March 14 2019 07:18 AM

Looks to move past rift with former fire chief

Editor's Note: This story was corrected due to a reporter's error. Chief Information Officer Collin Boyce, while retained by Mayor Andy Schor, was initially hired by former Mayor Virg Bernero.


Weeks before a new chief arrives at the Lansing Fire Department, tensions are still flaring over an obvious lack of diversity in last year’s newly hired class of firefighters. And Mayor Andy Schor is continuing to take the heat.


Former Chief Randy Talifarro last week penned an open letter to Schor, noting he only quit last year when the workplace became “extremely uncomfortable” after former Mayor Virg Bernero left office. And he offered a warning to Schor — and other department heads — about the need to further bolster inclusion in city hiring.


“I call on you to set the example,” Talifarro, who is African American, wrote to Schor, questioning why incoming Chief Michael Mackey was hired without interviewing a single minority candidate for the job. “It is disappointing, to say the least, and says a great deal about your concept of inclusion. … You have a responsibility not to be blind to these matters.”


Mackey, a white man, will take the reins at the department next month and help supervise 16 paramedics hired into the service last year. Nearly all of them are white men, edging the department down to 19.5 percent African American in a city where 23 percent of the population is black. The situation was “disappointing,” Schor said.


Schor also said he was disappointed that no qualified minority candidates had applied to become Talifarro’s eventual replacement. He doubled down on a renewed focus to continue to expand inclusion efforts in Lansing.


“It really is important to have leadership that reflects the community and is qualified for the job,” Schor added.


Schor came under fire earlier last month when Talifarro and former Assistant Chief Bruce Odom criticized the shifting hiring practices. Odom contended the changes only helped to bolster racial tensions in the department. He pointed to a “cultural issue” stemming from a “good ol’ boys” type of atmosphere in the city.


“Is racial discrimination a part of that? Yes. That’s all part of it,” Odom previously explained to City Pulse.


Schor said priority was placed on hiring licensed paramedics last year after a staffing shortage loomed on the horizon.


The Fire Department needed those skilled professionals in order to legally complete high-priority medical calls. Diversity ultimately took a backseat in order to bring in the most qualified staff, Schor said.


The results weren’t ideal, Schor emphasized, but they were necessary. Talifarro set a focus on on-the-job training over credentials — allowing a more diverse array of local residents to be hired at the Fire Department. Schor was forced to temporarily divert course, at the inadvertent expense of diversity, to keep operations running smoothly.


“My priority was hiring paramedics so that we can have ambulances on the road. Diversity is a goal, but having ambulances respond is a requirement,” Schor said. “I was disappointed with the lack of diversity in that pool.”


Talifarro’s recent letter also claims Schor “pre-judged” or “completely disregarded” Fire Department personnel, as well as other outgoing African American department heads that served under Bernero’s administration. He contended those employees needed to be treated with more “dignity and respect” on their way out the door.


Schor countered that diversity has always been an integral focus for his administration — not just for race, but for gender and sexual orientation as well. And the statistics reflect that. Last year’s class of firefighters is no reflection of a racist mentality or a continued pattern, Schor emphasized.


“This was just the situation that we had to deal with,” Schor added. “I do want to see diversity in hiring at the Fire Department. I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, and we have a plan in place to make that happen. We do need to diversify the hiring class, much like we’ve done across the rest of our city leadership.”


Bernero’s administration was a melting pot. While many white men had prominent roles with the city, a number of black employees were also well represented. Mary Riley was the human resources director. Bob Johnson handled economic development and planning. Collin Boyce was chief information officer. Jeanine McIntyre was the city attorney. Talifarro was fire chief. Bernero influenced the hiring of two African Americans to run the Lansing Housing Commission.


Schor said Riley — although she was offered another job — was replaced with a “strong, qualified Latina,” Linda Sanchez-Gazella. Johnson was replaced with both Andrea Crawford and Brian McGrain. Crawford is female. McGrain is gay. Diversity is about more than just proportionate racial representation, Schor emphasized.


Boyce was retained. Chief Labor Negotiator Nicholas Tate — another black man — was also hired under Schor’s incoming administration last year. And while Lansing ultimately cut ties with Riley and Johnson, Schor vehemently denies that their race had anything to do with the decision to appoint replacements.


“When I set up my cabinet, we looked at who was already there and who I wanted to bring in,” Schor said. “There were five people that I specifically wanted to bring into my administration:

Brian McGrain, Linda Sanchez-Gazella, Andy Kilpatrick, Andi Crawford and Nick Tate. I thought they’d do the best job. That’s it.”


Other black employees employed under Schor include City Assessor Sharon Frischman and Constituency Director Marilyn Plummer. Joan Jackson Johnson was also retained as human relations and community services director. Bishop David Maxwell also stayed on as the city’s director of Community and Faith Based Initiatives.


Schor also noted that Sanchez-Gazella didn’t identify a qualified minority candidate before Mackey was hired. He was ultimately the only candidate recommended by the city Fire Board — making him a shoo-in for the job. Schor would have liked to make greater inclusionary strides but his hands were also tied by the applicant pool.


“A lot of it is about the candidate pool,” Schor said. “We have to work to create our own pool. We’re going to get into our schools and see what types of further steps we can take to attract these candidates to these positions.”


Under a policy Schor rolled out last week, the city is now looking to bring in a mix of paramedics and lesser-trained EMTs with hopes to expand the job search. A cadet program for firefighters is also designed to engage local, prospective employees at an earlier age. The city will also continue its Youth Leadership Academy.


Despite continued objections from Talifarro over the efficacy of those programs, the city’s newly implemented and proactive steps should help alleviate concerns of racial disparities in the future, Schor emphasized. The goal: Target a more diverse population for employment opportunities and train them to meet the qualifications.


A City Pulse investigation last year revealed several key disparities among government employees across the Greater Lansing region. The overarching trend: Municipalities like Lansing have made strides toward gender and racial diversity but the statistics, by and large, are still inherently skewed toward white men.


The city of Lansing was among the worst gender offending municipalities in the region. While the city boasts a 52-percent female population, women only account for about 29 percent of city staff. And while 23 percent of the city is black, African Americans only comprise about 15 percent of the city of Lansing’s payroll records.


Schor said he has kept a closer eye on the composition of his staff. Most of those long-standing inequities are based on a history of imbalance, he said. Since he was elected mayor, Schor has been intentionally careful to hire a more equitable mix of men and women — and people of color — into city leadership positions, he contended.


Officials at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights then cautioned local officials across the region to take a “long and hard look” at their hiring and recruitment efforts. When the decision-making table doesn’t look like the community, everyone suffers, several officials contended.


“Passively waiting for people of color and women to apply in hopes that this will somehow create a diverse staff is a formula for failure and puts the blame on people of color and women for not applying rather than a recruitment process that leaves people out,” said Rana Elmir, deputy director of the ACLU of Michigan.


Elmir suggested a “robust” recruitment plan would fosters relationships with organizations and other people who are committed to diversity and can help identify potential hires for the municipalities. It’s about making it a priority, she said. And that’s exactly what Schor intends to do over the coming months at the Fire Department.


It’s a sentiment also echoed by Bernero, who weighed in last week on the rift between Talifarro and Schor.


“City leaders should pause to carefully consider what (Talifarro) has to say,” Bernero said. “Reaction is not the same as thoughtful reflection and response. Racial reconciliation and healing is possible only when all sides are at the table with a listening ear and an open mind. That is the kind of dialogue Lansing must strive for, now more than ever.”


Schor previously said Lansing was “really doing our best” to increase diversity, but now he plans to put a renewed focus on inclusion efforts following the community concerns. Advertisements for open positions will be posted in prominent, black-oriented local newspapers like the Chronicle News and the New Citizens Press.


Schor is also working with local churches to identify scholarship opportunities for potential trainees, he said.


It’s all still a work in progress — but one that will hopefully lead to more inclusionary hiring practices in the future.


“I think what we had with the Fire Department was a series of extremes and we’re dealing with that,” Schor said. “We had the extreme of hiring no paramedics. We had the extreme of hiring all paramedics. Now, we’re looking at bringing in a mix and getting people trained. We have to strike the right balance and meet department needs.”