by Jordan Green
The city of High Point’s human-relations director is on paid leave after complaining about racial tension and institutional racism.
Two employees of the city of High Point, including the human relations director and a second employee in the department, have been placed on paid leave after expressing concerns about racial tension and stating that they fear for their lives.
City Manager Greg Demko said after learning that Human Relations Director Al Heggins had indicated her fear in an email to the Rev. Frank Thomas he summoned her to discuss the matter on June 18.
“We wanted to figure out quickly what was going on, so we asked her if she really felt in fear for her life and she said, ‘Yes,’” Demko said. “I said, ‘We’ll escort you to your car.’ In case it was true that she really felt that way I had a plainclothes [police] detective accompany her as an extra measure of safety.”
Prompted by Heggins’ email, Demko said he also spoke with Tony Lowe, Heggins’ administrative assistant.
“He expressed pretty much identical feelings as Ms. Heggins,” Demko said, “so we felt like the best action was to put him out of the place that made him feel unsafe.”
Both Heggins and Lowe are black.
Heggins declined to comment for this story. Reginald Alston, a lawyer based in Winston-Salem whom she has retained, confirmed that Heggins has filed a second complaint against the city with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Heggins filed an earlier complaint against the city in 2014 and later reached a settlement. Alston indicated that Heggins’ current troubles are related to a “backlash” resulting from the initial complaint.
Heggins’ initial complaint against the city was prompted by a confrontation with then City Manager Strib Boynton over her use of a city-issued credit card to pay for travel by staff in the human-relations department to a conference, along with some members of the director’s family who attended as chaperones, former Councilman Foster Douglas wrote in a June 30, 2014 email to fellow council members.
The complaint, filed in February 2014, prompted a string of fraught closed-door meetings by city council. In April 2014, Boynton announced his retirement and finished out in June of that year.
“I recall it being discussed that Al Heggins was fearful of the [city] 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 said in the email. “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 though 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.”
Alston said the city attempted to shield itself by not allowing Heggins to file a police report following her altercation with Boynton.
Heggins’ recent email to the Rev. Thomas indicates that racial tension and institutional racism have continued since the resolution of her initial complaint. Alston alluded to a complaint by Heggins about the behavior of High Point police officers during a program about white supremacy that was hosted by Guilford County Schools.
“In the same county, in Greensboro you have police sit through a presentation about this material,” Alston said. “In High Point, with the authorization of the police chief, half the police department walks out. Why?”
Chief Marty Sumner said several school resource officers with the High Point Police Department “left the class,” which he said ran for three hours, to take a break and call their supervisor.
“My officers didn’t have a problem with the topic,” the chief said. “My officers had a problem with the delivery.”
He added, “There was a complaint about how that training was put on. I took that up with [Superintendent] Mo Green the next day. There were a variety of things I took up with him. I really wouldn’t comment in the paper.”
Sumner said that while Heggins was present for the program, the city’s human relations department had no direct role in bringing in the presenter.
The city has hired an outside lawyer to investigate the allegation that police officers walked out on a human relations department presentation, along with other assertions in Heggins’ email.
“Until I know the facts I don’t have a comment,” Demko said.
Alston’s comments also suggested contention between Heggins and her supervisors in the city manager’s office over programs put on by the human relations department.
“Every function she put on she notified the city manager and the chief of police,” Alston said. “How do you turn around and say she’s not doing her job? Once he’s notified and the chief of police is notified then it’s on you. Either you looked at it and agreed with it or you shirked your duty and didn’t look at it. It’s either commission or omission — that’s the way I look at it.”
Demko said he wasn’t aware of any criticism against Heggins for programs organized by her department, but said administrators stressed with Heggins that all city-sponsored programs should be advertised through the city’s public information officer, who is Jeron Hollis, so that all official notices disseminated by the city have “the same tone and context.”
Alston characterized Demko’s decision to place Heggins and Lowe on paid leave as “retaliatory,” adding that the city is suffering because the two sole employees in the human relations department are unable to deliver services.
“If you’re receiving money from the federal government and you’re not administering it, what is that?” Alston asked. “I would think that’s fraud. If you’re receiving money from the federal government for Medicaid and you’re not administering it, isn’t that fraud? Well, if people have fair housing complaints and you’re not there to investigate them, isn’t that fraud? She needs to be at work.”
Demko countered that the city is covering its responsibilities by having the public information office handle complaint intake. Last week, he said, the city fielded three fair housing complaints in Heggins and Lowe’s absence. He added that the complaints are being forwarded to an unidentified state agency for investigation.
Demko said he wants to have the investigation into Heggins’ allegations completed as quickly as possible, but doesn’t know when exactly that will be.
“Our big concern is getting a quality, unbiased investigation,” he said.