Burns: New job not tied to suit; ‘Personal, professional decision’

The Menino administration’s outgoing arts chief strongly denies that her decision to resign earlier this month had anything to do with the city’s settlement of discrimination suit against her in April.

Julie A. Burns, who has served as a top deputy to Menino since 1998 and as director of the city’s Office of Arts, Tourism and Special Events for more than four years, said, in a written statement, “After 12 years of serving the city of Boston in various roles, I have made a personal and professional decision to accept a tremendous opportunity at a highly-respected MA business.”
Julie Burns, director of Arts, Tourism and Special Events for the city.Julie Burns, director of Arts, Tourism and Special Events for the city.

The Reporter disclosed in last week’s edition that the city had quietly agreed to pay $38,000 to Michelle Baxter, former director of the city’s Strand Theatre, to settle Baxter’s complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination that Burns had fired her because of alleged racial bias.

Following the article, Burns sent an e-mail to the paper protesting any suggestion that her announcement on August 5 that she was resigning to take a position as a vice president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts was related to the settlement of the discrimination complaint.

Also, the city released legal documents, which it had filed in Burns’s defense in the MCAD case, that rebutted the charge that Baxter had been fired for reasons of discrimination. In the documents, which previously had been considered confidential,  Burns contended that Baxter had been fired because she was not adequately performing her duties as Strand’s manager as well as director of recruitment for performing arts throughout Boston’s neighborhoods.

Burns also provided summaries of affidavits from three colleagues at the Arts office alleging that Baxter had failed to adequately coordinate productions of Waterfront Arts Festival in the North End, a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, and a Hip Hop Festival in 2005.

The affidavits “shed light on Ms. Baxter’s ineptitude and establish a record to support her [Baxter’s] discharge from employment with the city,” stated a “position paper” that the city and Burns filed with the MCAD to rebut the Baxter discrimination complaint.

Last year, an MCAD investigator found “probable cause” in Baxter’s complaint and recommended that the case proceed to a formal hearing. However, the investigator determined that key issues in Baxter’s complaint, including whether she was adequately fulfilling the duties of her job, whether she was replaced in her position by someone who was white, and whether Burns should be held “individually liable” needed further investigation by a “fact finder” or hearing officer.

Instead of a full hearing, lawyers on behalf of Baxter and Burns entered in settlement discussions following the probable cause finding. Baxter, who is black, sought $175,000 in damages, but she accepted $38,000 to drop her complaint. Without any public announcement, the settlement was completed on April 23.

To win a favorable judgment, the MCAD investigator said Baxter had to prove she was dismissed without just cause and replaced by someone who was white.

Baxter, long a figure in Boston’s arts scene, was hired by the Menino Administration in May 2004 to serve as interim manager of the city-owned Strand Theatre. Seven months later, then Arts director Susan Hartnett increased Baxter’s duties to include recruiting arts performances throughout Boston’s neighborhoods.

Hartnett provided “positive feedback” to Baxter about her work during the nearly two years they worked together and gave her at least one “very positive” performance evaluation, according to legal memorandum written and signed by lawyers for both Baxter and Burns.

However, problems between Baxter and Burns began to arise as soon as Burns succeeded Hartnett as the city’s arts director, according to the joint pre-hearing memorandum. Burns “demonstrated hostility toward me and particularly toward the minority community-based projects that I managed,” Baxter alleged in her complaint.

Specifically Baxter cited a hip-hop festival and peace summit that she organized for the Summer of 2006. Burns refused to promote the festival, to advertise, to provide administrative support and/or assist in corporate funding, Baxter alleged.

Despite alleged Burns’ lack of support, the festival and summit were successful ventures, so much so that Mayor Menino praised the Strand for hosting a summit among city youths in his 2007 State of the City address.

However, in a “position paper” that Burns filed in the MCAD case, she said she had provided needed support for the hip hop festival and peace summit. Problems encountered by the event were caused by Baxter, who made substantial errors in advertising and was unable to provide proper supervision of the backstage area of the event.

As for the allegation that she showed hostility towards Baxter, Burns responded that two other employees routinely sat in on meetings between Baxter and Burns and they “never witnessed Burns demonstrate hostility towards Baxter.”

To support the argument that Baxter was fired for failing to do her job adequately, Burns cited Baxter’s booking the Actor’s Shakespeare Project, a Somerville-based performance group, into the Strand for eight weeks in 2006. Baxter negotiated the contract with the ASP on her own, and waived rental fees and stage lighting, without gaining Burns’ authorization. As a result, the city lost more than $91,000 in fees that similar productions would have paid, Burns stated.

In response, Baxter told the MCAD investigator that the terms of the agreement had been verbally set by Hartnett when she was Arts chief. And if Burns had a problem with the written agreement, she could have rejected it on her own, Baxter told the investigator.

Baxter and her lawyer, Laurie R. Houle of Boston, declined comment about the settlement or the discrimination complaint.

Burns said in an interview this week that although she was “surprised” by the MCAD investigator finding probable cause in the case, she believed that the racial discrimination charge in Baxter’s firing was totally without merit. “Anyone who reads the documents can see those allegations are without merit,” Burns. “And anyone who knows or has worked with me would know that as well.”

Stephen Kurkjian is the Senior Investigative Fellow and Pat Tarantino is a reporter at the Initiative For Investigative Reporting in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University. Their work for the Dorchester Reporter is funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The foundations are committed to supporting investigative and watchdog journalism by community news organizations in the Boston area.

Read documents related to the Baxter-Burns case:
Michelle Baxter's complaint to MCAD of June 19, 2007
Position statement of the City of Boston and Julie Burns- August 2007
MCAD investigative fact sheet finding "probable cause"
Joint pre-hearing memorandum - July 22, 2009
City attorney's response to the Baxter complaint- Dec. 4, 2008