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Michigan Department of Civil Rights director still on job, despite Gov. Whitmer

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When Gretchen Whitmer was running for governor, she pushed her big-named campaign manager to resign because of an accusation of "inappropriate workplace behavior" in a prior race.

So, imagine how agitated the now-governor must be that the director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights admitted to "objectifying women" in comments to a fellow staff member in May and she can't do much about it.

Whitmer is saying she's "deeply concerned" the eight-member Civil Rights Commission didn't fire Agustin Arbulu after an investigation found he told department communications specialist Todd Heywood (a former City Pulse staffer) that he should check out the “ass" of a woman passing by.

When Heywood, a longtime gay activist, didn't receive the comments well, Arbulu said it was because he "didn't like women." Heywood reported the incident.

Then Arbulu tried to minimize it to a State Equal Employment Opportunity administrator by saying he called his own daughter "hot." All that did was raise more red flags and turn nearly the entire Senate Democratic Caucus and the Women's Progressive caucus against him.

Meanwhile, the commission, charged with hiring and firing the director, put a reprimand into Arbulu's otherwise clean personnel file. They're telling him to go through some sensitivity coaching. It’s also preventing Arbulu from participating in gender discrimination cases until at least Dec. 31.

"The Michigan Department of Civil Rights is charged with investigating and addressing incidents of discrimination, bias and hate," read the Senate Democrats' statement. "We no longer have confidence Dr. Arbulu can appropriately lead in addressing such serious issues.”

Daniel Levy, the Civil rights Department's director of law and policy, is so bothered by how Arbulu handled the situation in front of the commission last month he's taking annual leave "while I contemplate my future." Arbulu isn't resigning.

"Not only does it show a continued failure to understand the problem, it has greatly compounded it," Levy wrote. "While you publicly proclaim that you accept responsibility, you took this occasion to attack and blame it on others."

That isn't setting well with Whitmer, who asked Civil Rights Commission Chairwoman Alma Wheeler Smith for a full accounting of what happened and why Arbulu wasn't run out of town. Only eight months on the job, Whitmer won't have her first commission appointee in place until Jan. 1 at the earliest. Unless there's a resignation at some point, she won't have a majority on the commission until Jan. 1, 2022.

In the meantime, Whitmer can express displeasure. She could join about 20 Democratic legislators and call on Arbulu to resign.

At this point, she hasn't done the latter. Presumably, it's because she knows a commission chocked full of Gov. Rick Snyder appointees could blow her off. She’s not interested in looking weak or ineffective.

Smith already declined Whitmer's request for transcripts and audio records of the commission's closed session because nothing was archived.

Half the commissioners are Republicans and there's a sentiment on the board that what Arbulu said, frankly, wasn't that big of a deal.

As far as creating a hostile work environment for Heywood, again, the commission just didn't see it. The comment about his daughter, while seemingly strange, is being explained by one source as a type of boast that doesn't translate well in the American culture.

"The underlying claim did not meet the elements necessary to prove a hostile work environment claim," said department spokeswoman Vicki Levengood.

Instead, the commission chose to "try a restorative justice discipline model" with Arbulu that is "in line with the department's mission," Smith said. And if it "doesn't work to the commission's satisfaction, the commission can take other actions."

Smith, a former Democratic state senator and gubernatorial candidate from Ann Arbor, earned a reputation in Lansing as a liberal problem solver with little appetite for showboat politics.

Whitmer may not reappoint Smith, when her term is up at the end of the year, but Smith isn't one to care enough to change her decision-making.

So unless something substantial changes in this developing story, it's possible that — as far as leadership is concerned — nothing is changing at the Department Civil Rights in the near term.

(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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