Orting officials struggle, strive to inject diversity

A police officer drives toward the Public Safety Building in Orting earlier this week.
A police officer drives toward the Public Safety Building in Orting earlier this week. phaley@thenewstribune.com

The spotlight doesn’t often shine on Orting, a quiet east Pierce County city of roughly 7,000 people.

But recent racially charged incidents have attracted negative attention that city officials say is the exception, not the rule, for the small community in the shadow of Mount Rainier.

City Administrator Mark Bethune said staff and some Orting City Council members have long worked to inject diversity into the city’s ranks. It hasn’t been easy.

Bethune said racial tension is rare. Still, the incidents have reignited a discussion about the city’s need to do more to change the demographics of a predominantly white staff, especially in the police department, which consumes a majority of the city’s budget.

A former police officer filed a $5 million civil rights lawsuit in July alleging he was the victim of racial discrimination, retaliation and defamation.

Gerry Pickens was one of two black officers in the police department, and the first hired in Orting’s history.

Pickens was fired in September 2014, five days before completing his yearlong probationary period. He has said the city vaguely cited “unsatisfactory work” as the justification for what he considers wrongful termination. The city contends the former officer’s unprofessional conduct in several incidents showed he wasn’t fit for permanent employment.

Then, several months after that lawsuit was filed, a departing Orting Council member sent a mass email to police and fellow City Council members with a link to a racially charged video that the city has condemned as “offensive and deplorable.” Councilman Sam Colorossi said he forwarded the video, which he claims isn’t racist, for informational purposes only.

The city’s only black police officer complained about the email, prompting the city to launch a formal investigation. (That officer declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Amid the investigation and Pickens’ lawsuit, Bethune said city staff and council members will receive sensitivity and diversity training.

Mayor Joachim Pestinger acknowledges that having a more diverse staff would be a positive change. But he said it’s difficult to pinpoint an approach that will make that goal a reality.

“I would like to see greater diversity,” Pestinger said, adding that he’s glad the city will receive necessary training in the meantime. “We want our staff to be sensitive to different cultures, different people.”

Bethune stressed that the two racially charged cases are anomalies, not the status quo in Orting. People of all backgrounds should feel comfortable about buying homes and raising families there, he added.

“I really believe it’s an accepting community,” Bethune said. “Please don’t judge us by a couple of incidents that have gotten a lot of attention.”

Brian Stewart II said he does feel that he’s treated differently in the city because he’s black. The 17-year-old Orting High School student told The News Tribune that it’s little things around town that remind him of the racial divide, such as people in cars stopping to watch him while he walks his dog at night.

“You feel kind of different as a minority in the town of Orting,” Stewart said.

Stewart added that as one of about 12 black students at his school, he sometimes feels uncomfortable there.

“You feel that you’re held to a different social standard than other people,” Stewart said.

Bethune said Orting has long been committed to increasing diversity among staff, though it’s been a challenge even as the city’s population has exploded over the past decade.

When Bethune arrived in Orting in 1998, the population hovered around 3,000. When he took over as city administrator in 2004, it was at 4,500.

“We were in heavy growth mode,” he said.

That’s because the city was considered a bedroom community where you could buy a lot more house for a lot less money, Bethune said.

Despite the rapid growth, city staffing remained about the same. Orting currently has one fewer staff member now than it did more than a decade ago, despite an even greater population of more than 6,700.

Orting also has the lowest general fund of any city of comparable size in Washington state — about $3 million, Bethune said. The police department uses up 60 percent of it, he said.

As a result, Bethune wears a lot of hats. Over the years he’s served as the director of finance and of human resources; he even served a stint as the city’s fire chief while it was without one for several months.

Orting struggles merely to maintain its staffing levels, Bethune stressed, even before accounting for its lack of diversity.

Bethune noted that the city’s residents are still predominantly white, but demographics are slowly changing.

In previous years, Orting was about 94 percent white; now, it’s at about 88 percent, he said.

Federal Census Bureau data from 2010 show 103 black residents in the city.

Orting accelerated its push for diverse job candidates, especially for the police department, around 2005.

Bethune said that’s around the time Stanley Holland, a former City Council member and current Orting School Board member who is black, urged the city to actively diversify its staff. (Holland couldn’t be reached to comment for this story.)

But Bethune said the city didn’t need the extra push. Officials were already working hard to hire more diverse officers, an attempt to evolve along with the city’s rapidly changing population.

“It wasn’t like we had to have our arms twisted,” Bethune said.

Advertisements in The Seattle Times and The News Tribune sought a broader pool of candidates from urban areas.

A special contractor was hired, and women and minorities were directly targeted for the jobs Orting was looking to fill. The company traveled to schools and big cities to get the word out.

Despite the best intentions, Bethune said, diverse candidates remained scarce.

When women or minorities made it through the long list of state requirements to become qualified to work in Orting, many opted to go to larger agencies that offered much larger salaries, some 30 or 40 percent more.

“We weren’t getting diverse candidates for the police department,” Bethune said.

Today, the police force has 10 full-time officers, not including the chief, but no women and only the one minority officer.

Bethune said Orting is still committed to hiring employees from diverse backgrounds.

He stressed he’s unaware of any complaints from residents about the lack of diversity within its staff.

Bethune said it’s unclear why the community has remained so homogenous.

“I don’t have an answer to that,” he said.

He and Mayor Pestinger still hope to see that change.

“We want to do better tomorrow than we did yesterday,” Pestinger said.

Stewart, the Orting High School student, said black people in Orting would feel more comfortable around police if there were more minority officers working for the department.

But more important, he said, people should respect one another regardless of their backgrounds.

“I don’t think race has a large importance on how people treat each other,” he said.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682, @KariPlog