opinion

Dunbar takes on ‘unchecked harassment’ at the Lansing Fire Dept.

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The story of former Shawn Deprez — how alleged harassment pushed her to take an early retirement from the Lansing Fire Department in 2019 — has mayoral candidate Kathie Dunbar’s blood boiling.

As Mayor Andy Schor’s run-off opponent in November, Dunbar is hearing from more city employees, former and current, about a culture that she says is not unique to Deprez’s claims in City Pulse recently of “unchecked homophobic and sexist harassment.”

This week Dunbar, an at-large member of the City Council who is giving up her seat to take on Schor, told me she’s using her platform to blow the whistle on an unacceptable culture of intimidation, pranks and boorish behavior that has no place in a professional work environment.

To her, it’s more than advanced racial and gender sensitivity training can solve. It’s time for heads to roll.

“You can’t train racism out of somebody,” Dunbar told me. “You can’t give them a training module and put them in a room for a facilitated discussion and expect that that is going to change their heart. The only way you get to people is to have ramifications for the behavior.”

Does that mean firing people, she was asked?

“Yes.”

Dunbar offered specific complaints that she says she has been told. But between their secondhand nature and that City Pulse has not had enough time to look into them, City Pulse is not publishing them for now. The Mayor’s Office said Tuesday there are many instances where complaints about inappropriate behavior involving inappropriate words or actions have been investigated and resulted in dismissals.

“I’m so disturbed by the lack of accountability,” Dunbar said. “It seems to me that some of these issues, had they been addressed when they were brought forward, could have been addressed before they got to a pattern of behavior.”

Dunbar said some cases are being litigated in court. Other cases, like Deprez’s, likely will in time, she contends. When it does, the taxpayers of Lansing will be on the hook settling claims, Dunbar said, and that’s outrageous.

Dunbar isn’t a newbie to city government. She’s wrapping up her 16th year on the City Council. She knows lawsuits come and go. Most of the time they are dismissed for being without merit.

If this behavior is so prevalent, why didn’t she raise them before? 

“I’m at a loss because in my position I have no administrative authority,” she said.

From where she sits, Dunbar feels the employee complaints are louder than ever. Clearly, in the MeToo world, women feel more emboldened to speak out, their complaints will be taken more seriously. Those of color feel likewise about their experiences in the Black Lives Matter movement, she said.

Dunbar said she’s been hearing stories on that front, too.

Cracks around people of color about “fried chicken” and “watermelon” shouldn’t be tolerated in a 2021 professional environment. The racial lawsuits filed against the city of Lansing by former employees, likewise, is well documented.

“Andy could do something about it. You got to know what is going on in your departments,” she said.

For his part, Schor has made diversifying his staff and his cabinet a priority. He has gone through racial sensitivity training for himself and his staff. Also, lawsuits against a government entity are not unique to the city of Lansing and, in many cases, end up getting dismissed for numerous reasons.

That said, Lansing is on its fourth fire chief since Schor took office. Greg Martin is the interim guy whose permanent address is in Minnesota while he lives in a downtown Lansing apartment for now. At $140,000, he’s among the city’s highest-paid employees. He makes more than Schor.

When will decisive leadership be brought in to right the ship, she questioned?

Surely, Lansing wouldn’t have a permanent fire chief until after the November election. Then what?

“People are coming to me because I’m the opponent,” Dunbar said. “I get that. They’re laying a lot on my shoulders. They think I can do something about it.”

She’s going to start trying, anyway.

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

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