Former Ga. EMS chief accuses fire chief of discrimination

The former EMS chief alleges he was subjected to hostility and mistreatment because is gay


Susan McCord
The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta's former EMS chief says he endured two years of inequality, discrimination and hostility because he is gay, in a new complaint lodged against Fire Chief Chris James.

James R. Kelly said he'd been reluctant to leave a job with the Department of Defense but was asked, during an interview for a part-time city paramedic position, to apply for EMS coordinator, according to a letter he sent commissioners Tuesday.

Augusta's former EMS chief has accused the city's fire chief of discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Photo/Augusta, Georgia)
Augusta's former EMS chief has accused the city's fire chief of discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Photo/Augusta, Georgia)

The letter arrives as commissioners await findings this week from a "needs assessment" the city undertook after a litany of complaints from Augusta Professional Firefighters Local 3357.

Kelly's letter presents an account of a deputy chief being denied access to meetings, refused an office, faced with opposition for simple requests and being humiliated by James and former fire department attorney Jody Smitherman.

His former department supervisor, Edward Hawthorne, earlier informed Kelly that James would treat him differently because "if he knew of your lifestyle, he would have never hired you," the letter said.

Kelly said he took a few days off when his father died in April 2019 but was called in to sign his new job description and working title, which did not include a pay increase. On the day of his father's funeral, Kelly said, he went to fire administration in civilian clothes to sign the documents.

"Attorney Smitherman pointed out to the fire chief that I had some hair on my chin, that clearly I did not shave before coming," Kelly wrote. As a result, James could not "promote" him that day, he said.

When he returned to work, Kelly said, he received a letter of warning for not shaving. Firefighters are required to shave to ensure breathing masks fit properly.

After the shaving episode, Kelly said, he spent a year in a cubicle waiting for a deputy chief to vacate an office.

Smitherman, James' designated fire department attorney, resigned in the spring but continues to consult for the department.

Asked to respond to all of the allegations, James said Kelly's facts were all wrong.

"I absolutely disagree with James Kelly's description of the events. The claims James Kelly made that he was subjected to a hostile work environment and discrimination are unfounded," James said.

Kelly did not return messages seeking comment.

Then earning $61,628 due to cost-of-living adjustments, Kelly says in his letter that he asked James for a raise in July. "You came in at the top right off the street," James said, according to Kelly.

James went on to say that Kelly should obtain four firefighter certifications – for aircraft, hazardous materials, search-and-rescue and fire technician – "then in about 10 years or so, I can introduce (you) to the people in the community to start getting your face known," according to Kelly.

The Augusta Commission added sexual orientation and gender identity to the city's list of discrimination protections in June 2018.

Several commissioners said they were shocked by the allegations and support the city investigating the claims.

"That's just horrific," Commissioner John Clarke said. "There are some shocking allegations there that I certainly think would warrant an investigation or an inquiry. Anybody on God's green earth has a right to be who they are."

Clarke said he was surprised to hear allegations that James would target certain groups.

"I kind of thought the mistreatment was unbiased, across the board," he said.

"I don't understand the fire chief, but if what that boy said is true, it's devastating," Commissioner Marion Williams said.

Williams said the fire chief should have informed the city law department about the matter.

"My problem is why is Jody still popping in," he said. "If there was something the chief needs, he needed to work with the lawyer's office. The administrator, the chief or the attorney should have brought this to us."

Commissioner Brandon Garrett said the law department is now aware of the allegations, which he said warrant an investigation.

"There are some pretty heinous accusations in there, and in today's day and age, I don't see how those accusations can be made and not be investigated," he said.

In his letter, Kelly said that on a $58,000 salary he developed and taught EMS training programs, maintaining an 85% passing rate, and started a new advanced in-house EMT program.

The new training would save city firefighters an $1,800 fee, but Kelly said he was told not to implement it because firefighters "would be using it at their part-time jobs." Many Augusta firefighters work part-time for Gold Cross or other EMS providers.

On Aug. 28, the day Kelly gave two weeks' notice of his resignation, he said that James increased the salary of his EMS sergeants and a lieutenant to more than Kelly made.

Kelly said he was asked not to return to the office to get his things and to provide his mailing address so James and Smitherman could send him a letter stating his resignation would be effective immediately.

Kelly, in concluding the letter, said the actions were "unprofessional and violated many legal grounds," indicating the potential for litigation.

"For the two years I was there working hard and making positive moves for the department there was no issues," he said, "though I was being treated unjust and discriminated (against) on many grounds because of my lifestyle choice."

The union repeated its call for James' resignation in a statement.

"We continue to call for Chief James to resign or be fired by the commissioners. The discrimination and hostile working environment created by Chief James should not and cannot go unnoticed," it said.

Most recently, Kelly said he disagreed with James' demand to put firefighters, who are trained as first responders, on ambulances, saying "the best position is for those ambulances to be manned and supervised by strictly EMS personnel and not fire personnel."

Instituting an in-house EMS department has been a focus for James since his 2012 appointment. Over the past few years, the department has purchased approximately three ambulances and attempted to fill paramedic slots, although the city continues to pay Gold Cross a subsidy to cover unreimbursed EMS charges.

The union's concerns included severe staffing shortages, extensive mandatory overtime, poor COVID-19 procedures as well as a claim that James disregarded his own promotion policies to put Kelly over the EMS program in 2018.

Kelly, who is not a union member, is a former employee of Gold Cross EMS, the state-designated city EMS provider. He said he was speaking out as a "30-year-old African American male."

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©2020 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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