A couple of weeks ago, the Latino City Employees Association (LCEA) held its first official meeting in years. The group had been inactive for so long that new membership was surprised to find a few thousand dollars in its bank account. After months of organizing, members coalesced around several goals, including professional development for city employees, increased voter participation and outreach to schools to encourage Hispanic students to consider careers in civil service.
"I am pleased to help re-launch the Latino City Employees Association," said San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez in an email to CityBeat. "This group hopes to increase Latino participation in city government, promote leadership opportunities through participation, as well as enhance, educate and support the city's diversity goals and commitment."
While LCEA is not the city's only employee group, its revival could be a harbinger for a growing awareness of City Hall's ethnic identity. The group's dormancy mirrors a recession era during which city hiring ground to a halt and the municipal workforce failed to keep pace with an increasingly more diverse city.
As a result, San Diego's city government is significantly whiter than the population it serves, especially when it comes to the city's top brass, according to a report released April 4.
The city's top managers and officials— 300 of 10,411 municipal employees—are 70.3-percent white, despite Caucasians making up only 45 percent of San Diego's population, according to the city's Annual Employment Opportunity Report.
Only 14 percent of the high-level managers and officials were Hispanic, even though Hispanics comprise 28.8 percent of the population. Those numbers also look troubling for Asians and Pacific Islanders, a group that makes up 16 percent of the population but only 8 percent of top officials. African- American managers and officials match the general population at 6.3 percent.
Also underrepresented, the report found, were female managers and officials, at 44 percent despite being 49.5 percent of the city population.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer "wants to do better," said spokesperson Charles Chamberlayne. "I know that the mayor wants to give every community a seat at the table and to build diverse community boards, commissions and city staff. He's making it his goal to continue to diversify the staff here."
Despite these disparities, since 2012, the city has improved its diversity while adding 246 employees to its total workforce. The number of Hispanic employees increased by 125 workers, Asians or Pacific Islanders added 51 workers and African-Americans 34 workers. The number of female employees also grew by 74 people. At the same time, the number of white employees decreased by eight workers.
As a result, the percentage of overall white employees dropped a little more than a percentage point, to 49.3 percent. Hispanic employees saw an uptick of a little more than a point to 24.5 percent. Asian or Pacific Islander employees increased by less than a point to 11.7 percent. The number of African-American workers stayed static at 13.2 percent. Female employees saw a small decrease, falling to 33.8 percent.
"The report indicates that while the city's overall hiring has seen growth in diversity, we can greatly improve the diversity of hires in some departments," said Council President Todd Gloria in an email. "As the city adds back some of the positions we cut over the past several years, ensuring our staff appropriately reflects the city it serves and is equipped and educated to perform necessary work must remain a priority."
Since California voters in 1996 banned affirmative action for public employees and colleges, the city can't discriminate based on race.
"As important as diversity is, there's no reason to—and we'd never want to—hire someone because of their gender or ethnicity," said Deputy Personnel Director Glenn Encarnacion, co-author of the study. "First and foremost, they have to meet the criteria for the job."
However, the city has mandated diversity on hiring boards and holds job fairs in every segment of the community in hopes of getting a diverse candidate pool, Encarnacion added.
"If people see a Latino firefighter or police officer, then it becomes a viable option for them," he said.
Workforce development can help counteract systemic issues, such as educational deficits within communities, said Manuel Pastor, professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
"You focus in on pipeline issues," Pastor said. "If you want more managers, you have to ask the question: Do you have good internship programs so that you get managers five, 10, 15 years from now."
San Diego's percentage of top officials who are white is "striking," he added. "Looking at the numbers, one would want to wonder if there really are fair opportunities for people to advance."
The ethnic makeup of the city's workforce is something that has yet to be publicly addressed, said John Mendivil, president of the Latino City Employees Association.
"I don't think there's really been a forum for that discussion," he said. "I've had personal discussions, but there's nothing that I'm aware of where we've had a forum to speak about what can be done. That's part of what the LCEA is about."
What's received some attention is the lack of diversity in the city's public-safety workforce, including lifeguards, firefighters and police officers. For example, of the city's 1,254 uniformed police officers, all ethnic minorities were underrepresented, including only 250 (19.9 percent) Hispanic officers, 117 (9.3 percent) Asian or Pacific Islander officers and 72 (5.7 percent) African-American officers. While it's a male-dominated field, the department's 170 (13.6 percent) female officers fell short of the countywide average of 16.9 percent for women law-enforcement officers.
With half the police department eligible to retire in the next four years, there's an opportunity to address the situation, said Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.
"The San Diego Police Department is committed to recruit and hire the most qualified applicants who are a diverse and positive reflection of the community we serve," she said in an email. "About 50 percent of the last five academies have been minorities and or women. Our recruiting efforts are designed to reach all communities."
Fire Chief Javier Mainar, whose department was even more underrepresented by minority workers, echoed that sentiment.
"One of my responsibilities as fire chief is to ensure our workforce is reflective of diversity of the community we serve," he said in an email. "This is not only important from the operational and customer service perspectives, but is simply the right thing for us to do."
For local governments grappling with workplace diversity, part of the issue is recognizing that populations evolve—and with them, the identity of a region, USC's Pastor said.
"I think sometimes San Diego's self-conception has been as a largely white, beachside town," he said. "But it's actually a diverse, major metropolitan area with lots of immigrants."