An inquiry is under way to determine whether Lawrence City Manager David Corliss made a racially insensitive remark during a recent staff meeting, Mayor Mike Amyx confirmed Wednesday.
The Journal-World obtained a copy of an e-mail that Corliss sent to city employees on Monday after some employees complained that he used the phrase “spear-chucker” in a June 10 meeting of the city’s Health Care Committee. The phrase in some slang circles has become a derogatory term meaning black people.
When approached Wednesday, Amyx confirmed he has turned the matter over to city attorney Gerald Cooley to investigate and prepare a report for the commission.
“I think this is the best way to handle this right now,” Amyx said. “He’ll look at all the information that is there, and he’ll get back to us.”
Corliss will continue to serve in his position as city manager while Cooley reviews the matter, and Amyx said a timeline had not been set for the review to be concluded.
“I want to make sure everything is done thoroughly,” Amyx said.
Corliss, in his e-mail to employees, said he does not remember using the inappropriate phrase but wrote “I don’t doubt the recollection of those in attendance that believe I did.”
Corliss, though, told employees that if he used the phrase it was not meant to be a racial comment directed at anyone.
“I misspoke and uttered a phrase that can be inappropriate when referring to a person or groups of people,” Corliss wrote. “While my words were inappropriate, my intent was not.”
When reached Wednesday, Corliss said he would let his e-mail explanation speak for itself.
“My only other comment is that people who know my heart know my intent,” Corliss said.
In the e-mail, Corliss said he often has used the phrase “spear-catcher” to describe his role of making unpopular decisions that are related to the city’s budget.
At the June 10 meeting, Corliss was describing a recommendation to eliminate the subsidy the city provides to people who have retired from the city’s employment but remain on the city’s health care plan.
Corliss was recommending that the city eliminate the $58,000 expense for the 2011 budget — though on Tuesday Corliss reversed himself and said he had found a way to recommend the funding remain in the budget.
The allegations come at a moment when tensions between city management and some city employees already are heightened. The city is negotiating new employment contracts with both the police and fire unions.
Mike McMillen, president of the local firefighters union, confirmed that he and a member of the police union alerted Amyx to Corliss’ comment.
McMillen said he was told from more than one individual at the meeting that Corliss uttered the phrase.
“Our understanding is that we had an obligation to report it,” McMillen said. “It does come at an awkward time. I hope people don’t see a link between this and the negotiations because there is no link.”
In his role as city manager, Corliss serves at the pleasure of the City Commission. He’s served in the city’s top administrative spot since 2006 and has been on the city’s staff since 1990.
Despite the matter being a personnel issue, Corliss said he wants any findings the commission makes about the matter to be made public and released to city employees.