Local NAACP President Lawrence Armstrong, Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church Senior Pastor Edward Robinson and McKenzie met privately for about 20 minutes in the mayor’s office Monday after the Council meeting. McKenzie went out the back door of the Municipal Building while Armstrong spoke to reporters on the front sidewalk.
McKenzie’s alleged racial slur was the subject of an email sent Jan. 30 to area media outlets from a fictitious account. According to Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett, the computer’s IP address indicated the computer used for the email was located in California. The phony return address on the email was email@example.com.
According to Armstrong, McKenzie said nothing new in the meeting that he did not say during the Council meeting earlier in the day. He restated only that “if” he said anything offensive, then he apologizes.
“I asked him why the admissions were made at the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, but we can’t get them in public. We didn’t get anything in public as far as a denial or an admission. We’re asking Mr. McKenzie to resign from office,” Armstrong said when he was asked what the NAACP wanted. “Unfortunately, he refuses to do so. The next course of action is to begin a petition so we can have him removed from office.”
Armstrong said when he was first aware of the email, he immediately tried to contact McKenzie by phone and went to the councilman’s home. He said Monday was the first day he was able to contact McKenzie.
“Whether he admits to it or not is beside the point at this juncture. I just know we have two police statements [dated Jan. 18] stating these allegations are true. If you don’t do anything to fight against it or to clear your name, to me that’s an admission of guilt in itself,” Armstrong said.
He said McKenzie repeated that if he said something, then he apologizes, because he does not remember saying the word.
“Do you remember what you said six months ago or two weeks ago?” McKenzie said at one point when asked if he said the word.
He said he does not know when he is supposed to have said it.
Armstrong said whoever sent the email used a fraudulent email account hoping the NAACP would “do their dirty work. We don’t have any allegations against the Sheriff’s [Office] to sustain any type of concerns or issues there at this time.”
The email implied unfair treatment of minorities by Ruth and Bird since Sept. 1, 2010, when he and the sheriff assumed office. The email listed minority officers by name whom it alleged had been terminated.
“The day Ruth took office, he demoted Capt. Gabe Thomas from head of the Corrections Division to a slick sleeve deputy, and cut his pay by $24,000,” the email stated.
Also, Lt. Antonio L. Simpson, deputies Daphney A. Dunn, Calvin K. Thompson and Sgt. Sharon L. McBride, all African-Americans, and deputy Eduardo B. Choate Jr., of Brazilian ancestry, were all terminated, according to the email.
“In my opinion, someone with an agenda is attempting to turn an issue with one employee into a racism issue,” Ruth said Jan. 31. “Lots of minorities and females work here in the Sheriff’s Office.”
Armstrong said every aspect of the email was discussed with Ruth.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the allegations that were made, we didn’t have enough evidence to go after any of those types of allegations at this time,” he said.
Rowland read a statement sent to him by Ruth during the work session. According to the mayor, the sheriff stated the recent flap over McKenzie, a part-time process server, seems increasingly the work of an ex-employee and a convicted felon with the goal of discrediting the department.
“It has already been verified that the email sent to the media was done so using a fraudulent email address, so a fake email in violation of the law was used to give erroneous information to the news media,” the mayor read.
Continuing, the mayor said, “It’s no secret it was addressed to Charlie. Charlie, I just want to say to you, I think the sheriff’s statement probably stands (on its own merit). Charlie is getting ready to have some very serious heart surgery. We certainly think about you during that time and this is a bad time for that (flap) to come out.”
Vice Mayor Avery Johnson said information given him confirms the Jan. 31 story in the Cleveland Daily Banner that McKenzie “said those things. I’ve got all the respect in the world for Charlie. I’ve worked with him. He’s got a wonderful family, but from my standpoint, I just want to know from you, did you say those things or did you not say those things? We’ve got a lot of people here who are very concerned about the issue.”
Rowland asked City Attorney John Kimball if the situation in the Sheriff’s Office concerned the City Council.
“Is that something we should discuss?” the mayor asked.
“You can discuss whatever you want to,” Kimball said.
Johnson said the city charter demands discussion “because of the power given to each individual Council member” and when a Council member publicly violates the public trust, “especially when we do it publicly, it needs to be addressed publicly.”
“What kind of discussion did you want to have?” the mayor asked the vice mayor.
“What kind of discussion?” Johnson replied. “I’d just like to see Charlie answer the question I asked him a minute ago.”
McKenzie read a prepared statement that he “has and will continue to serve every citizen equally, no matter what color or race and — if — I ever said something to offend anyone — I apologize. I don’t think anyone can get their story straight. The first story I heard, I beat up a guy over at the sheriff’s department. I’ve never arrested anybody in the last six months. I serve warrants. So, until somebody tells me something, I don’t believe nothing.
McKenzie continued, “If that’s Mr. Ruth’s statement, they’ve got an election coming up over there and it’s going to be a doozy of an election. One lies about the other and the other lies about him.”
Armstrong agreed the email was fraudulent and that McKenzie was the target of an intense political race that will unfold over the next couple of years.
“Unfortunately, he’s the sacrificial lamb who has been sacrificed in this particular situation because at the end of the day, the allegations that were made against Mr. McKenzie were written and submitted by two sworn officers and these are legitimate affidavits that are on file,” he said.
Regardless of how McKenzie said the degrading word and how anyone could think “we’re going to give it a pass and treat it as though the elephant is not in the room today is totally oblivious to me and very disappointing to these citizens in this room,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong pointed out he could not understand how the councilman could feel comfortable serving his constituents after making the remarks.
“It’s very disappointing and disheartening to know the City Council will not hold this man accountable for the actions he has done,” Armstrong said.
Second District Councilman Bill Estes said, “Lawrence (Armstrong) said there is an elephant in the room and Richard (At-Large Councilman Richard Banks) is right in saying something needs to be addressed by us.”
Banks said Council members must always be aware of their actions so that official decisions appear appropriate for everyone concerned.
“Sometimes perception is stronger than the truth and we are in an awkward position,” Banks said. “We have Charlie McKenzie, who is our friend, but we’re in an awkward position because he evidently said some things that were pretty upsetting to a lot of people in our community.”
The At-Large Councilman said the context in which McKenzie spoke the word is unknown to the rest of the Council.
“We are, as our attorney says, limited by what we can do by our city charter and based on what he says, this is not an official act by Charlie that we can do anything with,” he said. “Because we are in an awkward position, but one we have to address, I would suggest you all just meet somewhere in the 1st District and see if there has been any misunderstanding, if the words were actually said, in what context and then make the decision on what you think he ought to do.”
Estes, who was too upset to finish his thoughts said in part, “I think Avery’s question matters greatly. Context does not matter on words like that. I don’t think the conversation ends today. I think there needs to be more discussion.”
Cleveland resident Jonathan Porter said all City Council members are held accountable for their actions.
“As to the rumors as you have it that we don’t know whether you said it or not, but when Avery asked you for answers, you really didn’t answer, did you?” Porter asked. “Even though you were in a police status, it still reflects on you as a councilman. True, it could be rumors, but you need to answer those questions.”
Resident Hiawatha Brown asked for McKenzie’s resignation. She said elected officials are held to a higher standard than the general public.
(Editor’s Note: Additional information about the petition may be obtained by contacting Armstrong at 423-650-0701 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org)