Fired Macomb County official files whistleblower suit

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published October 15, 2019

File photo by Deb Jacques

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MACOMB COUNTY — A former high-ranking Macomb County official has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the executive and deputy executive of Macomb County.

Rhonda Powell, formerly the head of Macomb County Health and Community Services, was terminated Sept. 5. It is confirmed that she was notified of her termination by Macomb County Deputy Executive John Paul Rea, who is listed in the lawsuit along with Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

At the time of her dismissal, she was the highest-ranking African American employee in the county’s history. Powell, who was appointed to her former position by Hackel, alleges she was discharged “for addressing numerous African American employee discrimination complaints.”

According to her attorney, Nabih Ayad, Powell reportedly discovered numerous complaints brought forward by African American county employees. Powell, when reportedly attempting to address those complaints, “was met with resistance at every turn.”

Ayad said Oct. 9 that Powell “made numerous complaints to human resources and the Deputy Executive (Rea), and they were unanswered.” He said that under the Michigan Whistleblower Act, anyone who claims discrimination, or is on the verge of making a claim and endures retaliation, is subject to the act.

The attorney alleged that “months went by” and complaints remained ignored. That’s when he said Powell reached out to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, which sent her correspondence Sept. 4 — one day prior to being discharged.

“We believe that (county officials have) been monitoring her emails and the conversations she’s been having with staff,” Ayad said.

Powell is seeking approximately $5 million in damages. Both Ayad and Macomb County Corporation Counsel John Schapka confirmed that Powell was offered a severance package upon termination that would have concluded at the end of this calendar year, and she declined.

Schapka, in an Oct. 8 statement released on behalf of the county officials, stated that Powell’s termination “had nothing to do with race or being a whistleblower.”

“It was a direct result of a series of serious administrative failures which resulted in a loss of trust and confidence in her ability to responsibly supervise the County’s Health and Community Services Division,” the statement read.

Four “examples” were included in that statement, including multiple violations of the county’s ordinances/policies and state law; inappropriate use of county facilities; misappropriation of county funds; and compromising the security of county facilities.

“The Macomb Charter provides that Executive appointees serve at will, at the pleasure of the Executive, and therefore can be removed at any time, with or without cause,” the statement continued. “Ms. Powell knew that when she accepted the appointment.”

Ayad, who was retained as counsel Sept. 12, said the “administrative failures” mentioned by the county have nothing to do with ignoring complaints related to county staffers. Contacting the Department of Civil Rights was her “ultimate act,” he stated.

“There’s really no relation to that,” Ayad said. “Whether they strategically felt it was better for their case, that’s up to them. But looking to the facts, one doesn’t tie to the other. We feel this is totally separate.”

Powell filed a complaint through Macomb County Circuit Court, as well as a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ayad said Circuit Court Judge Kathryn Viviano has been assigned to oversee the matter, although no timetable exists for future court dates.

Schapka said Oct. 9 that the county is waiting for the lawsuit to officially be served, with normal process of procedure to be adhered. Until then, divulging any more details in relation to Powell’s termination will likely occur in a court setting.

“Like any strategy, you don’t show your cards. … I would guarantee that the allegations will be met with strict and strident denials,” Schapka said.

Ayad ascertains that Powell’s feet “were put to the fire” at the detriment of staff, county residents and the region as a whole.

“This is very much concerning if you think (that) the highest-ranking African American (employee) has been discharged. What does that to say to the lower hierarchy employees working for Macomb County?” Ayad said. “It’s concerning. It’s disappointing that they can’t see the importance of diversity and inclusion and understanding. Unfortunately, now we’re in litigation and this is not going to be good for the County Executive’s Office and for Macomb County.”

In June 2014, Powell was named director of the Macomb County Community Services Agency. Previously, she operated as deputy director of the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging. Prior to that, Hackel appointed her director of Macomb County’s Department of Senior Citizen Services, now known as the Office of Senior Services, under the umbrella of Macomb Community Action.

She is also one of the founders of OneMacomb, which promotes multiculturalism and inclusion through art and community affairs.

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