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New Kansas City Manager Starts Job Amid Allegations Of Racism At Previous Position In Jersey City

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR.org
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Brian Platt, the incoming city manager, answered interview questions from Kansas City council members on Friday, Oct. 2.

Kansas City council members learned that Brian Platt was going to be recommended for the city manager's job after a Jersey City publication leaked the news. Since then, there have been allegations of racial discrimination and an expedited start date.

Kansas City’s new city manager Brian Platt starts his job today and already some city councilmembers are questioning his commitment to diversity following a discrimination lawsuit in Jersey City, New Jersey where he previously worked.

With the exception of Mayor Quinton Lucas, the city council voted last week to approve Platt’s contract largely along racial lines with Councilwoman Melissa Robinson expressing concern about the lawsuit in which Platt was named a defendant along with eight others.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit in September, sending it to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission because it included claims related to the state’s employment regulations.

KCUR spoke with several employees who filed the lawsuit, Jersey City councilmembers, the director of the Jersey City NAACP, and community leaders about Platt's years as city manager. We also talked with Brian Platt hours before his first day on the job in Kansas City.

“All roads go through him”

Platt quickly climbed the ladder in Jersey City, where he started as the city’s first chief innovation officer and became its business administrator, which is comparable to Kansas City's city manager position, by the time he was 33.

As business administrator, Platt oversaw the reorganization of the city's recreation department, a controversial decision with city employees after workers were told to reapply for their jobs.

“I don't think Brian was very compassionate or even, you know, considerate of the needs of the minority groups in Jersey City,” NAACP Jersey City branch president Rev. Nathaniel Legay said, pointing to how recreation employees were treated.

Platt said he’s not sure where Legay’s “comment would be coming from.” Platt said he has a “long track record collaborating with and supporting the Black community in Jersey City,” and Legay wasn’t hands-on in terms of his interactions with the city council.

The lawsuit alleges that the reorganization resulted in Black employees being “subjected to illegal transfers, title changes or demotions” while the majority of white employees were not. The 10 plaintiffs include a former city councilman who helped run a summer youth camp and an employee who helped find $80,000 allegedly stolen from the department in 2018.

Frank Gilmore is also one of the plaintiffs. Gilmore is known as Coach Woo for organizing youth sporting events and opening a community center featured on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

On Feb. 18, 2020, Gilmore learned that he was being transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services where he was assigned to help with the mobile shower unit for the homeless. The job duties included keeping inventory for the shower program and coordinating the cleaning of the showers, according to a memo shared with KCUR.

There were 40 full-time employees in the recreation department, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are “majority African Americans, college educated employees who also comprise the department's most experienced workers as well as senior staff with a combined total of more than 100 years of service in the department,” the lawsuit states.

Gilmore said Platt didn't properly portray the effect the reorganization would have on Black recreation workers to the city council.

“Either he was extremely incompetent in his capacity serving as a business administrator, or he was extremely negligent in the information he provided,” Gilmore said.

Platt defended the reorganization and said asking everyone to apply for a job in the new Department of Recreation and Youth Development ensured all employees had the chance to ask for a different position or keep their same job.

Platt said he tried to reach out to Gilmore about his concerns and offered him opportunities based on his community work, but Gilmore declined the meetings.

“We didn't want to say to some employees, 'We're going to keep you in this position because we like you, or we're going to move you because you don't like you,' and then have a different process for somebody else,” Platt said.

Daniel Ali, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the reorganization was demoralizing. Ali said Platt's position as the business administrator meant “all roads go through him.” Ali helped run two youth soccer programs and is Afro-Brazilian.

“Does Brian Platt sit down and say, ‘You know, I'm going to do this against them because he's Black, or because she's Puerto Rican or whatever?’" Ali said. “I can't say that, but I can say that the policies that were prevalent under his administration, certainly, I feel had racial components to them.”

Chris Gadsden, a former Jersey City councilman and the chair of the NAACP’s PAC, said the reorganization process was “just wrong” and affected people who were prominent community members.

“These are not just people who are complaining. These are people who are dedicated and worked for decades in Jersey City,” Gadsden said.

However, Gadsden said the mayor should ultimately be held responsible for the reorganization because Platt was just carrying out the priorities of the mayor and the city council.

“In this city, you do what the mayor asks of you to do,” Gadsden said.

Gadsden described Platt as being a business administrator who had a lot of ideas and followed through with promises he made to Black organizations.

Community involvement

A majority of Jersey City's councilmembers told KCUR that accusations of racism tied to Platt were unfair and untrue. They described him as a hard worker, who was compassionate and accessible.

The entire Jersey City council, with the exception of one member, signed an open letter to councilmembers in Kansas City supporting Platt and touting city initiatives he was involved in including a $200 million investment in a new city office complex “in the heart of the Black community,” an on-demand bus service and changing police use of force policies.

The leaders of the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement and Black Businesses Matter Jersey City described Platt as a city manager who actively reaches out to community leaders.

“He has a good relationship with Black community members,” Jersey City Council President Joyce Watterman said. “I just know that because, myself, I'm African-American, and there's certain things that different communities needed [and] he was always there.”

Councilman Yousef Saleh said Platt helped him learn the ropes when he was appointed to the council this year. Saleh is Palestinian and the first Muslim Jersey City council member.

“Brian Platt is not racist,” Saleh said. “It's ludicrous for me even to have to utter those words, but I feel compelled to do this interview because he literally has gone out of his way to help Black and Brown communities.”

Pamela Johnson, the executive director of the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement, said Platt reached out to her when he served as the city’s chief innovation officer. After Platt learned about the difficulty residents had accessing information about city meetings, he worked with Johnson to set up kiosks around housing complexes that announced community events.

Johnson also said that Platt participated in an annual unity walk to raise awareness about violence, inequality and injustice.

“He's been very instrumental to getting folks who would not normally attend the event like that because they may not think it applies to them ... but he made sure to kind of spread the word,” Johnson said.

Corrected: December 7, 2020 at 12:40 PM CST
A previous version of the story incorrectly said that Kansas City council members learned from a New Jersey publication that Brian Platt was offered the city manager's job. Offering the job entails a council vote.
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