Ex-Deputy Chief Alleges Racial Discrimination

Missouri Human Rights Commission investigating.


Elizabethe Holland | | Tuesday, July 22, 2008

NORMANDY, Mo. -- A former deputy chief with the Northeast Ambulance and Fire District has filed a complaint alleging that the all-black board and other district managers are racist.

Harold Conner, who is white, resigned in June after working 19 years for the district. He was the only white employee among the chief and four other chief officers.

In April, Conner's name and photo were used in a flier distributed by the board to bolster claims that the board was the target of racist attacks. Conner's and the pictures of three other employees appeared under the headline, "Is the attack on the new board majority racially motivated? Fire chief and deputy fire chiefs think so."

Conner filed the complaint last month with the Missouri Human Rights Commission. It alleges that the board discriminated against him because he's white. The state has since informed him that it plans to investigate.

The complaint comes in the wake of a race-discrimination suit filed last year by four white district employees against the district, directors Joe Washington and Robert Edwards, and board attorney Elbert Walton Jr. All three men are black.

Conner, who said he resigned under threat of suspension or termination, claims he was denied items and privileges the black officers received, including a car, new gear and a new uniform, a cell phone, walkie talkie, credit card, pager, a key to the deputy chiefs' office and a photo of himself on the district's website along with the other chief officers.

"It's kind of hard to prove discrimination if you're white, but I can prove it," said Conner, 57, of Farmington.

Washington, the board president, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Walton said he couldn't discuss personnel matters. "All I can tell you," he said, "is that he went from a 25-year private, first to chief paramedic and then to deputy fire chief, within less than a year, with a $20,000 raise."

The current board promoted Conner shortly after taking control in April 2007.

'They needed a white person'

Conner said he was angry about being on the cover of a district newsletter mailed to residents just before the April 8 election.

At the time, a group of residents were circulating petitions in hopes of ousting Washington and Edwards through a recall effort.

Upon learning of the newsletter and similar door hangings that also pictured Conner, he said he was shocked, particularly at an attempt to make it look like he signed the newsletter and that the signature was misspelled.

"I didn't give anybody authorization to put my photos on those," he said. "They needed a white person to say this and that to get the ... white backing."

Conner said he and the newsletter's other featured white employee were told by a deputy chief that their photos were being taken for the district's website.

The other employee could not be reached for comment. But Walton disputed Conner's allegations. "Whatever pictures were in that newsletter would have been with (Conner's) consent or he wouldn't have sat to take the picture," Walton said. "He's lying."

Conner said he retired so he would be able to access his pension. Three of the four employees who filed suit in St. Louis County Circuit Court last year were suspended and have been without district pay or access to their pensions for more than a year, said their attorney, Rick Barry.

Barry said two of the employees submitted their resignations in May because of financial difficulty, but that the board didn't accept them until about 10 days ago.

The suit claims the district made false allegations against the four employees and then filled their positions with new hires, most of whom are African-American. Supporters of the board majority say the previous board failed to give adequate opportunities to minorities.

Barry said he was also troubled by a recent district newsletter that published allegations of sexual harassment, credit card misuse and sales tax evasion regarding the four. Though they were not named, they're identifiable, Barry said. Further, the allegations are "trumped up" and the newsletter failed to offer accurate details and outcomes, Barry said.

In a previous interview regarding the lawsuit, Walton said race wasn't a factor in the board's action against the four.

"It's the only thing that they can use to try to get around the wrongdoing," he said.

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