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‘I assume it’s race’: Departing Spokane homelessness leader Cupid Alexander alleges prejudicial treatment by city administrator

UPDATED: Wed., June 16, 2021

Alexander  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Alexander (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

High-ranking city official Cupid Alexander excoriated City Administrator Johnnie Perkins in an email on Wednesday, directly accusing Perkins of mistreating him because he is Black.

Alexander announced Monday that he is leaving his post as the city’s director of Neighborhoods, Housing and Human Services after less than a year on the job.

He intended to leave on July 31, but Perkins is effectively forcing him out sooner.

In a letter on Wednesday, Perkins told Alexander his final day would be this Friday, with paid time off used to cover the balance through July 31.

In announcing his resignation on Monday, Alexander became the third – and most prominent – city employee with a major role in housing and homeless services to leave the city since March.

But Alexander’s departure was met with a different response than those of his colleagues, he alleged in an email to Perkins, on which he copied a city’s Human Resources official and members of the Spokane City Council.

“I’ve watched as they have come and go, and yet none of them were treated like this, even as they took MONTHS of leave off with zero notice, leaving me and the others to scrape together the work…I’m trying to move on in peace, quite frankly for this EXACT treatment,” Alexander wrote.

The reason, Alexander surmised, is his race. Alexander is the only Black division leader in City Hall.

“I’m unsure of why I’m being treated like this – I assume it’s race – but I request fairness is done,” Alexander wrote.

Alexander and Perkins did not return a request for comment on Wednesday. Copies of their correspondence were obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

In an unattributed statement released by city spokesman Brian Coddington on Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration called Alexander’s accusations “very serious.”

“Racism has no place in the organization, community, or country,” the statement said.

According to the administration, race has not been a subject of conversation with Alexander, and the city’s response to his departure should not be compared to other recent resignations.

“The situations are unique to the individuals, and it is unfair to draw parallels between them,” the statement reads.

Councilwoman Karen Stratton quickly called for an independent investigation into the matter.

“We owe the citizens and our employees that much, and then we need to say ‘these are the findings and this is what we’re going to do,’ ” Stratton said.

In his letter, Perkins explained Alexander’s early exit would “assist in transition planning for department employees.” Perkins instructed Alexander to no longer attend meetings and focus instead on compiling a list of ongoing projects.

Alexander’s resignation was submitted less than a month after his direct subordinate, Community Housing and Human Services Director Timothy Sigler, also resigned.

Alexander has been fulfilling Sigler’s duties as well as his own. By forcing Alexander out ahead of schedule, Perkins is effectively vacating two positions, neither of which can be quickly filled.

Stratton questioned whether other top city officials – such as Scott Simmons, who left his role as Public Works director earlier this year – were treated similarly after they submitted a resignation letter.

“There’s no way Scott Simmons got a response like that,” Stratton said.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said it is clear that Alexander was forced out.

“The best way to force somebody out is to make their work situation intolerable, which is what happened,” Kinnear said.

The way Alexander is being treated is not OK, she added.

“When somebody says ‘I feel that I’ve been disrespected, I feel that I’ve been targeted because of my race,’ you believe them,” Kinnear said. “Especially a professional man such as Cupid, you believe them.”

Perkins was appointed as city administrator in April. He replaced former City Administrator Wes Crago, who resigned in 2020 less than a year into Woodward’s first term. The city administrator is the only cabinet-level position in the administration that is not subject to the City Council’s confirmation.

Alexander was hired last November to helm the newly-formed Neighborhoods, Housing and Human Services division, which encompasses the city’s homeless and housing programs but also manages services like MySpokane 311. Previously, he had served as an adviser to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

Alexander accused Perkins of routinely misconstruing his words and actions. Once, Alexander wrote, Perkins told him in front of others that “you always say no,” which Alexander interpreted as a form of intimidation.

On another occasion, Perkins allegedly told Alexander his son thought Alexander looked “athletic” and asked if he played sports. It was irrelevant to their conversation, Alexander wrote, “and was stereotyping me in every possible way imaginable.”

Alexander also alleged that Perkins attempted to intimidate him into communicating in person, rather than email, because the emails of city officials are subject to public records requests.

“You were worried of the public information. Leadership requires accountability,” Alexander wrote.

Tension between Perkins and Alexander developed shortly after the new city administrator’s arrival.

In a May 20 email, Alexander took issue with the city’s decision to extend its contract with The Guardians Foundation to operate the Cannon Street homeless shelter by 90 days. Alexander noted the city had just recently received the results of an outside audit that flagged its contracting processes.

“The audit mentioned EXACTLY the type of process we are undertaking,” Alexander wrote.

Perkins defended the extension, noting it had been reviewed and approved by the city attorney’s office, but Alexander drew a line between what is legal and what is ethical.

Alexander listed 13 concerns to which he said Perkins had not responded, including confusion over the replacement of a reduction in beds for the homeless when The Salvation Army transitions its Mission Avenue shelter to a new operating model later this year.

“A lot of this is starting to feel targeted – personally,” Alexander wrote.

The email made clear that Alexander felt he was successful in his role, despite his scope of work changing “from week to week,” but that Perkins had taken issue with his performance.

“If I’m making a mistake, simply let me know,” Alexander wrote. “I can adjust.”

In a statement, Council President Breean Beggs said he believes Alexander was cut out of the administration’s decision-making process, citing a disconnect between Alexander and the rest of the administration on the annual census of the homeless population.

“I am just now reviewing emails that document what appears to be deep dysfunction leading up to Alexander’s departure after only a few months of valuable service to the city of Spokane,” Beggs said.

The administration said Wednesday that it is working on a transition plan for Alexander’s division.

The City Council has several options, Kinnear said, including hiring an investigator to get to the root of Alexander’s concerns or taking a vote of no confidence in Perkins.

But doing so would be perceived as being “like an act of war,” Kinnear said. “I don’t know that we want to go down that road,” she added, particularly after years of battling with the Condon administration.

“We are really weary of fighting with the administration,” Kinnear said.

Stratton said she had hoped things would be different under Woodward’s leadership.

“I’m quickly losing my confidence in this administration,” Stratton said.

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