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Sherman George sues to regain his job as city's fire chief

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 8, 2009 - Former St. Louis Fire Chief Sherman George says it's a coincidence that he sued Mayor Francis Slay on the day that Slay was elected to a third term in office.

The suit filed Tuesday in St. Louis Circuit Court argues that race was the reason George was demoted in 2007. The suit seeks George's reinstatement as chief, unspecified monetary damages and an improvement in the racial environment at the Fire Department.

George's attorney, Thomas Blumenthal, says the timing of the lawsuit stemmed from the way discrimination cases move through the courts. George first had to appeal his demotion to the city civil service agency. The next step was to appeal to the Missouri Human Rights Commission. Only after the commission reviewed the case, and took no action, could a lawsuit be filed. Blumenthal said Tuesday happened to be the first day George could legally file his lawsuit.

The dispute between the mayor and the former fire chief stems from a Fire Department employment exam that George had argued was biased against minority workers. The city ignored George's recommendation that the exam not be used. Slay said the courts had not objected to the exam, and that he eventually ordered George to promote firefighters on the basis of scores from the test. George refused, was demoted, and he retired in October 2007.

The mayor has denied that race played a role in his decision. The mayor's spokesperson, Ed Rhode, likened the situation to an employment dispute in which a subordinate refuses to carry out his boss' order.

But some community leaders take issue with the analogy and say the mayor's office has ignored the way this issue has widened the racial divide. Whether a worker should be required to carry out an order that he or she feels is unjust and whether the fire chief should have sole authority over issues related to promotions are among questions raised by Slay critics, such as the Rev. Douglas Parham, who has been a strong supporter of George.

"He was fired unfairly," the minister says. "But what this issue is really about is the disregard and disrespect for the African-American community. That's why people have taken up the cause of Chief George."

The support extends beyond the community. Other respected religious leaders, such as Rabbi Susan Talve, also have raised questions. Although Rabbi Talve says she's not blaming anybody, she describes George as a person of "honesty and integrity that a lot of good people hated to see take the fall. People appreciate it when someone stands up for principle."

The thing that makes her saddest now, she says, is that St. Louis missed an opportunity to address the "deep racial divide" that this issue represents and will continue to represent "if we don't figure out how to address it."

Beyond church leaders are activists such as Percy Green who says race entered the picture when "the mayor imposed his will to satisfy a predominantly white fire fighter's union" that wanted George to promote from the disputed test.

"That's what was strictly unfair," Green said.

Although George's suit implied racial tension in the Fire Department, the new chief, Dennis M. Jenkerson, denied there are serious problems.

"I don't think the Fire Department is racially divided when it comes to doing our job," Jenkerson says. He added that he had lots of respect for George in spite of the former chief's dispute with the mayor. Likewise, George refused to say anything critical of Jenkerson, preferring to keep the issue focused on the lawsuit.

"I was illegally terminated," George says. "I want my job back. That's Number 1."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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