The City of Carmel’s plans to implement diversity training for its employees has once again been delayed with the termination of its equity manager, who was on the job for less than a year.
Timothy Knight joined the city in May 2021 as the employee development coordinator. Later that year, after Carmel ended a contract with a company providing its diversity training, city officials tapped him to develop the training in-house and changed his title to equity manager. He was set to begin diversity training sessions on March 21.
According to a document provided by the city, Knight was terminated because of performance concerns and insubordination. But Knight, who described his final months in the office as working in an increasingly hostile environment, said he “cannot help but believe this is racially motivated.”
“The very things I’m there to help correct, to improve and make better were the very things that undermined my being there,” said Knight, who was terminated March 14. “More specifically, that is underdeveloped leadership, communication skills, attitudes of inclusiveness and connectedness in the workspace. My experience there was textbook in what you don’t do in leadership, textbook in what you don’t do in working toward equity and inclusiveness from top to bottom.”
According to a city document outlining the reasons for the termination, Knight didn’t conduct “a single employee training” during his nine months of employment and failed to provide “a single piece of training or DEI educational content that he had produced” to his supervisors prior to a Feb. 10 meeting. Knight refuted that, saying he conducted training on mental health and leadership but that he was asked to delay the diversity training until the COVID-19 pandemic had waned and meetings could safely be held in person.
According to city spokesman Dan McFeely, Lamb provided tools for Knight to provide online content and asked him to provide it when in-person interaction was not possible because of the pandemic.
During the Feb. 10 meeting, held with retiring HR director Barb Lamb and new director Lisa Hartz to discuss issues related to the transition, the document states that Knight became “extremely unprofessional and hostile” to both women when asked about the status of employee training programs he was creating.
“Dr. Knight’s unprofessional behavior included shouting for an extended period of time, which was substantiated by both attendees at the meeting and witnesses outside the room who reported that they heard Dr. Knight’s shouting through the walls of the meeting room,” the document states. “Both women were shaken after the meeting and felt that Dr. Knight’s behavior was intended to intimidate them.”
Knight said both women in the meeting were “interrogative” and “adversarial” toward him but that he did not shout or raise his voice at them.
Lamb and Hartz did not respond to requests for comment.
“The City of Carmel denies allegations of a hostile and racist work environment in the Human Resources Dept.,” McFeely said. “Barb Lamb served the city for 25 years and there was never a complaint filed against her. She was the driving force behind the creation of this position and hired Dr. Knight in May of 2021. During his short time with the city, she promoted him, raised his salary by almost $15,000, bringing him to a salary level of $82,756 per year.”
With most of the city’s residents and employees in City Hall being “monocultural,” Knight said it can be difficult for people of different races and cultures to feel welcomed and connected to those in the “Carmel bubble.”
“I understand city pride, and there’s a great deal of that, but there are other types of things, (such as) hiring practices with a legacy policy that we have in place that gives preferential treatment to people that are related to folks,” he said. “It’s how it plays out in a way that prevents people from the outside from coming in.”
At the time of his firing, Knight, who previously worked as a detective and professor, said he was the only person of color working in the HR department. Michelle Leaks, who is Black, worked in the office as employee benefits manager from December 2019 until October 2021 when she left on her own accord. She also described the office as “hostile” toward outsiders, with different standards for its employees and said she felt her suggestions and opinions were usually discounted.
“I walked away with a really sour taste,” Leaks said. “It’s like going backwards in time. I thought things were better. I didn’t think race relations were really that big of a deal but working in that spot I came away feeling very naive, almost tainted. I felt so unsafe. I never felt that way in any place I worked. I have been the only Black person in the whole space (elsewhere), and never felt that way like I did there. I don’t like to be the first person that yells race-type stuff, but absent of everything else, what is it?”
City Councilor Sue Finkam, who urged the city’s administration in June 2020 to implement mandatory annual diversity training for employees and officials, said she was surprised to learn Knight had been terminated, as she had not heard of any issues or complaints regarding him or his work.
Finkam said employee issues don’t typically rise to the level of being presented to the city council, and she doesn’t want the council to micromanage city business. She said she would like to see a plan from Mayor Jim Brainard outlining how the city plans to implement diversity training now that Knight is not on staff.
“I’m really disappointed that the city hasn’t been able to pull off this training,” Finkam said. “I’m concerned that it’s not a priority and would really like to know the city’s plans.”
McFeely said Hartz will take time to assess the situation and decide how to best move forward regarding planned diversity training and whether the city will hire another equity manager.