A Brookline firefighter whose career has been in limbo since a 2010 incident involving a supervisor’s alleged use of a racial slur asked selectmen last week to launch an outside investigation of his case and to “review the racial climate” in the Fire Department.
Firefighter Gerald Alston, who contends he has been ostracized by other members of the department since coming forward with his complaints, presented a letter detailing his request at the board’s meeting Tuesday night.
“I believe that town counsel’s office and the Human Resources Office are attempting to scapegoat me for their failure to ensure a safe, nonretaliatory environment in the Fire Department,” his letter states.
Alston filed a lawsuit last year in Norfolk Superior Court saying that in late May 2010, while he was home recovering from a work-related injury, then Lieutenant Paul R. Pender left him a phone message with the slur and an expletive.
Alston, who is African-American, complained to his superior officers and human resources, and the town’s investigation found that Pender was not directing his comments toward Alston, but toward a driver on the road at the time Pender was leaving the voice message, according to the lawsuit.
Pender was suspended without pay for a few days for violating the department’s code of conduct, according to the lawsuit; he was later promoted to the rank of captain.
“When this regrettable incident occurred more than four years ago, I expressed my sincere remorse and regret, and I continue to regret any pain that was caused,” Pender said in a statement provided Friday by Brookline’s town counsel, Joslin Murphy. “I also sincerely hope that I, my family, and my fellow firefighters, including Mr. Alston, can move on from this place and work together respectfully and harmoniously as proud Brookline firefighters.”
Murphy said in an e-mail that the fire chief is committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all of the firefighters in his department. “The town has adopted a robust policy against discrimination in employment, which is strictly followed on behalf of all town employees,” she wrote.
While Murphy said she could not discuss specific personnel issues, “Mr. Alston’s civil suit, which was filed and pursued on his behalf by his attorney, was dismissed by the Norfolk Superior Court in July, and is a matter of public record.”
The Norfolk Superior Court clerk’s office confirmed that the lawsuit was dismissed for administrative reasons, but said Alston was free to refile it.
Alston doesn’t want to sue, however, said his new lawyer, Brooks Ames. “He has asked the town to follow policy regarding matters of discrimination and workplace safety,” Ames said. “But when this happened, the town had no formal policy in place and didn’t have one until after the fact.”
Murphy said the Board of Selectmen adopted the policy in 2011. “Prior to its adoption, complaints of discrimination were investigated in accordance with the procedures set forth in the town’s policy against sexual harassment,” she wrote.
In an interview last week, Alston said he was placed on administrative leave last December after he made a comment in frustration to a co-worker upon discovering that someone had scribbled the word “Leave” on a chair where his jacket was draped.
After about six months of paid administrative leave, Alston said, he was placed on sick leave in May.
His sick leave ran out in October, he said. “I’ve lost everything. I have no income coming in. I’m diabetic. I need medication for that condition. My family has fallen apart,” he said. “In the meantime, the person who used a racial slur with me has been promoted and treated like a victim.”
Even if Pender did not direct the remark at him, Alston said, “He shouldn’t have said it.”
Alston’s letter asks selectmen to reverse nearly a dozen determinations he said were made by the human resources director and the Fire Department relating to his complaints and employment. It also requests that he be placed on paid administrative leave pending his appeal.
Regarding Alston’s requests, town counsel Murphy wrote that her office is in the process of responding to his letter.