By Associated Press - Friday, September 11, 2020

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) - The former leader of emergency medical services in Augusta, Georgia, says he resigned in the face of discrimination because he’s gay.

James Kelly, in a letter to Augusta commissioners, says he faced two years of hostility from Fire Chief Chris James.

Kelly’s accusation arrives amid turmoil in the city-county’s fire service because of union complaints about James’ leadership.

The Augusta Chronicle reports that Kelly’s letter says he was denied access to meetings, refused an office, opposed on simple requests and humiliated by James and former fire department attorney Jody Smitherman.

Kelly wrote that his former department supervisor, Edward Hawthorne, had warned him that James would treat him differently because “if he knew of your lifestyle, he would have never hired you.”

Kelly said he took time off when his father died in April 2019 but was called to sign a new job description and work title. On the day of his father’s funeral, Kelly said, he went in civilian clothes to sign the documents.

“Attorney Smitherman pointed out to the fire chief that I had some hair on my chin, that clearly I did not shave before coming,” Kelly wrote. As a result, James could not “promote” him that day, he said.

Firefighters are required to shave to ensure breathing masks fit properly. Kelly said he received a letter of warning for not shaving.

Kelly said he then spent a year in a cubicle waiting for a deputy chief to vacate an office.

Asked to respond, James said Kelly had the facts all wrong.

“I absolutely disagree with James Kelly’s description of the events. The claims James Kelly made that he was subjected to a hostile work environment and discrimination are unfounded,” James said.

Several commissioners said they support the city investigating the claims.

“That’s just horrific,” Commissioner John Clarke said. “There are some shocking allegations there that I certainly think would warrant an investigation or an inquiry. Anybody on God’s green earth has a right to be who they are.”

Clarke said he was surprised to hear allegations that James would target certain groups.

“I kind of thought the mistreatment was unbiased, across the board,” he said.

The Augusta Commission added sexual orientation and gender identity in 2018 to the city’s list of discrimination protections. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this year that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal.

In July, Kelly asked James for a raise. He was earning $61,628, but said he was performing numerous additional duties.

“You came in at the top right off the street,” Kelly said James responded.

In his letter, Kelly said he developed and taught EMS training programs.

One new training would save city firefighters an $1,800 fee, but Kelly said he was told not to implement it because firefighters “would be using it at their part-time jobs.” Many Augusta firefighters work part-time for EMS providers.

On Aug. 28, the day Kelly gave two weeks’ notice of his resignation, he said that James increased the salary of his EMS sergeants and a lieutenant to more than Kelly made.

James also advanced Kelly’s resignation, making it immediate.

“For the two years I was there working hard and making positive moves for the department there was no issues,” Kelly wrote, “though I was being treated unjust and discriminated (against) on many grounds because of my lifestyle choice.”

The firefighters’ union repeated its call for James’ firing or resignation.

The union’s earlier concerns included staffing shortages, mandatory overtime and poor COVID-19 procedures. It also claims James disregarded his own promotion policies when he appointed Kelly.

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