City attorney kills plan to investigate Lansing mayor for discrimination

Records: Schor had no documented reason for recently firing Black woman

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MONDAY, July 13 — Why is there no documented record of the performance issues that led up to the dismissal of Natasha Atkinson, a Black woman who claims Lansing Mayor Andy Schor fired her without explanation?

That’s one of the questions that at least one City Council member wants answered — and they’re likely to remain unanswered after efforts to launch a formal Council investigation into Schor’s office failed this month. Officials reiterated tonight: The Council cannot legally investigate the mayor.

“The mayor has a legal right to fire his at-will employees, but I also think the mayor needs to provide an explanation,” Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley told City Pulse. “Everyone would like to have a reason when they’re let go from their job. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem the Council can do anything here.”

Spitzley asked City Attorney Jim Smiertka to prepare a formal legal opinion on whether the Council can probe into staffing complaints — like those from Atkinson — levied against Schor. Before any investigation could begin, Smiertka told Council earlier tonight that it was impossible.

“With Charter revisions, we can investigate the financial issues but not the operational issues of the mayor’s office,” Council President Peter Spadafore summarized. “And likewise, he has got to stay away from us.”

Last month, Atkinson told City Pulse that her ideas for improving diversity were dismissed, white staffers had ignored her and her desk was repeatedly ransacked before she was abruptly fired from her job in Schor’s office in February after only a few months as a scheduler and event coordinator.

Atkinson, among others, has argued that subtle racial discrimination was the motivation behind her firing. Schor has repeatedly declined to discuss Atkinson’s employment except to dismiss any suggestions of racism within his administration. He has since agreed to implicit bias training.

A subsequent records request — which was sent by City Pulse weeks ago — revealed late last week that Schor actually had no documented reason for kicking Atkinson to the curb. No complaints were filed. Atkinson had a spotless record from her time with the city. In fact, Smiertka’s office was unable to locate a single incident that would have led to Atkinson’s firing.

Councilman Brandon Betz, Spitzley and City Pulse reporters shared the same questions: Is this really the type of environment the mayor fosters in his office? Staff can really be fired without a single documented complaint or explanation? What message does that send to his employees?

“I think that Andy Schor needs to answer questions about discrimination in his office because it sounds like it has been happening,” Betz argued. “We shouldn’t be treating employees like that. We need to respect them, and having no records behind firing someone is poor management.”

Schor, for his part, appears to be operating entirely within the bounds of the law. Unless protected by some type of contractual agreement, at-will employees like Atkinson can be terminated from their job at any time and for any reason — including no actual reason at all.

“That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do,” Betz added in an interview with City Pulse.

A spokeswoman for Schor’s office again declined to answer questions on the topic last week, noting it would be “inappropriate” to comment on “personnel matters” of former employees. Spitzley said she owed it to her constituents to at least attempt to pry loose some answers.

“It’s basically saying that Council doesn’t have the authority to investigate the Mayor’s Office,” Spitzley said, describing Smiertka’s recent legal opinion. “There’s a separation of powers. Council does have certain authorities, but one of them is not to investigate the Mayor’s Office.”

And that lack of oversight isn’t sitting too well with those who claimed to have been mistreated.

“At this point, I don’t really know that it matters,” Atkinson explained to City Pulse in an interview last week. “If Council doesn’t have any oversight over the mayor, then nobody really does. There really needs to be some type of check and balance. He can’t just operate on his own.”

Atkinson previously told City Pulse that Schor was dismissive when Black Lives Matter activists attempted to confront him over black teenagers who were violently arrested by local cops last year. And when she tried to step in to offer advice, Schor allegedly diminished those concerns.

“Black Lives Matter is just a dog without a bone,” Atkinson claimed a mayoral staffer had said.

Atkinson also said white staffers eventually started to ignore her and contended she arrived at work to find her desk overturned and her belongings scattered across the floor. Atkinson said Schor blamed a cleaning crew and refused to recognize much of a problem with the incident.

Weeks after Atkinson recounted her experiences with Schor, former Chief Information Officer Collin Boyce — who resigned last year — said he and other Black employees who dared to challenge Schor’s authority were also quickly pushed aside or fired from the city. His story also mirrored that of former Fire Chief Randy Talifarro, who told City Pulse last year that Black department heads were “prejudiced or completely disregarded” by Schor after he took office.

Boyce also claimed that Schor was influential in the disproportionate removal of other Black employees during the transition from former Mayor Virg Bernero’s administration in early 2018, including Planning Director Bob Johnson, Human Resources Director Mary Riley, Housing Commission Director Martell Armstrong and Human Relations Director Joan Jackson Johnson.

“It’s not really my place to determine how the mayor hires or fires his staff members, but I don’t think,in general, this is the way the city operates,” added Council President Peter Spadafore. “I think we should always be helping employees to improve, but I also don’t control the mayor.”

Spadafore said he has never before fired an employee without a well-documented paper trail of poor performance and without offering repeated opportunities for those staffers to improve. He was “surprised” to hear that Schor’s office doesn’t maintain the same employment protocols.

“It’ll be good to have these discussions on the limitations of Council powers,” Spadafore added.

Atkinson also alleged that Schor’s staff misused city credit cards to purchase expensive lunches and drinks during the early afternoon. It’s OK, they told her. The receipts just get lost, she said. And after Atkinson tried reporting it higher up the chain, she found herself out of a job, she said.

City Pulse filed a records request nearly a month ago for a complete accounting of city credit cards used by the mayor’s staff in recent years. City officials have yet to send their response.

“The mayor has made it very clear that he will not discuss his staff with anyone, including the City Council,” Spitzley added. “He’s just not willing to have the discussion with anybody. Does that mean that we’re not reaching out to him? Absolutely not. There’s just not much we can do.”

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