a picture of employer retaliation and harassment. Defending the city was attorney Lisa Berkowitz who tried to paint a picture of “sour grapes” by Gill for being passed over for a promotion.

The 12-person jury, nine of whom were White and no Black jurors, might be puzzled and possibly angry to learn that they were blindfolded from seeing clear evidence of racism. Gill’s attorney was not able to bring into trial racial evidence or even use the word “race” as a matter of law simply because Gill was unable to prove he was the most qualified gardener in his initial dispute.

This doomed his case and sent a sobering message to other Black gardeners: Racism will continue its reign over the city’s Black gardeners.

Byron Gill has worked for the city for over 30 years. Since 1996, he worked as a gardener, mainly at the city’s James Rolph Park but also Garfield Park and Mission Recreation Center. His “exemplary” work began to change only in the eyes of his two White supervisors.

In 2011, Byron Gill, took interest in the call by Rec and Park for the position of “district captain,” similar to lead gardener. He was the only person from the Mission Complex to apply. Although the city needed a captain for its Mission area parks, the City denied Gill the position and left it unfilled for the next two years.

In April 2013, Gill showed up to work only to be blindsided by the announcement by his immediate supervisor at the time, Park Service Manager Adrian Field, that Michelle Pallavicini was selected as district captain.

In May 2013, Gill filed his first Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) complaint for unfair treatment because he was harmed knowing that Pallavicini lacked the experience needed to be captain. She was a recent hire in 2011, and Gill trained her when she first became employed by Rec and Park.

She served as a lead gardener for only 20 days and had never served as an acting supervisor for the city. He also learned that in a secret process, the only name submitted for district captain by Field was that of Michelle Pallavicini, an “award winning gardener.”

Gill’s attorney was not able to bring into trial racial evidence or even use the word “race” as a matter of law simply because Gill was unable to prove he was the most qualified gardener in his initial dispute. This doomed his case and sent a sobering message to other Black gardeners: Racism will continue its reign over the city’s Black gardeners.

This slap in the face to Gill by Field showed no appreciation or respect for Gill’s decades of good service, which included being the man Field called on for over 11 years to be in charge – to serve as district captain – whenever Field went on vacation. This confidence in Gill gained by Field emerged from a rocky first day the two gentlemen ever worked together, when Field called Gill a “liar.”

During Gill’s tenure at James Rolph Park, the park received high ratings in City park inspections. In September 2013, the park received an overall rating of 98.1 percent. In December 2013, the overall rating was 95 percent.

And in July of 2014, Frances Taylor, a neighbor of Rolph Park, sent a letter to the city praising Gill as a person and his work. The city even sent Ms. Taylor a response thanking her and glowing with pride for having Gill in the department.

San Francisco has 220 parks and the Recreation and Park Department oversees them all, employing 900 permanent and 600 part-time workers over the course of a year. Of the hundreds of gardeners, there is little doubt amongst many gardeners that Gill is the “go to” guy.

Once Park Service Manager Adrian Field discovered that Gill had filed a complaint with Fair Employment and Housing, his immediate response to Gill was, “Why did you do that?”

Methodically and reminiscent of wrestling “tag-team” partners, both Adrian Field and Michelle Pallavicini took turns harassing Gill. This included filling up Gill’s employee file with petty write-ups, threats and suspensions.

One Gill “written reprimand for insubordinate behavior,” dated June 4, 2015, reads like a master to slave dress down. But actually it was written by his now immediate supervisor, Michelle Pallavicini, the White woman he welcomed and trained when she was first hired at Rec and Park.

Gill’s truck
Gill’s truck

In April 2015, Gill filed another DFEH complaint that angered both Field and Pallavicini.

In May 2015, Pallavicini took away Gill’s work truck. At that time, Gill was required to work at both Rolph Park and the Mission Recreation Center, situated about a mile apart. Gill then used his personal truck to move between parks.

Pallavicini arbitrarily forbade him from using his personal vehicle at work, then disciplined Gill for continuing to use his personal vehicle. The city ultimately suspended Gill for 10 days in 2015, largely for using his personal truck.

Blacks need not apply

Other qualified Black gardeners were also passed over for captain positions in 2013. Clarence Robinson had scored 100 percent on the city’s supervisor test, yet Field didn’t even consider submitting Robinson for a captain job. Anita Lofton, also a Black gardener, was denied a captain position in 2013 in favor of a white male who had only four months in the department. Lofton filed a complaint with DFEH.

In June 2015, it was deja vu for Black gardeners once again passed over for the captain position. The city appointed two park services captains to the Mission Complex, Richard Hernandez and Ryan Balderas; neither is Black.

Pallavicini was involved in the selection of these two park captains. Both of these appointees were significantly less qualified than Gill. Richard Hernandez began working for the city in 2011; Ryan Balderas started as a gardener in 2014.

Other qualified Black gardeners were also passed over for captain positions in 2013.

Another damaging document showed a pattern of promotions beginning in 2011 that excluded all Black gardeners but promoted seven who were White and one Hispanic.

Field and Pallavicini took action against Anita Lofton. When she asked for equipment and supplies and a truck, they refused her. She was left stranded at a work site with no transportation and had to walk a mile to get back.

Field and Pallavicini also took a work truck away from Clarence Robinson. They did not take a work truck from any non-Black gardener.

When Pallavicini took tools from Gill’s cargo container in 2015, Gill requested the tools be returned. It took her over three months to return the tools to him. The lack of tools made it much harder for Gill to do his job.

In 2015, Pallavicini gave Gill a performance evaluation with an overall rating of “1,” even though she admitted Gill is an ambassador for James Rolph Park and that he’s well known and well liked by the community.

Pallavicini rejected Gill’s 2015 bid for reassignment to Glen Park – where he would have been away from Pallavicini. Gill was such a problem for Pallavicini that she was constantly criticizing his work, yet she could not think of a reason when asked during a deposition why she denied Gill’s request for a transfer. Other gardeners with less experience, such as Peter Andrews, who is White, were granted a transfer.

Racism killed the grass

Gill testified that every two years the grass is replaced at Rolph Park baseball diamond by outside contractors while he oversees their work. This practice was the same the entire time he was working at Rolph Park.

In 2015, the only difference when laying the new grass was that Gill was set to go on vacation the following day. Gill left clear instructions that the grass needed to be watered a lot. At trial he explained that the reason was the roots will chase after the water. And the more water, the further down the roots will travel to get it.

The new green grass turned brown and died while Byron Gill was on vacation. The district captain and award winning gardener who did not water the grass was Michelle Pallavicini.

Portions of this story were extracted from document files in the matter of Byron Gill v. CCSF, San Francisco Superior Court Case No. CGC-15-545484.

Allen Jones self-proclaims to be San Francisco’s racism sniffing dog. To follow him or report racism in the city, you may contact him at jones-allen@att.net or 415-756-7733. He chronicles SF racism on a website: http://sf49erfanrevolt.squarespace.com/.