June 19-25, 2003
Do-Rags, Low Pants and Weed, Oh My!
Not to toot my own horn, but as far as I can tell, Im still the only journalist in this town to attempt to tell the story of GoInternet.net. ("Net in My Backyard, March 22, 2001; "Net Results," March 29, 2001.) GoInternet.net, alternatively known as Mercury Marketing, is an Old City telemarketing company that employs several hundred telephone salespeople who spend their days selling Internet websites and web services to small businesses all over the United States.
Although the company has only been in business for five years, GoInternet has come under fire from the city and state governments, several local politicians, the Federal Trade Commission, a growing list of state Attorneys General and its immediate neighbors, the residents and businesses of Old City.
To say that GoInternet and its founder and president, Neal Saferstein, are under some pressure would be an understatement. There are nasty-sounding official documents from those Attorneys General, lawsuits and government liens flying back and forth, and more than a few official inquiries into GoInternet's business practices and ethics. But none of that stuff really concerns the neighbors in Old City. Their problem is not so much with the company, but with its employees.
A litany of complaints against those employees has been issued by members of the Old City Civic Association (OCCA) and, among others, the Old City District (OCD). In general, the business owners and residents surrounding GoInternet's buildings on North Third, Arch and Strawberry streets say that the company's employees are loud, profane, obnoxious litterbugs who openly smoke marijuana, sexually harass and intimidate passersby and shoplift from local merchants with impunity. That those employees are predominantly African Americans in their early to mid-20s opens up the complainers to countercharges of racism, which naturally, they vehemently deny.
This back and forth has been going on for at least two years, culminating in a lawsuit filed in civil court against GoInternet by the OCCA and OCD, who were joined as plaintiffs by State Sen. Vince Fumo, State Rep. Marie Lederer and City Councilman Frank DiCicco. The lawsuit, says former OCCA President Heather Harris, was filed to force GoInternet to address the neighbors' complaints about employee behavior.
"We met with GoInternet's management periodically for two years, trying to work it out," Harris says. "They made us promises regarding the behavior of their employees, that they'd make sure the employees understood the bounds of civility. Those promises weren't met, and it became apparent that mere talk wasn't getting us anywhere. It was, and is, a quality-of-life issue, and that's why we got our elected politicians involved. Eventually, it just became evident that something else had to be done to get their attention, so we filed the lawsuit."
Just prior to going to court for the hearing injunction on that lawsuit Tuesday afternoon, the two sides finally reached a mutual understanding.
"We're working out a settlement," says OCD Executive Director Cynthia Philo. "It isn't officially settled, so I can't comment further because the final negotiations are still pending. I can say that we're confident that a satisfactory agreement can be reached."
Center City attorney John C. Ryan of Duane, Morris and Heckscher represents GoInternet in the lawsuit. He's equally confident of a settlement.
"GoInternet has reached a preliminary agreement with the plaintiffs to resolve their complaints," Ryan says. "The discussions have so far been amicable and productive, so I'll refrain from comment on the details of the agreement until we have the whole thing hammered out."
And when will that be?
"We notified the court of our pending agreement, and they gave us a continued court date of July 30," says Ryan. "Both parties indicated they expect to reach a resolution before then."
Neither side would agree to discuss the details of the agreement, but according to documents from the OCCA, GoInternet would be required to amend its dress code to prohibit hats and do-rags (yes, they actually used the term "do-rags" in the memo) and men's pants must be belted and worn up around the waist with no underwear showing. The memo also insists employees must "watch their language and tone down their volume on the streets; must not block sidewalks; must avoid littering; and especially must not sexually harass anyone."
There are also requests for GoInternet to beef up security around the buildings, provide the employees an indoor smoking area and provide professional training on proper decorum and social graces.
No, really. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.
The last line of the OCCA memo mentions the sticky subject of race. "It is understood by all parties that neighborhood issues with GoInternet are not racial in nature," it says.
Well, that probably depends upon whom you ask. It'll be interesting to see how the terms of the agreement play themselves out over the long, hot summer.
Daryl Gales weekly radio show, Dialogues, with co-hosts Rotan Lee and Bill Miller, is burning up the airwaves Fridays 7-10 a.m. on WURD (900 AM) in Philadelphia.