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Former Mayor Testifies on Racial Comments, Alleged Corruption in Kansas City (KS) Fire Department



KANSAS – Former Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor Mark Holland told a Wyandotte County jury Thursday that in 2013 he was humiliated as he watched a fire department recruiting class graduation ceremony with several recruits, none of whom were Black.

Holland said it was embarrassing to serve a community where the Black residents make up about 25% of the population and to see the fire department had not landed a single Black recruit. He called for a meeting with then-county administrator Dennis Hays and then-fire chief John Paul Jones.

Holland testified that Jones said in that meeting that Black people were afraid of fires to explain why there weren’t more Black recruits.

“I literally thought I’d taken a step back to the 1950s,” Holland testified in court Thursday. “Are you kidding me?

“I told the administration afterwards he needs to be fired and he needs to be fired immediately.” Holland did not have authority to do that on his own.

Jones, who left KCKFD in 2018, testified Tuesday and Wednesday and twice denied making the remark that Holland described.

“I never made that comment,” Jones testified. “Ever.”

Holland was a plaintiff’s witness in the case of Jyan Harris, a Black former KCKFD firefighter who in 2018 sued the Unified Goverment of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, claiming harassment and race retaliation in his firing. The trial, which is taking place in the U.S. District Court in Kansas, has now been going on for a week.

Harris, who joined KCKFD in 2004, alleged he was subjected to workplace harassment following a 2013 injury on the job when he was forced to use sick and vacation leave while he recovered, something white firefighters didn’t have to do. Harris claims he was subjected to race discrimination and retaliation in 2016 when he complained of his treatment to top Unified Government officials.

UG officials said Harris’ firing was warranted because records showed he double dipped, receiving pay for working a shift with the fire department on several days in 2014 and 2015 when he also was receiving pay for work in a youth summer camp with the Unified Government Parks and Recreation Department.

Harris has claimed the double dipping investigation was pretext for firing him; testimony this week has focused on errors in the KCKFD’s record-keeping of who works and when.

Holland’s testimony was likely meant to support a theme in the plaintiff’s case, which is that Black employees at KCKFD are treated differently than white employees in relation to recruitment, promotions and discipline.

Holland attributed those differences to the power of the fire union and KCKFD leadership, both of which are predominantly white, as well as their influence with elected officials, some of whom have relatives who work for the fire department.

Under cross examination, the former mayor acknowledged that he and the fire union were continually at odds during his political career, which ended in 2018 after he was defeated in his bid for re-election to current mayor David Alvey, who was supported by the fire union.

A disputed meeting

Harris worked for a youth summer camp program for the Parks and Recreation Department from 2013 to 2015.

His work for the parks program came to the Unified Government’s attention in 2015, when the Kansas Department of Labor was exploring whether the parks department had misclassified the summer camp workers as independent contractors.

A human resources investigation into Harris started later and focused on whether he was getting paid for work he never performed.

Some of Harris’ fellow workers at summer camp testified that Harris was always present for work.

Fire department records also show that Harris was supposed to work — and was paid for — a 24-hour shift with KCKFD on five separate days where parks department time sheets also show he worked at the summer camp. There was a sixth day in July 2015 when Harris called in sick with “flu-like symptoms” to the fire department but worked a shift at the parks department.

Unified Government human resources director Renee Ramirez has testified that it’s the UG’s belief that Harris worked at the fire department during the days in dispute.

In June 2016, Harris made complaints about harassment he was experiencing from some of his bosses in the fire department. He sought a meeting with Holland, who by then had taken on what he saw as racial issues within KCKFD. Harris also met with Unified Government administrator Doug Bach about his concerns.

On July 15, 2016, Harris was called to a meeting at City Hall.

Robert Wing, who was at the time the business manager for the International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 64, the bargaining unit for KCKFD employees, was also called to the meeting.

Wing testified on Tuesday that he didn’t know ahead of time what the meeting was for, and that neither did Harris. At the meeting were two KCKFD deputy chiefs, Ramirez and assistant county administrator Joe Connor.

Wing testified that the meeting was brief, that Connor did most of the talking and Harris didn’t say much. Connor confronted Harris about inconsistencies in his time sheets between his jobs at KCKFD and the parks department.

A memo later written by Connor about the meeting suggests that Harris explained at the meeting that he was told by his bosses at the parks and recreation department to go ahead and fill out time sheets for his summer camp job, even for days he didn’t work. Those employees have denied making those remarks, and Harris’ lawyers dispute that he said that at the meeting. Wing testified that he did not recall Harris making such a statement.

Connor’s memo recommended firing Harris. Jones in September 2016 suspended Harris without pay pending termination. Harris was fired in 2018.

Shift trading on trial

Harris contends that there’s an explanation for why he got paid for two jobs at once: On the days in question, he traded his fire department shifts to fellow firefighters so he could work at the parks department.

Shift trading is a frequent practice in fire departments, and the concept of it is legal under federal labor laws.

An unusual aspect of shift trading within fire departments is that the person who asks a colleague to cover their shift is still paid as though they worked the shift. The trades can be paid back, but it’s not required under the KCKFD union contract.

In 2015, shift trades were tracked on paper slips. The trade is also supposed to be recorded on a daily roster for each fire station and a handwritten log book that a captain is supposed to keep.

There are no trade slips showing that Harris traded his shifts away on five days during the summer of 2015 when he was scheduled to work for the fire department but also got paid for working at the parks summer camp.

A key element of Harris’ defense is that the fire department did a sloppy and haphazard job of keeping track of the paper slips that recorded shift trades.

“The fire department wanted an all-paper model (for tracking trades),” Holland said. “What I came to learn was their paper model was so they could manipulate it.”

Several witnesses have testified that trade slips were often lost, ripped up or not even submitted for some trades.

Jones, the former fire chief, testified that the KCKFD’s system for tracking trades was accurate and that he did not know of captains ripping up the slips.

“I don’t have knowledge of that,” Jones testified. “During my tenure, it would be inappropriate and a violation of policy and the (union) contract.”

Unified Government Legislative Auditor Tom Wiss analyzed shift trading in 2016. It showed there were errors in the record-keeping, but not often.

Ryan Denk, the attorney representing the Unified Government, walked Jones through the records on several days in which Harris was listed as working at both the fire department and the parks department in 2014 and 2015. Harris was listed on the roster and the captain’s log book as working; his name didn’t show up in a log recording shift trades.

Denk questioned the probability that records were botched for Harris on each day.

“If Mr. Harris’ claim is to be believed that he was trading time on the days in question, we would have triplicate failures on all 11 of those days,” Denk said to Jones. “Would you agree?”

“Yes,” Jones replied. He added later, “I believe there would be a very low probability for that to occur.”

Holland suggested shift records in KCKFD were sloppy because Unified Government human resources does not manage the process.

“Here’s the biggest problem with time trading….it’s not controlled by human resources, it’s not controlled by command staff,” Holland testified. “It’s controlled by the union.”