A 21-year veteran of the Fort Wayne Fire Department told the merit commission he thinks his complaint about racial comments in an engine house was not handled properly. As a result, Elbert Starks submitted a request to Chief Eric Lahey to resign from his rank of captain.
“I felt I would be bullied and mistreated as a captain,” Starks told the commission in its public meting Tuesday night.
But less than a day later, he changed his mind and asked Chief Lahey to rescind his rank resignation. Lahey denied the request to return to captain.
“It’s my general opinion that we’re dealing with adults and when someone offers their resignation it should be accepted. It’s not something to be taken lightly. The assumption is that it was thought through and that once offered, it should be accepted. To not accept a resignation when someone wants to resign can put firefighters and citizens in danger,” Lahey said.
Starks said he was under extreme emotional stress because of how Lahey handled his complaint about racial comments. In his statement to the commission, Starks said when he first reported the incidents to the department’s operations chief in January, that chief told Starks the firefighter in question was one of “Chief Lahey’s boys” and his ex-crewmate. When he had a meeting with Lahey, Starks said he felt he was the one being investigated.
“I did interviews when I was assistant chief, and this was unorthodox,” Starks said. “I was asked how I felt about the incidents and which portion of the racial comments had bothered me. At no time did [Chief Lahey] offer counseling or other avenues to address my concerns, nor did he instill confidence in me that I was being taken seriously. I told Chief Lahey I felt like I was the one under investigation and felt attacked for reporting the situation.”
Starks served as an assistant chief for the department from May 2014 to April 2015 under Lahey’s administration. Lahey appointed him to that position.
“I feel like I’m being retaliated against because I resigned from his administration. I witnessed inappropriate handling of disciplinary matters and resigned for ethical reasons when the fire chief acknowledged how he was appointed,” Starks said to the commission. He did not expand on the details of those accusations.
EXTENDED VIDEO: SEE ELBERT STARK’S ENTIRE STATEMENT TO THE MERIT COMMISSION
After getting permission from Starks and firefighter union president Jeremy Bush to discuss an ongoing investigation in a public forum, Chief Lahey told the commission there are two sides to every story.
“At no time did Elbert indicate to me that he was upset about the circumstances and the way the investigation was being conducted except for when he stopped the questioning and said he felt he was the one under investigation,” Lahey said.
Lahey explained the other firefighter involved can’t be moved from his station before a complaint is found to be valid, but as chief, he can move officers. He said Starks understood that and had agreed to be the one who was moved from the station instead of the accused firefighter.
BONUS VIDEO: WATCH CHIEF ERIC LAHEY’S RESPONSE TO THE MERIT COMMISSION
“My concern starts when the interview started. It was a charged incident and Chief Lahey should have held off on accepting that resignation until the investigation was done,” union president Jeremy Bush said in the meeting. “There were extenuating circumstances that caused Elbert to make a decision that was not in his best interest and in the best interest of the department and he realized that. He laid himself on the mercy of the court, so to speak, and asked the chief to allow for rescinding his resignation.”
“How much time should someone be allowed to offer their resignation and it not be accepted? How long should someone be allowed to change their mind and how has the authority to allow that,” Lahey questioned.
Starks and Bush argue the merit board has that authority, but attorneys disagree on how state law should be applied. The union’s attorney argues the merit commission has complete oversight on hiring, firing, promotions and demotions. But a city attorney said while the commission can rule on employment resignation letters, they would not have jurisdiction to rule on a rank resignation letter.
“We’re trying to work out who has the authority to accept resignations and who has the authority to allow someone to rescind that resignation,” Chief Lahey said.
Bush said he’d like to have the Indiana Attorney General answer those questions because local counsel has two different opinions.
Tuesday, the merit commission decided to further discuss the situation and call witnesses in a future executive session, which is closed to the public and media.
In the meantime, Starks has been on stress leave from the department, getting paid at the rate of a firefighter private, not captain.
“We just want our member to be awarded due process. Given the gravity of the situation and because it’s a charged situation and there are a lot of people involved, I think more than 24 hours is definitely required [before accepting the rank resignation],” Bush said.
Lahey said the investigation into Starks original complaint of inappropriate racial comments being said to him is now in the hands of the city legal department.
“All the firefighters were interviewed and everything was turned over to city legal,” he said.