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ONME News Special Report - Fresno: Yvonne Spence firing reveals more about the culture of City Hall

More research finds that other African Americans working for City Hall in Fresno, CA endure racial attacks often from other employees without recourse

By Julia Dudley Najieb

In this two-hour, ONME News Special Report - Fresno, an investigative analysis by Julia Dudley Najieb, reveals possible missteps according to the City of Fresno's own protocols and procedures regarding employee suspension and removals; the June 14, 2021 publicly announced removal of Yvonne Spence by the City of Fresno attorney, Douglas Sloan, without her prior knowledge, could hold legal ramifications.

After the detailed review of the Spence firing, Dudley Najieb featured excerpts of the July 13 community press conference called by The Fresno Black Leadership Collective, lead by Pastor B.T., Lewis, (see entire press conference below) followed by the slew of public comments made at the 9:00 AM July 15 City of Fresno Council meeting at City Hall.


FRESNO, CA --As more comes to light on the City of Fresno City Council firing of former city clerk, Yvonne Spence, via a public announcement by the City of Fresno attorney Douglas Sloan on June 14 during a budget hearing meeting without giving prior notice to Spence, former Black City Hall employees are speaking up about the racial atrocities they, too, have endured while working there.

In an effort to expose the consistent anti-Black culture at City Hall, the Fresno Black Leadership Collective called a press conference on Tuesday, July 13th to voice their grievances and demands of the City of Fresno City Council to look into the continued mistreatment of current and former Black employees working for City Hall, and to inform people about the overall systemic racism and nepotism regarding employment throughout Fresno County.

"As a collective of Black leaders and citizens of the City of Fresno, we are not confident that our elected officials and city leaders are acting inclusively and in our best interest," said Pastor B.T. Lewis. "We are deeply disappointed about the repeated attempts to diminish and dis-invest in Fresno’s Black community, and our grievance is in response to the wave of more aggressive, anti-Black racism and systematic efforts to eradicate 'Black power' and influence in city and county of Fresno."

Leaders came together as a collective as they, too, were very surprised at the abrupt firing of the Fresno City Council-appointed Yvonne Spence, who was approved to serve as city clerk January 12, 2012.

Prior to coming to Fresno, Yvonne was the deputy city clerk for the City of Austin, TX for 10 years, and she also worked for the State of Texas Environmental Agency and Sallie Mae (student loan servicing) as a records manager.

As community comments on social media suggested Spence's qualifications as a possible reasoning for the firing --which is a form of implicit bias, as there is no basis for such claims--her educational background tells otherwise; Spence holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Business Administration from Texas A&M University, and she is also a Master Municipal Clerk (MMC) and a Certified Records Manager (CRM) with extensive experience in document imaging, indexing, and preservation and protection of records.

Spence is also a member of the Association of Records Managers and Administrators (ARMA), the Institute of Certified Records Managers (ICRM), the International Institute of Municipal Clerks (IIMC), and serves on the board the California City Clerks Association (CCCA) as Director for Region 4.

As the city clerk, Spence assisted city council candidates in meeting their legal responsibilities before, during and after an election, providing access to city records. She was also the key staff for Fresno City Council meetings, preparing the legislative agenda, verifying legal notices have been posted or published, and completing the necessary arrangements to ensure an effective meeting.

The details of Spence's firing are unusual due to the nature of how it was communicated publicly and to her directly; with no prior evaluation records or suspensions documenting unsatisfactory work ethics or habits, or no written complaints which would have forfeited her recent annual salary raise in mid-March, Spence and the Black community are dumbfounded. Usually a City of

Fresno employee has several days to address a complaint in writing or verbally to the supervisor if another employee or external member of the public has filed a complaint against him or her. Although California law permits at-will employment contracts, as it is an at-will state, it still requires prior notification to the employee before the dismissal.

Employee-Handbook-City of Fresno
Download PDF • 172KB

It was also noted that the City Council should have listed as an agenda item to the public an employee's dismissal using Gov’t Code § 54954.5(e). Instead, cited on the March 18, April 8 and April 22 City Council agendas is "Gov’t Code § 54957(b)(2)" which could mean evaluation or discussion of promotions or of an employee's contract--but not dismissal.

AO214GuidetoCorrectiveAction-ADMINISTRATIVE ORDER NUMBER 2-14
Download PDF • 38KB

ONME News reached out to former City of Fresno councilperson, Cynthia Sterling, who served two terms as the district 3 representative. She said that usually when Council had issues with a staff member, there was certainly discussion and an opportunity to meet with the employee well before any decision for a dismissal.

In fact at the July 15 City of Fresno Council meeting last week, Sterling noted during the public comments how inhumane the current City Council operated in notifying city clerk, Spence of her firing. Sterling is also the president of the San Joaquin Valley Chapter of Black Women of Political Action (BWOPA) who will also be scrutinizing the situation at hand regarding the firing of Spence.

"... As a former councilwoman, I sat on the dais for eight years; as a former planning commissioner, I was in and out of the Council Chambers for another13 years. In no time during those time periods did we ever have a situation where someone was fired with no information given, no reasoning, just taken from their seat just understanding as a former member of the Fresno City Council in this particular case that the lack of consideration, the rudeness and the disrespect that former city clerk, Spence, has been shown has just been beyond anything that any of us could imagine ... It grieves my heart to wonder, what were you all thinking, and why did you do it this way? ... She should have had a chance to sit with you and have some type of opportunity to find out what in the world I am being charged with."

What is more puzzling to people about Spence's case is the four councilmembers who voted in favor of Spence's dismissal: Southwest Fresno community-favored, district 3 representative, Miguel Arias; conservative district 6 representative, Garry Bredefeld; community-beloved, two-term district 1 representative, Esmeralda Soria and the only Black representation currently serving on the Fresno City Council as district 7 representative, Nelson Esparza, (he is half Black and Latino and acknowledges both heritages.) The three councilmembers who votes against Spence's dismissal were District 5 and Council President Luis Chavez, District 2 Representative Mike Karbassi, and newly elected, District 4 Representative Tyler Maxwell.

Some believe Councilman Bredefeld voted for the dismissal due to a possible 2017 grudge he had against then-city clerk, Spence, who filed a complaint against Bredefled's social rant on his disgust with Black NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, all said during the Sept. 27 City Council meeting.

"...Affirmative votes for her dismissal were driven by subjective personal opinions and agendas rather than tangible, documented facts. Consider the irony ---I wish Councilman Bredefeld was here--but consider the irony of Councilman Bredefeld voting in concert with Councilman Arias; that is very interesting," said Pastor Lewis in his public comments to the Fresno City Council July 15, in reference to Brefeld's possible grudge against Spence.

""And I wanted Councilman Bredefeld to know, and I wish he was here today--that grudges die hard."

Councilman Bredefeld is known to be conservative in his his views on the City Council, bumping heads often with Councilman Arais.

Pastor Lewis also noted the nepotism at the City of Fresno that is rampant, excluding African-Americans and others who are qualified with certifications and degrees to hold these jobs.

Pastor Lewis also noted the frustration of the Spence firing example happening throughout the City of Fresno and Fresno County on a continual basis.

"The Fresno Black Leadership Collective is actively seeking accountability and answers for workplace treatment of high-ranking Black employees at the City of Fresno that we find discriminatory and disturbingly consistent. The recent decision and majority vote by Fresno’s City Council to remove Yvonne Spence as the City Clerk for City of Fresno (the first African American to hold the position and the first to be dismissed in this manner) was a misappropriation of power and employed a methodology that was cruel, unprofessional, and further affirms concerns of Fresno’s Black citizens that Black people are deliberately and strategically being squeezed out of the few positions of power and influence we once held in our city and county."

"We are deeply disappointed about the repeated attempts to diminish and dis-invest in Fresno’s Black community, and our grievance is in response to the wave of more aggressive, anti-Black racism and systematic efforts to eradicate 'Black Power and Influence' in city and county Fresno."

Spence's firing brings other Black former employees to speak out about their unjust dismissals

Since the Spence firing and public outcry, other Black former employees of the City of Fresno are describing the racism they endured while working at City Hall under previous administrations. As ONME News continues to investigate the stories presented by former Black employees fired by the City of Fresno, here are just two of those stories thus far.

One prominent ongoing case deals with former employee, La Kebbia Wilson, who was called an "entitled nigga, and lazy" by another co-worker at the office.

According to the employee handbook, which Wilson followed, she went to her supervisor to describe the incident of what happened. When Wilson repeated to her word-for-word what the co-worker said about her, the supervisor penalized her for using the word "nigga" although she was describing the incident and not using the term toward anyone. Wilson thought she was having a candid conversation about what another employee called her, and nothing happened to the employee who called her the name--instead, the supervisor suspended Wilson, who tried to appeal the suspension. Wilson was then put on administrative leave with pay for a year while the case was investigated. During the administrative leave, she was told they investigated and found nothing, although other employees confessed to hearing the racist exchange of words toward Wilson from the employee. She was then illegally fired and never told why. Wilson's union stepped in to deal with the matter and the case has been going through litigation since 2019: La-Kebbia Wilson and Charles Smith v. City of Fresno and others. This case is still being investigated by ONME News; there will be a follow-up feature story with Wilson's attorney regarding this matter.

Another Black employee unreasonably harassed for several years by the City of Fresno was Charles Butler.

Butler was an employee for 14 years for the City of Fresno, who was continually harassed by his supervisor in his department.

"This man did not like me from day one; I was the only Black person in this department," said Butler. Butler then saw a new Black person working at the call center and gave her a warning of what they were going to do to her."

One day, Butler did not show up for work for two days-- an unusual circumstance for a person who normally shows up daily to work on time. In an administrative order, the policy in place required that employees put someone down as an emergency contact in case of such an incident. The supervisor was supposed to call whoever was on Butler's emergency contact the first day he was a no-show at work; instead, he assumed Butler was absent without leave, hoping to catch him in the act of doing something--his co-workers felt differently about that being the case because Butler was a faithful employee who showed up to work on time, daily.

It turned out that Butler was unconscious for a couple of days. Two days before, Butler left his co-worker, La-Kebbia Wilson, (the above victim noted) a cell phone message where he was under severe stress due his supervisor constantly harassing him. He wanted some help on how to deal with the situation.

The supervisor tried to cover his tracks by saying he called Butler and left a message on his phone; there were no messages or missed calls on Butler's phone the day he went unconscious or thereafter. There was no welfare check on Butler even after the second day he was considered a no-show at work.

By the time Butler made it to the hospital, he remained unconscious for 30 to 40 days, and endured surgery in the brain area. He proceeded to be in the hospital for two and half months. The City of Fresno authorized only four months for his at-home recovery. He then went home for four months to recover and start rehabilitation.

During that time, the City of Fresno was pressuring Butler to come back to work earlier than that, although the doctor did not clear him to do so. The City of Fresno then proceeded to demote Butler without notice, although he was on medical leave.

"I had to learn how to walk, talk and eat all over again," said Butler, who was in no capacity to return to work at that time, also by doctors' orders.

After six months total, Butler had to return to work (approximately June 2019); the City of Fresno wanted him to work to his full capacity as before his injury. Although he was considered handicap--he was never referred to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) by the City of Fresno employer. Since Butler was forced to come back early from his sick leave, despite the doctor's warning, he came back with a walker, being that he was still going through rehabilitation, and unable to walk without assistance.

Butler, unable to walk long distances and still needing assistance, then received a handicap placard authorized by his doctor along with a handicapp license plate, so that he could park closer to the building entrance. The supervisor then harassed Butler for having a handicap placard and access to closer parking.

"I was under a lot of stress from work from my supervisor," said Butler. "I coulnd't believe he was angry over me having a handicapp placard."

The City of Fresno gave Butler one week to re-learn his job, being that his brain injury required him to start all over again with parts of the learning process.

Then Butler had struggles at work where he would fall asleep unknowingly. A co-worker complained to the supervisor about Butler's "sleeping on-the-job." The supervisor then approached Butler about the falling-asleep issue. Butler told his supervisor he had no idea what was happening, nor did he know he was asleep; his daughter took him to the emergency room a couple of days later to find that his kidneys had failed. Butler then started on dialysis immediately. The City of Fresno then continued to harass Butler about the four-hour process of his dialysis visits--which is the standard amount of time for a visit.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Butler was finally sent home to work from home after the Governor's stay-at-home order, especially for people with underlying conditions. In fact, an executive order was put in place by City Manager Wilma Quan at the time which was to accommodate employees with underlying conditions:

Fresno City Manager Wilma Quan today signed an Executive Order updating the City of Fresno’s state of emergency, stating that City employees who are directed to remain home shall not be required to expend accrued leave time or take leave without pay.

City employees who elect to stay home, with approval of their appointing authority, for health, childcare, or other family care reasons, may utilize any accrued leave balance for that purpose; if all leave balances are exhausted, then the employee may “borrow” against future leave balance accruals for leave taken during the emergency.

City officials, department directors, or their designees shall have full authority to modify work schedules, including hours of work and days off for employees or direct employees to “work out of class” as deemed necessary to enforce this Order.

Non-essential City services shall be modified, including and processing of development applications, permits, and entitlements.

Nevertheless, Butler's supervisors wanted him to come back to work inside of the building at the office, although the doctor's orders were for him to work from home during the COVID-19 crisis. The days that Butler did not do dialysis, they wanted him to come in every other day, although the doctor's orders suggested against such measures.

Then the supervisor would call Butler at home to harass him and accuse him of customer service complaints; on the contrary, Butler is known for his great customer service by most of his co-workers. Butler's supervisor called him constantly at home, while on medical leave; on the contrary, The Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) representative, Davonna Youngblood, should have been the only designated person to call Butler instead of harrassment from a City of Fresno supervisor.

Six months thereafter, as the harassment continued during all of those months, the City of Fresno began to question Butler's mental capacity--a violation of HIPAA and the American Disabilites Act. The supervisor felt that Butler had to have a mental assessment--an inappropriate diagnosis by a supervisor and a violation of the American Disabilites Act. Butler went to his union who told him to go to his doctor and get an assessment with his neurologist, so that he could show his supervisor--he passed the assessment with the specialist at Fresno Community Hospital. Butler gave the Human Resource Department (HR) the doctor's cleared assessment--the supervisor and HR told him that the document was not good enough, without a reason why. City of Fresno's HR department and the supervisor corresponded with the doctor without Butler's permission (HIPAA violation) and argued with the doctor about the assessment; they asked the doctor to retest--the second assessment came back in Butler's favor, his mental capacity was fine.

Butler then was sent to the City of Fresno's doctors; Butler was sent for a mental capacity evaluation. However because it was not a workman's compensation case, the doctor could not see him--no workman's comp claim had been filed by the City or Butler at any time, although HR continued to conduct business as if it was a workman's comp claim. Therefore the doctor had no paperwork on Butler and could not do an assessment; the doctor called the City of Fresno for paperwork, the City of Fresno never responded. The doctor told Butler he was not willing to risk his medical license for the City of Fresno's mishap.

By the fourth mental assessment request, the City of Fresno sent Butler to Bakersfield at his own expense. The union representative and Butler called the address and phone number based on what the City of Fresno provided him; the address was to a vacant lot and the phone number to a construction site.

Finding a way to get rid of Butler, the City of Fresno then came up with a scheme to accuse Butler of hacking into a manager's computer at the office on the day he was at dialysis for four hours. On the contrary, someone got into Butler's computer at work; he was at home recovering from dialysis the day of the accusation.

Nevertheless, City of Fresno immediately put Butler under investigation for the accusation of the "hacked computer." They made him turn in all of his equipment and badge. There was never a response to this day about whether Butler hacked the computer or not--they found no evidence of the made-up claim--and again, Butler was at dialysis the day of the accusation.

Next, the City of Fresno hired a non-specialist doctor from San Diego to come down and do an assessment of Butler without the necessary equipment, just a questions-and-answers session with some pictures. The doctor did not see anything wrong with Butler; she let Butler know about the assessment she would be writing up to say just that. The City of Fresno instead reached out to another doctor from the same San Diego medical office, who did not do an assessment of Butler at all-- this doctor was willing to write a false assessment of Butler on behalf of the City of Fresno. He never saw this official assessment from the unknown doctor whom he never met.

Thereafter, the City of Fresno said based on the bogus assessment by the unknown doctor, he would only have the capacity to work as a "janitor."

Although not financially and physically ready for it, Butler was finally forced into retirement due to the limited choice of the job option he was provided by the City Fresno.

"This story, when I think about it, brings me chest pains and physical anguish," said Butler.

ONME News will continue to follow up with the three other cases who have come forward to our news entity.


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