Brookline firefighter who complained of racist remark is fired
BROOKLINE — A Brookline firefighter who accused a superior officer of making a racially disparaging remark in 2010 was fired Wednesday by town selectmen following years of public turmoil over the handling of his complaint.
Gerald Alston, who is African-American, sued the town in Norfolk Superior Court in June 2013 over a racial slur that he said was left on his voicemail by a superior officer. The town placed Alston on administrative leave that December after officials said he made threatening remarks on the job.
A statement from the town Wednesday said Alston’s employment was terminated “for just cause” based on his “incapacity to perform the essential functions of his firefighting position.”
In a 17-minute speech to the board, however, Alston argued he did nothing wrong and that he was defending his rights. He compared his case to the treatment of African-Americans nationwide and told selectmen they have to “stand up for something at some point.”
“I came to you guys in confidence, expecting, because I trusted your position, to do what was right and to see what he did was wrong,” Alston told selectmen. “You guys didn’t pay attention to nothing. Nothing.”
In May 2010, Alston said then-Lieutenant Paul Pender left him a voicemail in which Pender called Alston a racial slur and an expletive.
The town’s investigation found that Pender was directing his comments toward a driver on the road at the time he was leaving the voice message, according to court documents.
Pender was suspended without pay for two shifts for violating the department’s code of conduct. He is now a deputy fire chief in Brookline.
Alston hasn’t worked at the fire department since December 2013, when he was placed on paid leave after town officials said he made threatening comments. Alston said he faced workplace hostility following his complaint and found a written message that said “leave.”
The Fire Department directed all calls for comment Wednesday to the town’s attorney.
Alston’s suit in Norfolk Superior Court was dismissed in 2014. Last December, he filed a complaint in US District Court in Boston alleging town officials had violated his civil rights.
The federal suit was dismissed last week after a magistrate judge criticized the wording of Alston’s complaint, but Alston will be allowed to refile it, according to court papers. The suit also included two Brookline police officers, a town sanitation worker, and several residents who all say they were discriminated against by the town.
On Wednesday, town administrator Mel Kleckner provided a statement saying the town “cares about Mr. Alston” but that the firing was necessary.
“Mr. Alston’s and his attorney’s unwillingness to work with the town has made it clear at this juncture that there is nothing further the town can do to facilitate Mr. Alston’s return to work as a firefighter,” the statement read.
The statement said selectmen based their unanimous vote on the recommendations of a hearing officer who reported that Alston showed risk factors for workplace violence.
For Alston to return to duty, the town said it required that he receive treatment from a psychiatrist and therapist, undergo two years of random drug screenings, and that the sides “work together to explore workplace accommodations.”
According to the town, the hearing officer said Alston did not comply with the recommended conditions.
About 50 people attended the selectmen’s meeting Wednesday, which was kept public at Alston’s request.
After the vote, resident Arthur Conquest called on audience members to replace the selectmen at the ballot box and fight what he said was a racist system in town.
“Nobody ran against them in the last election, and until you organize and oust them, they don’t care,” Conquest said.
Shifra Freewoman excoriated selectmen for their decision to fire Alston.
“I think it’s outrageous you fired a man who spoke out against discrimination he faced, and the man who did this to him is promoted,” Freewoman said.
Alston’s attorney, Brooks Ames, said selectmen inappropriately moved Alston from paid to unpaid leave earlier this year. Ames said the board made the decision to do so during a closed-door meeting, and he has filed an Open Meeting Law complaint with the attorney general’s office.
In an interview, Alston said his experience over the past few years has been emotional and difficult. “But if anybody believes in something as much as I believe in what’s going on, they’re not going to back down,” he said. “Because if you do, it repeats itself.”