City settles bias claim by former Strand employee; Complaint targeted Arts chief

Julie Burns: Julie Burns, director of Arts, Tourism and Special Events for the city.Julie Burns: Julie Burns, director of Arts, Tourism and Special Events for the city.Julie Burns, who announced last week that she was resigning as the city’s director of Arts, Tourism and Special Events, was accused of racial discrimination when she fired the manager of the Strand Theatre in 2006, a complaint that the Menino Administration quietly settled less than four months ago.

Neither Burns nor Mayor Tom Menino made any reference to the complaint, which was upheld by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, when Burns made known she was leaving the city job that she had held since 2006 to join Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

“Julie has done a wonderful job for the city of Boston, from organizing championship victory parades to bringing a great variety of cultural events to City Hall Plaza,” said Menino in a statement. “I am grateful for her hard work and wish Julie all the best in her new endeavor.”

However, according to public records on file at the state agency, the Commission Against Discrimination found “probable cause” last year that the complaint brought by Michelle Baxter that Burns had fired her from her job as manager of the city’s Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner because of racial discrimination was valid. The city agreed to pay Baxter, who had sought $175,000 in damages, a total of $38,000 to settle the case, according to city records.

Although the city contested Baxter’s allegation, it agreed to settle the case on April 23, according to city records.

Baxter, who served as manager of the Strand between 2004 and 2006, declined to discuss the case when asked about it this week, stressing that the agreement prohibited her from talking about the case publicly.

Burns could not be reached for comment on the complaint and the settlement. William F. Sinnott, the city’s chief lawyer, stressed in an interview that in settling the case, the Menino Administration was not necessarily acknowledging the substance of Baxter’s claim that she had been discriminated against by Burns and the city.

He said he was confident that the city would have been able to rebut Baxter’s claim of racial discrimination if the case had proceeded to a full hearing before the MCAD. However, the city decided to settle the case for financial reasons. The cost of assembling its case and interviewing the many potential witnesses who were involved in the allegation was deemed too high.

Sinnott said Baxter’s complaint was one of “very, very few” alleging racial discrimination that have been filed against the city since he became corporation counsel in 2006. He was unable to say how many of the complaints the city had settled.

Baxter filed the complaint with the MCAD in June 2007, nearly a year after her firing. In particular, Baxter alleged that Burns fired her in September 2006 – and replaced her with a white male – because Burns showed “hostility” towards her and the “minority, community-based projects” she was booking at the Strand.

Specifically, Baxter cited a “hip-hop festival” that she had booked at the Strand in August 2006. “Ms. Burns refused to promote the festival, to advertise, to provide administrative support and/or to assist in corporate funding,” according to the complaint. Also, Baxter alleged that Burns treated “disrespectfully” minority artists and other participants by attempting to censor their speech and by confiscating a sign.

Despite this backstage conflict, the event was deemed a success. Mayor Menino, who attended the festival, later praised the Strand for hosting it in his State of the City address.

Although her work as Strand’s manager had never been criticized by Burns’s predecessor and her only performance evaluation had been a positive one, Baxter said she received a letter from Burns less than a month after the hip-hop festival that she was being fired. The letter provided no reason for her dismissal, Baxter alleged.

Burns and other unidentified city officials contested Baxter’s allegation that her firing was racially motivated, or that Burns had any problem with supervising minorities or other African-Americans in her  office. Instead, according to the MCAD investigator’s report, Burns said that Baxter’s firing was caused by her failure to follow a “governmental command structure” or adequately  communicate with Burns.

Only one specific example was cited against Baxter – she had failed to inform Burns of her decision to rent out the Strand Theatre for performances by the group Actors’ Shakespeare Project, even though Burns had sent out a directive months before she was to approve personally all such rental agreements. The Actors’ Shakespeare Project, a Somerville-based group that stages Shakespearean plays, rented the Strand for $5,510 to rehearse its performances over a 44-day period in October and November 2006, according to city records.

Baxter said that the agreement between the Strand and the Actors’ Shakespeare Project was spelled out by Burns’ predecessor, Susan Hartnett, who confirmed Baxter’s account to the MCAD investigator. In addition, Baxter said that Burns knew the details of the agreement before it was signed and never protested its terms.

The Menino Administration made no announcement when it agreed to settle the case with Baxter in April. Nor was any mention of the complaint made last week when Menino announced, with great praise for her service to the city, that Burns was resigning as director of the office of Arts, Tourism and Special Events. At Blue Cross Blue Shield, where she begins work at the end of the month, Burns will serve as senior director of Public Affairs and Business Integration.

Baxter, long involved in Boston’s arts scene, most recently served as director of arts, culture and trade for the Madison Park Development Corp. in Roxbury. In an interview recently, when asked what Shakespeare character she identifies with most, she answered “Othello.” Why: “He is a person of color betrayed by one he thought a friend. This is the only play that encounters racism with a person of color that I know,” she explained.

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.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article that appears in the Aug. 12, 2010 print edition of the Reporter incorrectly stated that the city settled the MCAD complaint in June 2010. This online version of the story has been amended to reflect the actual date of the settlement: April 23, 2010.

Clarification: In the above article, it was reported that the Strand Theatre had hosted a hip-hop “festival” in 2006 that had drawn praise from Mayor Menino. The festival was held at City Hall Plaza but a city youth “summit meeting” associated with the festival was held at the Strand and later praised by the mayor.