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FRIDAY, March 8 — The former chief of the Lansing Fire Department said today that he quit last year because the workplace became “extremely uncomfortable” after Andy Schor took office as mayor.
Former Chief Randy Talifarro, in an open letter to Schor, contended that a rift with the mayor — fueled by union pressures and a lack of trust — ultimately led him to quit the job. Talifarro also criticized the “different direction” Schor took the department after he left, notably leading to an almost entirely white and male class of firefighters hired last year. Talifarro also criticized steps to broaden diversity following his departure.
“I was not consulted on any issue of consequence and this was problematic for the department and the community at-large,” Talifarro declared. “It was unhealthy to say the least. No one benefits when such a clear lack of trust exists between an administrator and the mayor. Given that context, I thought it best that I resign.”
Talifarro penned the lengthy account in what he called “An Open Letter to Mayor Schor.” It circulated to local media earlier this afternoon.
Schor, in a formal response this evening, said Talifarro’s letter was disparaging to both him and his staff, and contained patently false information.
“I am disappointed that he has chosen to raise these claims now, so many months after he resigned and left the city,” Schor wrote in response. “Lansing has a first-class Fire Department. One of the best anywhere. I am proud of who they are and all they do.”
Talifarro said he was “distressed” by the way other African American department heads under previous Mayor Virg Bernero were “pre-judged or completely disregarded” by Schor.
“Departing staff deserved to be treated with respect and dignity for the hard work and dedication they brought each day to very difficult jobs,” Talifarro wrote, specifically alleging mistreatment of former planning director Bob Johnson, human resources director Mary Riley and former Lansing Housing Commission director Martell Armstrong.
Schor confirmed Riley and Johnson were not retained as directors when he took office. Riley was offered another position with the city, which he said she declined. Schor planned to offer Johnson a job too, but he didn’t get the chance. As for Armstrong? Schor said he made “no demands” of the board members that accepted his resignation.
The letter also challenged Schor’s commitment to workplace diversity and questioned why no minority candidates were deemed qualified enough to interview as his replacement. The hiring of Michael Mackey, who is white, was “disappointing” and speaks to Schor’s “concept of inclusion,” Talifarro contended. Mackey, fire chief in Palm Beach County, Florida, is expected to take office in April.
“You have a responsibility not to be blind to these matters,” Talifarro continued, urging Schor to further shift future inclusion efforts to serve a more “substantive purpose for the betterment of the community, not as an apparatus for personal political gain.” Talifarro did not return a phone call for additional clarification.
Schor, in response, noted that Human Resources Director Linda Sanchez-Gazella, whom he identified as a Latina, didn’t identify a qualified minority candidate. Schor hired the only recommendation from city officials, he contended.
Talifarro’s statement was prompted by a statement the mayor issued Wednesday to address the lack of diversity in the latest class of firefighters — all white men, save for one Latino, according to Schor.
Under Talifarro, who is African American, new hires were a third or more minority candidates. Schor said the recent disparity occurred because the city sought to hire more paramedics, whereas under Talifarro, the city allowed more EMTs to train into the role.
Schor’s latest policy backs off the priority of hiring paramedics in the interest of diversity and also aims to create a “cadet” program in local schools to attract more firefighters.
In an interview Thursday with City Pulse, Schor said the issue with paramedics and diversity “never came up” between him and Talifarro. Talifarro contended that’s only because Schor never asked for his input.
“I allow my department heads to run their departments,” Schor said in response. “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.”
Schor said that four or five months into his administration, Talifarro told his chief of staff that he was planning to resign as Lansing’s fire chief to focus exclusively on his role as fire chief in East Lansing, where he remains. He said he spent the first few months of his administration getting to know his department heads to build trust.
“By the end of the year, I had a good understanding of each person, and I believe they understand my way of working,” Schor said. “I listened to (Talifarro’s) suggestions and took some and didn’t take others. Just like everyone else. Trust was being built, but he resigned after four months.”
In his recent statement, Talifarro said Schor’s proposed solutions are also partially aimed at a non-existent problem. He claimed paramedics outnumbered EMTs within the Lansing Fire Department regardless — even before the latest round of hires came on board last year. Schor argues the ratio is closer to 1:1 and getting worse.
“This will create a disparity in the number of paramedics to EMTS,” Schor said. “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.”
A Freedom of Information Act request that could corroborate the ratio has not been returned to City Pulse.
The city is 23 percent African American, whereas the Fire Department is 19.5 percent. For Latinos, the city is 12.5 percent and the department is 7.6 percent. For Asians, the numbers are 3.7 percent in the city and 1.2 percent in the department. They’re not as disparate as national averages, but could use some work, Schor said.
Talifarro noted that while the city is trying to address the problem by hiring paramedics, the Bernero administration allowed firefighters to qualify on the job. The shift prompted some former employees — like Assistant Chief Bruce Odom — to voice concerns about subsequent racial tensions within the department.
Schor argued morale at the department has “significantly improved” in the last year. Racial sensitivity training has helped reduce the number of complaints. He also said most firefighters would testify to the improvements.
Odom labeled perceived racial problems as “more of a cultural issue” that stems from a “good ol’ boys” atmosphere. The city is also defending itself from a racial discrimination lawsuit recently levied in federal court.
Talifarro also criticized Schor’s cadet program plan as likely “minimally successful” in increasing racial inclusion into the fire service. Schor said current Fire Department leaders would tend to disagree with that assertion.
Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous and continued coverage at the Lansing Fire Department. A full version of Talifarro’s letter and Schor’s response is attached to this story. Publisher Berl Schwartz contributed to this story.