Blacks fear surge in City Hall firings
Mayors former assistant says he too was fired, reports threats
Sturm / City Pulse
Thomas is pastor of Vessel of Praise, a Baptist church on the west
a Michigan State University conference in April 1999, the director of
Lansings Human Relations and Community Services Department, Genice
Rhodes-Reed, talked about the Rhetoric and Reality of anti-discrimination
policies. Her edited volume, Race in 21st Century America,
focused on the underrepresentation of minorities in higher-level occupations.
According to the book, women held only 3 percent to 5 percent of senior
level jobs at major corporations. Of these few women, a mere 5 percent
Two weeks ago Rhodes-Reed belonged to an exclusive group of minority
women in power. She enforced equal opportunity policies for the city
government. Today, her name is included on a growing list of African
Americans who used to work in high-ranking positions for Lansings
city government but were let go. Her three predecessors as director,
Mike Murphy, Yvonne Christopher and Art Walker all African Americans
were either terminated or forced to resign. When Mayor David
Hollisters chief of staff, Joe Graves Jr., was dismissed in July
2001 after his arrest on drunken-driving charges, rumors began to rise
about the suspiciously high turnover rate of high-ranking African-American
city employees. Michael Navabi, the former director of public safety,
then resigned in February, and Freddie Thomas, special assistant to
the mayor, was let go in the same month. With the recent dismissal of
Rhodes-Reed, people began to believe rumors about a power game against
African Americans in City Hall have truth to them.
We were the ones that provided fair treatment to minority employees.
If you remove those pieces of the puzzle, you really have free range,
says Thomas, speaking for the first time about his mysterious dismissal
in February. This was a strategic decision. If you look at the
people being terminated since January, you have to think this was a
mechanism designed to position the administration to more easily eliminate
minority employees at the lower level.
For three and a half years, Thomas served as Hollisters special
assistant and did many of the mayors public speaking engagements.
He told City Pulse hed felt absolutely loyal to the administration
and that his Feb. 6 dismissal came as a complete shock. There
was never a question of my performance, Ive never received a negative
evaluation, says Thomas, pastor at the Vessel of Praise, a Baptist
church on the west side of Lansing. Two weeks before his dismissal,
the mayors staff reviewed information on Thomas educational
background. When he asked for reasons, they told me they could
neither confirm nor deny my credentials, because my credentials are
based on theology.
city officials decline comment
City Pulse sought comment from Lansing Mayor David Hollister for
this article. The mayor was offered an opportunity to read the story
in advance in exchange for an interview. Hollister declined. His
public relations consultant, Stephen Serkaian, said the mayor does
not comment on staff resignations. Other city officials also
declined to comment.
In May, Hollister ordered city employees not to speak to City Pulse
after City Pulse published a story raising questions about Hollisters
handling of the General Motors air pollution controversy. The mayors
appointment secretary told City Pulse that the mayors order
was a policy. A media attorney retained by City Pulse wrote Hollister
that his order violated the First Amendment rights of city employees.
On June 7, city attorney James D. Smiertka responded in writing
that he has not located a written policy dealing with the
matters referenced in your letter and that he was continuing
Thomas believes this was really just the smoke screen they utilized
to try to attack me. After hed left office, the pastor received
anonymous phone calls from key persons at City Hall telling him that
if I said anything negative towards the administration or the
mayor, they would stop at nothing to discredit me. So Thomas,
who is married with two sons, kept quiet because thats something
very scary for your family. However, upon hearing the ominous
circumstances of Rhodes-Reeds forced resignation, he felt it was
time to talk. I cant get a job in Lansing anyway. Why do
I need to keep quiet?
The 37-year-old minister fears a sudden lack on minority rights representation.
Theres no governing body who will stand up and talk against
things that arent ethically right. Theres no checkpoint
that says hey, youve gone too far. I think the City of Lansing
and its leaders have failed to provide that checkpoint. I dont
want people at lower levels to have to go through the types of things
Genice and I went through.
Richard Clement was one of those lower-level employees for whom Thomas
fears. The story of the African-American software analyst who worked
for City Halls computer department shares frightening parallels.
Three policemen and a German shepherd arrived to escort Clement from
the office where hed worked for the past year. Clement, who was
scared to death when he saw the cops coming, intuitively reached for
his digital camera to document his dismissal. The police confiscated
the camera and held Clement for two hours in custody while they tried
to figure out how to download the photographs hed taken. Clement
was later able to retrieve some of the chip.
Clement, who now teaches at Lansing Community College, had experienced
another of the seemingly arbitrary series of personnel screenings at
City Hall. At a hearing the administration blamed him for giving false
information about his occupational background. They said he should have
listed his work for the State administration in 1997 (although the
form just offered space for the last three employers, says Clement).
Rhodes-Reed, Thomas and Clement were each given just 15 minutes to pack
their things and leave the building, an approach that seemed particularly
humiliating, Clement said. It really hurt me, because I
loved this job and I had a perfect rating.
The most recent instance in the series of high-ranking city officials
to leave office was the dismissal of Sharon Dade, deputy director of
the Personnel Department. Dade, whos now working for the Volunteers
of America, was unwilling to comment on the circumstances surrounding
Members of the Human Relations Departments advisory board were
very upset about the unexpected firing of Rhodes-Reed. The committees
chairman, Robert J. Egan, resigned in protest. The Mayor Hollister
in office today is a very different person from the one I helped to
get elected, Egan declared. What puzzles Egan the most is, Why
does the mayor relate well to people of color as victims, but when they
are experts, he seems to have difficulties.
Board members met Thursday, June 6, with two department officials, interim
director Willard Walker and Deputy Director Kip Gomoll, and Hollisters
chief of staff Robert Johnson to ask why Rhodes-Reed was dismissed.
They were told a procedure had been followed. The boards
secretary, Amy Hodgin (The whole thing has come as shock to me),
wasnt happy to hear such empty phrases. But on Saturday she declared
that she would remain on the board because nothing would be accomplished
with my resignation. That doesnt mean that I am not upset with
what happened with Genice.
Other members like Noel Copiaco, one of the co-founders of the Mid-Michigan
Asian Pacific American Association, also expressed their complete disbelief.
Like other sources with whom City Pulse spoke, he doesnt consider
the mayor to be a racist. But maybe hes a person who has
other priorities. Copiaco suddenly remembered the first time he
questioned if the mayor really stood behind minority groups. Back in
September 1994, Grand Avenue in Lansing was renamed Cesar Chavez Avenue
for the Chicano rights activist, but citizens voted in June 1995 to
revert to the original name. Hollister could have done more to
One man who understands City Halls power structures is Graves,
the mayors former chief of staff. It almost seems like a
mob mentality, he said. I dont think the mayor made
an independent decision to terminate Genice. Graves draws attention
instead to Hollisters strategy group, consisting of: the mayors
executive assistant, David Wiener, the PR consultant Stephen Serkaian
and the finance, personnel, planning and management services directors.
He believes that this strategy group whispers in Hollisters ear
on such moves.
another source reports, Rhodes-Reed had a serious conflict with one
strategy group member, the personnel director, Sharon Bommarito. Often
I was put in the position to resolve conflicts between the two of them.
It was Rhodes-Reeds responsibility to enforce equal employment
opportunity goals for the city. From time to time she would raise issues
about the hiring process, and about the testing procedures used, which
seemed to vary from one applicant pool to the next. The tests
on occasion werent really relevant to the job they were trying
to hire for. That set in motion other dynamics that resulted in some
tension, asserts Graves.
the departure of seven high profile African-American employees in the
last six years, there seems no doubt that there are some tensions. Furthermore,
Graves thinks theres also a high turnover rate among low-profile
minority employees. If you look at the number of employees that
came into the city over the last five years youll find a disproportionate
number of African-Americans who did not complete their probation period.
My guess is you will also find a disproportionate number who were terminated.
The questions Graves raises remain unfortunately unanswered. Neither
Bommarito nor Johnson could be reached to shed light on Graves
hypothesis or to confirm whether the city kept records on the dismissal
and resignation rate of minority employees.
Equal employment opportunities appear quite progressive within the city
government. This is, as members of the departments advisory board
point out, a compliment to Rhodes-Reeds competence. With 12 percent,
African-American employees are currently overrepresented (8 percent
of Lansing residents are African American) and fill 140 of 1,181 permanent
jobs, according to the citys survey at the end of March. Asian
Americans, at 1 percent, are slightly underrepresented (2 percent of
general population). Hispanic American employees make up 6 percent of
the permanent workforce, while this group represents only 4 percent
of Greater Lansings population.
To some extent we were very successful, says Thomas regarding
his work with Rhodes-Reed and Graves to bring diversity into the city.
People who for instance look at the Lansing Police Department
will see it is a fixed issue. The question is: Will it remain that way?
Whereas there has been no serious revolt against the administrations
controversial firing policy so far, the mayor may face significant problems
Sunday, June 16, at the Unity in Community Forum (3 p.m. in the MSU
Unions Green Room). Rhodes-Reed set up this multicultural community
group after Sept. 11 to promote a no-tolerance policy on ethnic intimidation.
Since then the groups objectives have remained on Hollisters
main agenda. Although dismissed from her post at the Human Relations
Department, close sources say Rhodes-Reed is determined not to give
up her leading role at the Unity in Community Forum.
She has the backing of almost everyone in this group, whose members
representatives from the citys Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious
communities, as well as the American Red Cross and the Lansing police.
Will the mayor take away funding if Rhodes-Reed keeps the position?
Will the mayor try to push through the interim human-relations director,
Willard Walker, to become the new forum leader? A source working for
the city government guessed: Thats really her baby, not
the mayors. Thus she will win.