No case built for firing mayoral employee, records show

Former staffer alleges racial bias

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The personnel record of a Black woman who claims Lansing Mayor Andy Schor fired her without explanation contains no documentation of performance issues, according to the City Attorney’s Office.

The woman, Natasha Atkinson, had a spotless record from her time with the city, her personnel file reflects. In fact, City Attorney Jim Smiertka’s office was unable to locate a single incident that would have led to Atkinson’s firing. The response was to a Freedom of Information request for any documents pertaining to her performance, including complaints about her by other employees.

Schor has cited confidentiality in declining to say why he fired Atkinson, as a scheduler and events coordinator. She was let go in February after less than a year on the Mayor’s Office staff.

Moreover, he has declined to comment on why his office did not document any performance problems in her case.

Schor 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.

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 fired.

Atkinson, among others, has argued that subtle racial discrimination motivated her firing. Schor has dismissed any suggestions of racism within his administration. He has since agreed to implicit bias training.

Two City Council members, Brandon Betz and Patricia Spitzley, were critical of Schor.

“The mayor has a legal right to fire his at-will employees, but I also think the mayor needs to provide an explanation,” Spitzley said. “Everyone would like to have a reason when they’re let go from their job.”

“Having no records behind firing someone is poor management,” said Betz.

Spitzley asked Smiertka to prepare a formal legal opinion on whether the Council can probe into staffing complaints — like those from Atkinson — leveled against Schor.

Smiertka told Council Monday 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.”

“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 Spadafore. “I think we should always be helping employees to improve, but I also don’t control the mayor.”

Spadafore, who is an executive at the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, 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.

Said Betz: “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.”

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.”

“At this point, I don’t really know that it matters,” Atkinson said 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 last year 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 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 “Prejudged or completely disregarded” by Schor after he took office.

Boyce also cited Schor’s decision not to retain Bob Johnson and Mary Riley, two Black department heads from the administration of his predecessor, Virg Bernero, and his suspension of Joan Jackson Jackson, who is Black, as human relations director pending the outcome of a federal examination of possible mismanagement. He also  pointed out the dismissal of Martell Armstrong, another African American, as the executive director of the Lansing Housing Commission.

Schor has contended that he has hired a diverse group of leaders and that he did not influence the commission’s board in letting Armstrong go. Schor has declined comment on Jackson Johnson, who retired after her suspension in January while she awaits any results of the probe.

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.

“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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