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MONDAY, Jan. 13 — Dozens of residents crowded tonight’s Lansing City Council meeting to voice support for Human Relations Director Joan Jackson Johnson and to criticize the handling of her recent suspension.
“This is a sad time in this community,” said community activist Maxine Hankins Cain, one of a dozen residents who spoke to the Committee of the Whole before the Council meeting. All but a few speakers were African American, as is Jackson Johnson, “This news went through this community like a wildfire and broke a lot of hearts. People were sleepless, angry. The question I have: Why did this have to happen? Why did we have to go this far?”
Jackson Johnson, who has been director of Lansing’s Human Relations and Community Service Department since 2006, was placed on paid leave last week after city officials said a recent forensic audit uncovered “issues with contracts” in her department. Those findings have since been referred to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.
Local residents aren’t awaiting results to voice their displeasure about the situation.
“We’re not here to make a determination in terms of what may or may not have happened. We believe the way she was treated was not fair,” said Barbara Roberts Mason, formerly the head of the RegionalSister Cities Commission for many years. “It was disrespectful and demeaning to someone who has done so much for this community. We’re waiting patiently — well, maybe impatiently — to find out what the City Council is going to do, and we hope to see her back on the job very soon because the city needs her.”
“She’s a beacon of hope in this city,” added Joshua Gillespie. “She’s the reason why so many people are fed in this city, why many people have clothes in this city and why kids can eat when they get out of school. Dr. Joan Jackson Johnson is more than a hero. She’s God sent, purposed to do the work of taking care of people.”
“If you don’t hear our voice, you will see our votes,” he added.
After several more comments, the Council’s Committee of the Whole voted to go into closed session to discuss a written legal opinion — presumably related to Jackson Johnson’s recent departure. Afterward, no formal action was taken and no Council members addressed the situation or responded to the public outcry.
Afterward, Mayor Andy Schor said a “situation” had “forced” City Attorney Jim Smiertka to put Jackson Johnson on leave and that he was legally prohibited from providing additional details about the situation.
“I recognize all she has done in this community and hope to have this resolved as soon as possible,” he added.
Meanwhile, the probe into Jackson Johnson’s office is set to continue. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office confirmed today that it plans to review a “file'' that Lansing sent it last week regarding Jackson Johnson. That review will determine whether a criminal investigation ensues. No timeline has been set, officials said.
Additional details about the situation are scarce. The AG’s office isn’t releasing any details. Schor previously declined to elaborate about the scope and nature of the forensic audit, citing personnel confidentiality. Schor kept Jackson Johnson on staff after she was hired by former Mayor Virg Bernero. She earns a salary of $129,289.
Jackson Johnson thinks the city made a mistake, she told City Pulse. She has labeled the situation as a “witch hunt” against her, saying she was “pissed off” and that she hadn’t taken any money for personal gain.
“There is nothing financial going on,” Jackson Johnson declared in the 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, who couldn’t be reached for additional comment today, said Friday she suspected her departure was triggered by her involvement with the nonprofit One Church One Family. Jackson Johnson 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 said. “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.”
One Church One Family is designed to provide housing to those in need, according to state records. It also helps facilitate the “rapid rehousing” program for local families with financial support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Records show it received at least $500,000 in grant funding in recent years.
Lansing’s charter defines a conflict of interest as an avenue for a city employee to derive “any income or benefit, directly or indirectly, from a contract with the city or from any city action.” Employees are asked to report any alleged conflicts on an annual basis. If one exists, employees are barred from commingling those related affairs.
Last year,in the annual ethics report that appointees must fill out, Jackson Johnson noted that she received no personal financial gain from her nonprofit and hadn’t generated more than $2,500 in annual income outside of her post with the city of Lansing. The extent of Lansing’s ties to One Church One Family, however, aren’t clear. A records request has been filed.
While Jackson Johnson is on administrative leave, the city’s chief labor negotiator, Nicholas Tate, serving as interim director of human resources.
Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous coverage and additional details as they become available.