Former Wash. fire chief to be paid $400,000+ in lawsuit over racial discrimination
Former Kennewick Fire Chief Vince Beasley says he was fired because he protested the city's discriminatory practices
Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)
KENNEWICK, Wash. — Former Kennewick Fire Chief Vince Beasley will be paid $400,000 in an agreed judgment in his favor in his lawsuit against the city.
Beasley, who sued in federal court claiming discrimination and retaliation, also will receive legal fees that could total $200,000, his attorney said.
The city previously settled two lawsuits filed by a female firefighter-paramedic who said she also faced discrimination and retaliation. It settled those suits in 2014 for $600,000, including attorney fees.
On Wednesday night, U.S. Judge Mary Dimke approved a judgment for Beasley that the city had proposed.
"I hope to use this outcome to be the voice for Kennewick's minority population," Beasley said about the pending judgment in his favor. "Minorities have been left out of opportunities for advancement long enough."
Beasley, a native of the Tri-Cities, worked for the fire department for nearly 40 years before he says he was fired in September 2019 because he was Black and he protested the city's discriminatory practices.
The city of Kennewick said in court documents that it did not discriminate against Beasley.
Its judgment offer in Beasley's favor "allowed the city to resolve the matter efficiently and to limit costs to our residents, and to keep city staff engaged in serving the community rather than defending this litigation," it said in a statement this week.
Beasley was not fired, but rather resigned, according to the city.
In September 2019 the city put out a statement saying that City Manager Marie Mosley had been working with Beasley for an extended period of time on performance and leadership concerns. A retirement option was under discussion but not agreed upon when Beasley effectively resigned, it said.
At the time, Beasley told the Herald he refused the separation agreement and was placed on administrative leave and then was ousted.
Fire chief's review
Mosley gave white subordinates repeated chances to improve and lengthy tenures, but quickly terminated the only minority head after a single negative performance review that was inaccurate and prejudiced, the lawsuit claimed.
Beasley told the Tri-City Herald he was promoted to fire chief with a city goal of changing the culture of a low-performing department. Goals included increasing discipline of firefighters and improving the quality of service from the fire department.
It was a difficult task but Mosley stood behind him for three years, he said.
"I was holding people accountable for the decisions they were making," he said.
But the fourth year Mosley faced pressure from firefighters and the council and community pressure to find a scapegoat after four homes were lost in the Bofer Canyon fire in an upscale area of Kennewick in August 2018, Beasley said.
Beasley said he was out of state when the fire started and the incident was largely over before he could get back to town.
He had an impeccable record, but began being accused of things that never occurred, and received a negative annual review, he said.
Beasley was asking in the lawsuit for a jury trial and seeking lost pay, bonuses and benefits; damages for emotional harm and punitive damages.
He filed the lawsuit to restore the Kennewick city workplace to a meritocracy where employees are judged by the quality of their work, talent and effort, not the color of their skin or social class, he told the Tri-City Herald in January.
During the decades he was employed by the city of Kennewick he had worked to end discrimination, retaliation and lack of inclusiveness, he said.
As he moved up the ranks, he had the authority to speak up more frequently and with a stronger voice, he said.
"When I raised my right hand and swore to be the fire chief of the city of Kennewick, that meant every citizen within the city of Kennewick," he said. "However, I received push back within the organization when I would try to defend those that didn't have a voice."
Beasley's attorney said that Kennewick City Manager Marie Mosley illegally held Beasley to a higher standard than white employees.
"She required her one Black employee to work twice as hard and be twice as good, to get half as far," said Beasley's attorney Beth Bloom of Seattle in the lawsuit.
Beasley met more than 90% of the city's defined performance goals from 2016 until 2019, which was above numbers that Mosley called "exceptional," according to the U.S. District Court lawsuit.
The city said in court documents that plaintiff had met "pay for performance goals" from 2016-18, but that the goals were not the sole indicator of employee performance and that competency as a leader are not necessarily a part of the performance evaluation.
As fire chief he improved the city's firefighting capabilities, according to an independent agency rating, which the city touted in a news release three months before he was fired, according to the lawsuit.
The Washington State Survey & Rating Bureau gave the city a Community Protection Class Rating of four under Beasley's predecessor and he improved it to a three, according to the lawsuit. In 2019 just five cities in Washington state were rated better.
That also was not a sole indication of his performance, the city said in a court document.
Beasley also received numerous awards and grants, including the community's Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award given by Columbia Basin College.
Congrats to #Kennewick Fire Chief Vince Beasley for accepting the #MLK Spirit Award! He's the first black firefighter in the city's history. pic.twitter.com/bUtZDqtAkf— Kierra Elfalan (@KierraElfalanTV) January 16, 2017
In the final months before Beasley was fired, Mosley began giving him new, excessive and unreasonable work assignments, according to the lawsuit.
Beasley believes Mosley was influenced by discriminatory feedback based on racial double standards from senior city employees and leaders. Members of the Kennewick Fire Department union also gave discriminatory feedback, according to the lawsuit.
Beasley worried that he was being set up for failure, but worked longer and harder to meet the demands, the lawsuit said.
Only Black firefighter
"It is unsurprising that City Manager Mosley discriminated and retaliated against Chief Beasley given that a discriminatory culture has consistently pervaded the city government's senior leadership and fire department," the lawsuit said.
The other seven city department heads were white, according to the lawsuit and all seven members of the city council while Beasley was chief were white men.
Beasley is the only Black firefighter hired in Kennewick in more than 100 years, according to the lawsuit. He faced a discriminatory culture in city government, they said.
In one example when he shook hands with another firefighter, that firefighter looked at his hands and joked, "It doesn't rub off," referring to Beasley's skin color.
Other Kennewick firefighters, including a battalion chief, discussed "killing" minorities to improve local culture, the lawsuit said.
"Chief Beasley observed that he had to walk a tightrope that white employees did not," the lawsuit said. "If he was quiet, Mosley would tell him to speak up and be assertive. Then, when he would speak up, Mosley would criticize him for doing so."
According to the lawsuit, this happened frequently to Beasley when he was in meetings, but white employees were permitted to speak freely.
Beasley told the Tri-City Herald he had a long and successful career and hopes the lawsuit will help give other minorities and also women chances to advance in their careers.
He also hopes that it prompts city leaders to listen without retaliation to those who have had different life experiences.
(c)2022 Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)