Former High Point Human Relations Director Al Heggins is suing the city of High Point for civil rights violations. Heggins was fired from the city in October 2015. Audio recordings obtained by Triad City Beat suggest city officials gave a chilly reception to Heggins’ declaration that she was in fear for her life because of racial tensions in the city. As Heggins’ disciplinary process progressed, her rapport with Human Resources Director Angela Kirkwood deteriorated into heated disagreement, leading up to her termination.
Human Resources Director Angela Kirkwood thanked Human Relations Director Al Heggins for joining her and City Manager Greg Demko for a meeting at around 4:45 p.m. that Thursday, June 18, 2015.
Kirkwood immediate brought up an email sent by Heggins to the Rev. Frank Thomas, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, that had been CC-ed to Kirkwood and Demko, among others at 8:30 that morning.
Heggins had stated that she was in fear for her life and that of Tony Lowe, her sole employee in the human relations department.
In March of that year, Heggins and Lowe had facilitated a series of police-community relations forums at the request of the High Point Human Relations Commission, in part to address concerns about the police-involved deaths of black men, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY. Not everyone reacted positively to the forums, with Mayor Pro Tem Jim Davis complaining during an April 1 city council retreat that the human relations department “promoted racial divisiveness” and that “it should not be allowed to continue,” according to minutes from the meeting.
Heggins received a verbal warning for the use of the term “white supremacy” on a flier, which Deputy City Manager Randy McCaslin told her was offensive to council members and the public. In April, police Chief Marty Sumner instructed his officers to stop attending the Black and Blue forums.
The pushback against Heggins’ department from Davis and other city council members came on top of a fraught relationship between the human relations director and her former boss, City Manager Strib Boynton. Heggins had alleged in a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Boynton assaulted her, and then withdrew the complaint when the matter was resolved. Boynton announced his retirement within a month of Heggins withdrawing her complaint. At the time Heggins said the complaint was resolved to both her and Boynton’s satisfaction.
In a June 2014 email to fellow council members, then-Councilman Foster Douglas indicated that the incident between Heggins and Boynton arose from the city manager confronting the human relations director about her use of a city-issued credit card to pay expenses for human relations staff to attend a conference that included some members of her family as chaperones.
“I recall it being discussed that Al Heggins was fearful of the manager after she had to go to the emergency room of an apparent panic attack that was alleged to be caused by the manager,” Douglas wrote. “So city council met to decide how to move forward. I suggested that the city manager be put on administrative leave until the investigation was complete since he is the one presumed to be the aggressor, and the one the grievance is filed against. That was met with strong opposition by some on council, even with Ms. Heggins letting the attorneys know, and the attorneys informing council in advance that she was basically afraid of this man. So much so that after the incident her assistant had to escort her every time she left her office in fear of running into the city manager. The decision by city council in my opinion to not put the manager on administrative leave created a huge ignored liability for the city. Again, no moral courage to do what’s right to protect the city.”
When Greg Demko, the new city manager, put in his first day on the job in January 2015, he inherited in Heggins an employee with a difficult history with his predecessor and a city council that had already grappled in closed session with vexing concerns raised by her.
On June 16, 2015, the Rev. Thomas and other African-American pastors who are members of the Ministers Conference of High Point & Vicinity, stopped by City Hall to take Heggins and Lowe to lunch. But first they visited McCaslin on the third floor, and Thomas expressed concern that Heggins did not feel safe in City Hall.
The next day, Dylann Roof opened fire on a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC and killed five parishioners.
With the Charleston massacre as a backdrop in the national news, Heggins sat down the following day and outlined her fears in an email to the pastors, Demko, McCaslin and Kirkwood, along with City Attorney JoAnne Carlyle and members of city council. The email is worth quoting at length for its specific detail and context.
“As a nation, we are living in a climate of intense racial tensions,” Heggins wrote. “And there are racial tensions in this community. These tensions may not have risen to the level of what we have seen in other communities, but the racial tensions and institutional racism is real.
“Human relations is charged by ordinance to cover many areas, and race is one of those areas.
“Therefore, when working proactively and in some instances, reactively, I’ve been systematically attacked as an individual, and the department has been publicly maligned, along with my name.
“Please understand that black people are being killed. I am a black woman. Mr. Lowe is a black man. We are charged with specific duties. And when the duties align with race, this is what has happened:
“A councilman brings me literature about the history of the Confederacy, bearing a picture of the Confederate flag.
“The mayor pro tem refers to me and the department as being left to fester after the previous manager was told to do something about me.
“I call to inform the police chief that with the exception of three of his [school resource officers], the rest of his officers walk out of an anti-racism training when Guilford County Sheriff’s deputies and Greensboro police remain. The display is so unprofessional HPPD is asked not to return for the second day of the training. The chief tells me he doesn’t trust me as I recount what happened, as I was a guest trainer and witnessed the behavior. I’m never provided a reason as to why.
“I report being assaulted, and a police report is not taken.
“I report my assault to the assistant manager, the current deputy manager, and I am advised to let it go.
“As a department we are barred from participating in a Stand Against Racism event in partnership with the YWCA, based on the recommendation of the public information officer. My recommendations are ignored.
“I work in an environment in which the white people in power act like this towards me whenever it comes to my race? And I am not supposed to feel legitimately afraid for myself and my staff?
“I work for a city manager who has me written up because I ‘allowed’ the black community members to ‘bring in’ a speaker that included aspects of white supremacy in her presentation.
“Human relations staff is subjected to this kind of an environment, while specific elected officials send my emails to predominantly white organizations and the High Point Enterprise? Why?
“I am afraid. Tell me why I should not be legitimately afraid.”
When Heggins met City Manager Demko and Human Resources Director Kirkwood on the third floor of City Hall close to the end of the work day on June 18, 2015, Kirkwood immediately informed Heggins that the city was placing her on paid administrative leave to allow for an investigation into the issue of her being in fear for her life, according to an audio recording of the conversation obtained by Triad City Beat.
Heggins agreed, and reminded Kirkwood and Demko that the specific reasons for her fear were itemized in her email. She indicated she felt distressed that Demko had not responded to her emails.
“I have emailed you numerous times,” Heggins told Demko. “You don’t respond to my emails, Greg. How is that not hostile? Explain that to me.”
Demko and Kirkwood attempted to reassure Heggins that there was nothing out of the ordinary about Demko’s lack of response, explaining that she reported directly to Deputy Manager Randy McCaslin.
Concerned that the city would conduct an inadequate investigation, Heggins pressed Kirkwood and Demko to address one specific aspect of her bill of particulars: the remarks made by Mayor Pro Tem Jim Davis and Councilman Jason Ewing during the April 1 retreat.
“If I have city council members out here that are trying to incite community members against me and I’m reading all this awful stuff in the newspaper and then the city manager and the deputy manager allow city council to discuss me and the human relations department at a retreat about race in a way that is not productive, that is not fair, how does that help me to feel safe?” Heggins asked.
Demko simply responded: “Angela needs to investigate that.”
About 14 minutes into the meeting, Demko offered to have a police officer escort Heggins to her car, but later Heggins said, “I don’t need an escort I’m going to go straight to my office and get my things.”
An audio recording of Kirkwood and police Officer Brandon Crawford accompanying the human relations director to her office to retrieve her belongings makes it clear that Heggins felt placed in an adversarial relationship with city officials as opposed to having her safety protected.
“I also said I didn’t need an escort,” Heggins told Kirkwood. “So I’m not understanding why I’m coming downstairs, being followed by a police officer when I’ve said I don’t need an escort.”
The city ended up delegating the investigation to Patricia Holland, a certified mediator and lawyer based in Raleigh. A summary of the report concluded that Holland “was unable to sustain that there have been any credible threats to the lives of Ms. Heggins and Mr. Lowe.”
The summary focused on Heggins’ allegation of assault against former City Manager Strib Boynton, concluding, “Any reference to an alleged ‘assault’ upon Ms. Heggins stemmed from an incident that she reported in February of 2014 concerning a former city employee. This matter had been appropriately addressed by the city, and the city and Heggins resolved this matter to the satisfaction of both parties in early 2014. At the time Ms. Heggins contacted the police department to relay allegations about the former employee’s conduct, police Chief [Marty] Sumner took the information reported by Ms. Heggins to the High Point Police Department attorney and the District Attorney’s office and was advised that based on what was reported no assault was alleged. Chief Sumner therefore did not complete a police report.”
Holland recommended that Heggins and Lowe return to work.
As previously reported in Triad City Beat, shortly after returning to work, Heggins met with McCaslin and Kirkwood to go over current and past work plans. An audio recording of the conversation reflects that McCaslin had little understanding of the programs, operations and activities carried out by the human relations department. McCaslin acknowledged that he hadn’t looked at previous emails from Heggins detailing her activities because “at the time it wasn’t a hot-button issue for me.”
In early September, McCaslin placed Heggins on a six-day suspension, based on a finding that she “acted inappropriately and rudely toward” Mayor Pro Tem Jim Davis, that she “made inappropriate and derogatory statements regarding City Manager Greg Demko” during an August human relations commission meeting, and that her work plan displayed “poor job performance and poor judgment.”
Soon after returning to work, Heggins met with Kirkwood in effort to seek clarification on how to file a grievance against the city. Near the end of the meeting, Heggins confronted Kirkwood on going along with her suspension, when as Heggins contended, Kirkwood knew that her performance on the work plan was consistent with what McCaslin had requested.
Kirkwood responded that she didn’t have time to go “back and forth” with Heggins, adding, “I have a lot of stuff to get done today.”
That’s where it got ugly.
“Even though you clearly know that it’s a lie,” Heggins said. “But okay, Angela. If that’s your work ethic, that’s your work ethic.”
Kirkwood responded levelly: “In terms of my work ethic, do not sit here and disrespect me, Al.”
The episode, which McCaslin characterized as “unprofessional and discourteous behavior,” was the final straw, leading to Heggins’ termination on Oct. 2.
In her lawsuit filed against the city last month, Heggins alleges that the city subjected her, as an African-American female, “to discrimination based on her race by subjecting her to discriminatory and disparate treatment” and “created a racially hostile work environment.”
McCaslin told Triad City Beat the lawsuit is “without merit.” He added, “We’ll defend it vigorously.”