Former Mich. fire chief sues, alleges rejecting fatal blaze cover-up led to ouster
Raymond Barton says his rights were violated, and his attorneys say he was at odds with Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley
By Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
FLINT, Mich. — Flint's former fire chief is suing the city and its mayor, alleging he was terminated last year after refusing to lie about a fatal house fire and how his crewmembers responded.
Ousting Raymond Barton, a lifelong resident who had led the city Fire Department since 2016, "violated his federal rights, including his free-speech rights under the First Amendment, and the public policy of Michigan," the chief's attorneys said in the lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court.
The litigation focuses on the fallout from the two-alarm blaze reported May 28 on Pulaski.
Two of the firefighters who responded initially claimed to have thoroughly searched the house for residents, including using infrared equipment and thermal imaging, but found no one trapped, according to the suit.
However, about seven minutes later, a second set of firefighters found two brothers, ages 12 and 9, in an upstairs bedroom, "visible to the naked eye," the document stated.
The boys were identified as Zy'Aire and LaMar Mitchell, both African American.
State fire investigators determined electrical wiring in the residence caused the blaze, city officials said.
Barton believed the two firefighters had lied and started investigating, his lawyers said.
"They initially refused to give complete reports about their actions at the fire; and when they did finally submit their reports, Chief Barton concluded that they were false," according to the lawsuit. "Chief Barton asked the two firefighters to correct their reports to include information about how they had made mistakes in looking for the two children, but they informed Chief Barton that they were unwilling to correct the factual misrepresentations in their official reports."
Barton recommended the two be suspended without pay pending a final investigation then discharged when it ended. But Mayor Sheldon Neeley "wanted Chief Barton to alter official reports to disguise the firefighters' misconduct, suspend the firefighters with pay, and drop his recommendation that they be discharged," the attorneys wrote. "Mayor Neeley informed Chief Barton that he was up for re-election and that his wife was up for election for state representative and that both of them needed the support of the firefighters' union."
Though Barton refused, saying he wouldn't lie if called to make statements or answer questions under oath in litigation brought by the family of the fire victims, Neeley eventually "unilaterally and surreptitiously changed the official recommendation" from the chief, then demanded a public announcement supporting it, according to the lawsuit.
"Chief Barton was also reluctant to make public statements that would paper over the obvious racial dynamic of the controversy," his legal team said, and during a City Council meeting where the victims' relatives sought answers, Barton explained that he had not changed his recommendation and wanted to discharge the firefighters.
"Given that the city had a large African-American population and given the history of racism by city officials, Chief Barton believed that public confidence in the Fire Department would be undermined if city officials failed to acknowledge readily apparent racial issues."
After winning reelection in November, the mayor "called Chief Barton into his office and told Chief Barton to resign as fire chief or be fired because Chief Barton had refused to serve Mayor Neeley's personal interests by participating in the cover-up of the firefighters' misconduct," the court filing stated. "Chief Barton refused to resign, telling Mayor Neeley that he had done nothing wrong. Neeley then fired Barton because Chief Barton had been unwilling to make false statements to the public about what he had actually recommended regarding (the firefighters) and about the substance and circumstances of the Fire Department's investigation."
Neeley did not respond to a request for comment Monday night.
Caitie O'Neill, a city representative, told The Detroit News: "The city of Flint has not yet been served with a lawsuit, and has no comment at this time."
Barton's suit alleges deprivation of federal rights under color of state law; wrongful discharge in violation of Michigan's public policy; and tortious interference with contract.
It seeks as much as $10 million and a jury trial.
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