Michigan City That Rescinded Offer for Fire Chief’s Job Due to Race Sued For Race Discrimination

A fire captain who was competitively selected and offered the fire chief’s job in Ypsilanti, Michigan, only to have the offer rescinded due to an outcry by elected officials over his race, has filed a discrimination suit in federal court.

Phil Kamm was selected to be the next fire chief following a competitive process by a third-party testing company. Kamm, who is white, was selected over the Interim Fire Chief Ken Hobbs, who is black.

Kamm was offered the job on March 1, 2019 by City Manager Darwin McClary. The terms of his contract were finalized on March 5, 2019. That evening the contract was presented to the council for approval. According to the lawsuit:

  • At that meeting, Defendant City Councilman Morgan and Defendant Mayor Pro-Tem Richardson took the unusual act of stepping down from their seats to demonstrate their outrage over McClary not hiring a black candidate.
  • Defendant Morgan stated, “I stand here as an ashamed citizen, I wish for a more fair city,” and that in his time advocating for black rights, he “understand[s] civil rights and [he] understand[s] civil wrongs.”
  • Defendant Morgan then went on to state, “African Americans make up 14% of the total population, 13% of the State of Michigan, and 27% of Ypsilanti, if we don’t represent these numbers fairly we are just doing it.”
  • Defendant Richardson stated, “I have been mourning since Friday, when I got the email stating that racism and bigotry” are at the roots of the city, “every black person in here knows, I bet this is nothing but racism,” and that she was calling “the race card because that’s exactly what it is.”
  • Defendant Richardson then went on to state, “every black person in here knows we work on jobs” and “all of a sudden some little new person is brought in” and “they take a promotion that was ours,” and that African-American Interim Chief Hobbs had deserved the job but “racism raised its ugly head, its nothing but racism people.”
  • Defendant Richardson then concluded, “I thought we were progressive because we have a gay married City Manager, we have a gay married Mayor, and we have a gay married Council Person, but we cannot have a black Chief.”
  • At this point, there had been no inquiries into the charge of racism in the hiring.
  • In fact, no City Council Member ever approached McClary about the issue.
  • These comments were based solely on the fact that Plaintiff’s skin color was white and Defendants wanted a Fire Chief that was black.
  • On March 7, 2019, Defendants Richardson, Brown, and deceased City Councilperson Peter Murdock requested a special meeting.
  • Before the meeting, a Black Lives Matter banner was hung in the chambers of City Council.
  • As stated by Defendant Richardson, the special meeting was called because there have been “some things that have gone on with the City Manager and some of his appointments – or lack thereof – and we just want to review those.”
  • Amid pressure from City Council Members, McClary offered his resignation.
  • Defendants unanimously adopted a resolution approving the resignation that night.
  • The underlying motivation behind this overhaul was to ensure a black Fire Chief was hired.
  • Hours later, acting City Manager Tony DeGiusti sent Plaintiff a letter rescinding the City’s offer.
  • At this time, there still had been no inquiry into the allegation of racism in the hiring of Plaintiff.
  • Defendant City ultimately on June 8, 2019 appointed Kenneth Hobbs, an African-American, to the Chief position.

The suit contains a single count of race discrimination in violation of the 14th Amendment’s requirement for equal protection. The suit names the City of Ypsilanti, Mayor Beth Bashert, Mayor Pro-Tem Lois Richardson, and four City Councilors: Nicole Brown, Jennifer Symanns, Steve Wilcoxen, and Anthony Morgan.

Michigan Live paraphrased Kamm’s attorney, James K. Fett, as saying: white males are “often the whipping boy” of media and society, but it’s against the law to make a hiring decision based on skin pigment.

Fett was also quoted as saying:

  • The unhinged City Council members complain about racism and a lack of opportunities for minorities.
  • That’s bunk.
  • It’s simply not true, and they’re about to find out how wrong they really are.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

Updated information: 6/26/2019 – Additional details about the candidates including their scores and backgrounds has been published. More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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