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TUESDAY, Jan. 14 — Public outcry and unanswered questions surround Lansing’s Department of Human Relations and Community Services after its director, Joan Jackson Johnson, was abruptly placed on paid leave last week.
New questions are also being raised regarding diversity at City Hall as yet another African American department head is out of a job — at least temporarily — since Lansing Mayor Andy Schor took office in 2018. Some local community leaders are expressing frustration with Schor’s track record amid the ongoing exodus.
“A number of African Americans have been released from their duties under Mayor Schor,” said educator Maxine Hankins Cain, who is black. “Why? Why have so many left? I think the job of mayor is to make sure the people who surround him are of a diverse population. These were competent and knowledgeable people.”
Planning Director Bob Johnson and Human Resources Director Mary Riley weren’t rehired after Schor took office. Fire Chief Randy Talifarro and Information Technology Director Collin Boyce left the city. Former Housing Commission Director Martell Armstrong, who did not report to Schor, resigned.
All of them are African American. And a majority have been replaced by white men under Schor’s leadership.
“I am concerned,” Cain added. “If you’re a white male and you have not surrounded yourself with a representative number of diverse people, that’s a problem. I think those voices need to be heard and no mayor should ever be comfortable being surrounded by only people who look like him and who think like him.”
Jackson Johnson — another black woman — remains on paid administrative leave after a recent forensic audit uncovered “issues with contracts” stemming from her department. Those findings have since been referred to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office. In the meantime, prominent members of the African American community have rallied behind Jackson Johnson and criticized the handling of her recent suspension. Dozens voiced complaints Monday to the City Council.
“She didn’t care if you were black, white. It didn’t make any difference,” said the Rev. Clyde. “ Male, female, it didn’t bother her. She got her hands dirty. She rolled up her sleeves and she worked to help make Lansing great. We stand on her shoulders. And I say tonight, Joan, we love you. We’re not going to leave you.”
“If we’re not supporting the people that are disenfranchised and at the bottom of our socioeconomic scale, our entire community is impacted,” added retired Lansing teacher Cheryl Dudley. What’s being done to Jackson Johnson, she said, “is horrible. A price is always paid when we touch God’s people doing God’s work.”
“There’s a hole in this process,” said Kevin Brown, pastor at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. “There’s a hole in the values of appreciation and respect that we claim, in the lens of love that allows us to see the difference between what is illegal and impractical. Sometimes the way you do things speaks louder than the words you say.”
Details on the scope and nature of the financial audit at Jackson Johnson’s department remain under wraps. Schor declined to comment on the alleged contract “issues” pending a formal investigation. Decisions to place employees on leave depend wholly on the circumstances, but Schor said it was “necessary” in this instance.
City officials have yet to produce any financial records tied to Jackson Johnson’s office or respond to an open records request for more information. It’s also unclear what steps need to be taken before Jackson Johnson can return to her job.
But Schor sharply denied that racial motivations are involved in the situation.
“My administration has a very diverse cabinet and senior staff that I am proud of and represents all of Lansing,” Schor said in a statement. “We have seen people leave and brought in new people. And we have maintained a very diverse and highly qualified senior staff that I am proud of. I am concerned about all residents of Lansing.”
After Schor was elected, Riley was offered another job with the city but declined. Schor previously said he intended to offer Johnson another position but didn’t have an opportunity. Talifarro and Boyce each resigned on their own accord, Schor said. And he said he placed no pressure on Armstrong to call it quits back in 2018.
Schor also touted the recent hiring of City Treasurer Judy Kehler, Chief Administrative Officer Nicholas Tate and Lansing Police Department Chief Daryl Green — all African Americans — under his administration. Others, like HR Director Linda Sanchez Gazella, a Latina, and Brian McGrain, who is gay, help fill out his diverse cabinet, he said.
“Since I announced I am running, I have always said that I will listen to all opinions and do what is best for the city of Lansing,” Schor added. “That has not changed. I am very appreciative of the people who work for me.”
But others — particularly those in Lansing’s African American community — remain skeptical.
Former school administrator Eugene Cain, who is married to Maxine Hankins Cain, isn’t convinced that Schor has the best interests of the African American community in mind. He labeled the revolving door of black leaders at City Hall as “questionable.”
“The number of people of the same race being shown the door is troubling,” Cain added. “This is where the mayor needs to come forward with answers, particularly for the African Americans in this community. I’ve come to the conclusion that people need to be judged by their answers, not their words. We need to see some action.”
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” he added. “I can’t say that he supports the African American community. People act on the basis of what they perceive is important. And for some reason, he saw fit to let some of these people go and the only real common denominator at play here is their ethnicity.”
Barbara Roberts Mason was the first African-American woman in Michigan elected to statewide office, serving a record 24 years on Michigan’s State Board of Education as a powerful voice for equality and justice. She also questioned the circumstances that led to the departure of so many black voices under Schor’s leadership.
“It’s one thing to have a diverse staff but another to have them in management positions. I don’t know why they’re leaving. Apparently they’re not satisfied with what’s been happening in the environment,” Roberts Mason said. “Joan believes this is a witch hunt, and it sounds like it is. It sounds like someone is digging at it.”
Meanwhile, the city has sent documents to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office for a review that may determine whether a state criminal investigation ensues. No timeline has been established.
Jackson Johnson couldn’t be reached for comment this week, but previously denied any financial wrongdoing.
“There is nothing financial going on,” Jackson Johnson declared in an interview late last week. “I’ve been told there’s a conflict of interest with my position in different organizations. I was working on that. After a while, you have to think they’re on a witch hunt against me. I’m not sure I really understand anything.”
Jackson Johnson suspects her departure was triggered by her long-time involvement with the nonprofit One Church One Family, a local charity that acquires grants and provides housing to those in need. She initially registered it with the state in 2008 and served as its chairwoman before she resigned in December 2019.
“I was told I couldn’t be involved in both entities, but there was no financial impropriety going on,” Jackson Johnson added. “I needed to divorce myself from that organization given its ties to the city, and I was working on that. I didn’t want to dissolve the organization. We’ve been trying to find other people to take on these roles.”
Records show One Church One Family received at least $500,000 in federal grant funding in recent years, in addition to at least one $10,000 grant from the city of Lansing. Jackson Johnson insisted that she never derived any personal financial gain from its operation, according to an affidavit filed with the City Clerk’s office.
Jackson Johnson, a carryover from former Mayor Virg Bernero’s administration, will still collect her $129,289 annual salary while on leave. Meanwhile, Tate has been named interim director in order to maintain services.