The former Lansing Fire Chief has made several claims against me, and I am now going to respond to them. While I would rather take the high-road and not address the claims he made, he has disparaged me, several on my staff, and the Lansing Fire Department. I cannot let that go without a response.
Randy Talifarro was Fire Chief in Lansing for many years and did many things to help the fire department in Lansing. Many things that he referred to in his letter address things from before I was Mayor. I will not address nor comment on those things as I was not here when they happened. Randy Talifarro was Lansing’s fire chief for 6 months while I was Mayor, and he submitted his resignation voluntary in May. He has made several claims in his open letter, so I will do my best to address each of these.
Claim: We did not find a single protected class individual worthy of at least an interview for fire chief.
Answer: The hiring process for the Lansing Fire Chief was conducted by Linda Sanchez-Gazella. Sanchez-Gazella is not only the HR Director of the City, but she worked for both Mayors Hollister and Benavides. She is a strong, qualified Latina that lives in the City of Lansing and cares about this city. Her reputation is beyond reproach, and I am tremendously disappointed that Talifarro would suggest otherwise. According to Director Sanchez-Gazella, we did not have any qualified minority candidate apply for the job. There were four candidates that were interviewed by a diverse panel. They brought their recommendations to the Fire Board, who brought their recommendations to me. As per Charter. And I hired the recommended candidate.
Claim: The diversity Commission is just naming another committee.
Answer: I have tremendous confidence in this commission, chaired by Larry Leatherwood and Melissa Jeffries and staffed by Bishop David Maxwell. To suggest otherwise, as Talifarro seems to do,
is an unwarranted attack on the very qualified representatives of the many different people serving on this commission.
Claim: The Public Safety Committee of the FHT did not include the Fire Administration.
Answer: The FHT does not have a Public Safety Committee. It has never had this committee. The leadership of that committee sets the committees. I have no idea what Talifarro is talking about here. Talifarro never raised this as an issue with me.
Claim: LFD was never asked what impact hiring only paramedics would have.
Answer: When I came into office, I did not know that Lansing was the only fire department in the region that was hiring non-paramedics. Nor did I know that we would soon be short on paramedics due to retirements and promotions. These issues were never brought to me by Talifarro. I did not find out these out until Dave Purchase became Fire Chief.
Claim: LFD was given the responsibility of managing Code Enforcement in the previous administration, and LFD was never asked any information about Code Enforcement or solutions being explored.
Answer: Talifarro met with me after the election to talk about ideas that he had for Code. At that time, I told him it was my intention to move Code Enforcement back to the Economic Development department where it had been previously. I did not feel that LFD had the resources to manage fire duties (suppression, EMS, etc.) and prioritize Code Enforcement, and I felt that Code needed to be more independent. I understand why the former Mayor put Code in the Fire Department (to align fire building safety with code enforcement) but it did not seem to work to me. In fact, when I took office the city was in a grievance with the Fire Marshal, who had been given major responsibility for Code Enforcement without compensation for those new duties. I had to come to an agreement with our Fire Marshal after Code was moved back and he no longer had those responsibilities.
Claim: Talifarro was not consulted on any issue of consequence in the organization.
Answer: I allow my department heads to run their departments. I ask them to talk to me when major decisions need to be made, but I try not to get into the day-to-day workings. Talifarro was part of our weekly cabinet meetings and weighed in on many issues each week. He and I met and talked when he had issues that he wanted to bring to me, and when I had things I needed to discuss with him I would chat with him as well. This was the same as every other department head, and continues to be the practice.
Claim: There was a lack of trust between Talifarro and me.
Answer: I retained 8 department heads, didn’t retain 3 department heads, and brought in four new department heads (one in a newly created department). In the first few months of my administration I was getting to know all department heads and we all built trust. By the end of the year, I had a good understanding of each person, and I believe they understand my way of working. Talifarro submitted his resignation in May, and stayed on until July 1st. I listened to his suggestions and took some and didn’t take others. Just like everyone else. Trust was being built, but he resigned after four months.
Claim: Certain department heads were pre-judged or disregarded. He mentions former Planning Director Bob Johnson, HR Director Mary Riley, LHC Chair Martel Armstrong, Assistant Chief Odom, and him.
Answer: Bob Johnson and Mary Riley, along with Chad Gamble, were not retained as directors. I had people that I wanted in all of these positions. Brian McGrain, a housing expert, was selected for Economic Development. Linda Sanchez-Gazella, a former mayoral Chief of Staff and great manager, was selected for HR. Andy Kilpatrick, a long-time public service employee in the department, was chosen to lead Public Service. Riley and Gamble were both offered other positions in the city. Gamble accepted. Riley did not, but I gave her a good recommendation for a job with the BWL.
I planned to offer Johnson another position with the city but was not able to during our conversation. Additionally, I replaced the previous labor negotiator with Nik Tate, who is a JAG officer and an outstanding individual in our City Attorney office and the position of Labor Relations Manager was created and placed into my office and into cabinet. Martell Armstrong was the Lansing Housing Commission director and reports to the LHC Board. While I appoint the LHC Board, the existing board members at that time worked with him, and he submitted his letter of resignation to the members of that board after working with them. I made no demands on that board and worked with both the Board and Armstrong while he was here. I did have many conversations with Mr. Armstrong while he was working in Lansing and was Mayor, though, because we had a tragic fire where two individuals died in the Lansing Housing Commission properties. We needed to find out why that happened, and we needed to ensure that the properties were brought up to code moving forward. I did not regularly converse with any Fire Assistant Chiefs (Odom or any of the others) as I work directly with Department heads and allow them to pass things on directly to their staff.
Claim: Talifarro is in the middle of a political fallout and rumors.
Answer: I have no idea what rumors he is talking about. The political fallout seems to be of his own making through the City Pulse comments and his open public letter, which I am now responding to. I appreciate that he resigned and offered to stay on for another month and a half. In fact, he offered to resign immediately if I wanted, and I told him that I would like him to stay on until July 1, as he offered in his resignation letter. I thought we were on the same page until the comments that he made to the Lansing City Pulse. Still, I have said nothing about Talifarro and wasn’t planning to until his public letter which I am now responding to.
Claim: Talifarro replaced 4 fire trucks, 6 ambulances, and a variety of equipment.
Answer: I am sure he replaced equipment in the 6 years that he was Chief. In reviewing the
equipment needs in the Fire Department now, we have many needs. We are planning to budget dollars from the sale of the Townsend Ramp as well as dollars in our fleet budget to solve this and create a plan for equipment sustainability moving forward. We currently only have 5 front line ambulances in the fleet, with an average age of 4.7 years old. We have a reserve fleet of ambulances with an average age of 14.5 years old. We have 4 ladder trucks in service; one which was purchased last year used (19 years old) and has been out of service more than it has been in service. We need a new ladder truck ($1.2 million), a new engine ($450,000), and at least 4 new ambulances ($250,000 each). We are going to try to spread this out over a few years, but they are necessary. We also need new turnout gear ($500,000) as one of our sets expire in April and we need a backup set for our firefighters.
Claim: Talifarro is hearing about low morale in the Fire Department.
Answer: Morale in the LFD has significantly improved in the last year. When I came in, it was my understanding that the morale wasn’t good. We held racial sensitivity trainings (organized by Director Linda Sanchez-Gazella in HR). And we have had very few grievances or complaints in the fire department recently. Chief Purchase met and worked closely with all fire fighters. He was at each fire station. I am sure there are a few firefighters who have complaints. In a department of 178 sworn fire staff and 8 civilians, there will always be disagreements. But, according to those who talk to the firefighters, morale is up.
Claim: Talifarro addressed the items that I put in my action plan.
Answer: I don’t know why he felt the need to address these items. None of this was a commentary on him or Chief Purchase. It was a statement of what I would like to see in the fire department moving forward. But I will respond to the things that he said that seemed critical of my administration.
1. He says fire cadet programs have minimal success. That is not the opinion of other fire command staff. I guess we will disagree on this point. He references the existing trainee program. I am not eliminating the trainee program. I am augmenting it by also planning to talk to our youth to get them interested in the fire service.
2. He says that Paramedics outnumbered EMTs 2:1 and that LFD has an in-house paramedic training program. The paramedic to EMT ratio is close to 1:1 as it currently stands, but 18 of the next 20 to be promoted to off-the-ambulance positions are paramedics. This will create a disparity in number of Paramedics to EMTs. There is no in-house paramedic program through LCC. LFD sponsors and pays for three of our current EMTs to go to LCC’s paramedic school if they want. This is at a cost of about $13,000 per employee.
3. He says that large fire departments don’t need to hire all paramedics while smaller ones do to ensure state minimums. Lansing is the only fire department in our region that allows non- paramedics. And is one of very few full-time fire departments across the entire state.
4. He says I failed to quote the statistics of the fire department before changes were instituted. Actually, I quoted the numbers that we have now (after our most recent hiring). This was certainly the result of the last 25 years of hiring, as all our firefighters were hired in the last 25 years.
5. He quotes the racial diversity numbers for the East Lansing Fire Department. I will let people digest those numbers without commentary in deference to the great relationships that I have with the East Lansing Mayor and City Council members.
6. He says that LFD conducted diversity training under his administration. Yes, and that is what I said in my statement and action plan. There was a training in 2017 that we know about, and there was one in early 2018 when I became Mayor and he was Chief. I am not sure what his insinuation is here. Although he does seem to be unhappy with the person brought in for the training. While he seems to believe that this was consultant was picked by me, the reality is that I never met this person except for the hour or so that I sat in for the training. Linda Sanchez-Gazella, our HR Director, and our HR staff did a good job finding this person for training and we heard very positive commentary on the training. Talifarro says that the person did not meet with him or his assistant chiefs before the training. That’s because the trainer met with command staff during the training. The consultant met with Firefighters on one day, and fire command on the next day.
While looking at all of this, it is also important to remember a few things. When I took office, I made the evaluation and decided to keep Randy Talifarro on as chief. I met with him and told him that I wanted him to continue with the city and I wanted to continue to work together with East Lansing to see the joint chief experiment was going for a year.
I did this despite concerns that had been raised about having a half-time chief (because the other half of the time, he was in East Lansing), when we needed a full-time Chief for the job. He was one of the eight people that I retained from the prior administration, and I planned to evaluate all department heads at the end of the year (which I did). I am disappointed that he has chosen to raise these claims now, so many months after he resigned and left the city. Lansing has a first-class fire department. One of the best anywhere. I am proud of who they are and all they do.