Just two weeks after his victory in the August 4 Democratic primary election, St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page fired Hazel Erby as the leader of inclusion for the county.
“I was just relieved of my duties as Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” Erby wrote in a tweet at 5:54 p.m. on Tuesday, August 18. “@DrSamPage said ‘I do not need you on my staff anymore’!!”
In the following tweet, Erby wrote, “I will not be silent! Blacks are NOT valued in this administration, particularly Black women!”
When asked about his move to fire Erby during his August 19 press briefing, Page said Erby was the right person to be the first director of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office.
“Now I am looking for more focus and the ability to accomplish even more,” he said.
Page is replacing her with civil rights activist Kenny Murdock, who worked in the inclusion office as manager of the implicit bias training program. He has trained county police officers in implicit bias. Prior to that, he oversaw the county’s equity plan in the Office of Strategy and Innovation.
Murdock said he will “create programs that help the community communicate well with the government,” as well as help county departments better communicate around identity.
Murdock was a full-time paid campaign field guide in Page’s recent primary campaign, he said, and he was deputy campaign manager during Page’s failed bid for lieutenant governor in 2007.
State Rep. Kevin Windham (D-St. Louis County), said, “It doesn’t look good; it doesn’t feel good,” for Erby to be fired two weeks after an election, where an organization she has closely aligned with — the Fannie Lou Hamer Coalition of Black Democrats — endorsed Page’s opponent Jake Zimmerman. And then Page replace Erby his previous campaign manager. Black elected officials said this looks political and “petty.”
“It doesn’t smell good,” Windham said. “And, he’s firing a 74-year Black woman in the midst of a global pandemic.”
Page told The American that he knew his decision was going to be controversial in “some circles.”
In regards to Erby’s possible support for Zimmerman and possible retaliation, Page said, “Hazel told me she was staying out of the election, and I encouraged all of my staff to do the same. And as far as I know they did that.”
The American did not receive a response from Erby by press time regarding Zimmerman’s campaign.
Erby, who had been a champion for racial equity on the St. Louis County Council for 15 years, resigned from her council position to become the inclusion director after Page became the interim county executive in spring 2019 following Steve Stenger’s criminal indictment.
Erby had voted against Page becoming interim county executive because she said that she was the council’s senior Democrat in line for the position. However, she and Page agreed to move forward as a team, they said at the time.
As inclusion director, Erby was in charge of overseeing some of the initiatives that she championed as a councilwoman, including minority participation and the creation of a North County recreation center. However, over the past several months, things began to unravel.
In April, Erby and her team called into question why African-American contractors were excluded from the $1.67 million temporary morgue that was built as part of the county’s COVID-19 response. Despite a county law requiring that 24% of contract dollars go to minority-owned business enterprises (MBEs) — a law that Erby championed — less than $1,000 was awarded to Black contractors, a joint investigation by The St. Louis American and Type Investigations found. Erby’s office oversaw compliance of the 2018 inclusion law, and her team was not informed about the morgue’s construction, in violation of protocol.
Erby also called into question why the on-call contracts, or contracts for contractors in times of emergency, that are renewed every year did not include the minority participation requirements. Page told The American that excluding these emergency contractors from the inclusion law was a mistake that they have now learned from.
Recently, Page removed Erby from having any involvement in compliance in the construction contracts, she said. Erby said she believes it was because Page was pressured by county contractors who didn’t like the new minority participation requirements.
However, in an August 17 email to Erby, Page wrote that she had consistently said she didn’t want to oversee that aspect of inclusion.
“In several meetings last week, you shared your excitement regarding the future without feeling responsible for the M/WBE program” (minority-owned and women-owned business enterprises), Page wrote in an August 17 email. “I hope you still see the important role for a strong leader in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that transcend the M/WBE program.”
This was in response to Erby’s April 12 letter to Page. The two were also recently butting heads about budgetary needs for the inclusion office.
“It has been communicated by yourself, the County Council chair and the Oversight Committee that putting equity first is a top priority,” Erby wrote. “This has not been the case in the current or proposed budget, and it has not been reflected in the resources provided to carry out the numerous requests of the office to date.”
When Page called her just half an hour before her tweet, she said she thought they would be able to talk about this and other issues. Instead, he told her that he was letting her go, even though he said she had done a good job as director, Erby said.
Back when Erby was selected for the position, many advocates in the community were hopeful at the potential change she could bring.
“You know she’s not going to back down from the fight, and that’s what we’ve been needing for a long time,” Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City NAACP, said at the time.
“When you look at her experience with the County Council for 15 years, she knows where the wrongs are buried and where the inequities have occurred most often. Also, the employees of St. Louis County have just gotten the strongest advocate that I can think of in the county’s history.”
Upon hearing the news, Pruitt said that it is sad that county politics is the way that it is – “because at the end of the day,” Pruitt said, “that’s what this is all about.”
Fox in the hen house?
Page announced five appointments on August 19, including making Nate Adams the acting director of the county’s M/WBE program. Adams has worked for more than 30 years in the construction industry and M/WBE programs. Page has also taken the M/WBE program out of the diversity office and put it in under the procurement division.
While this was outlined in the inclusion law, it has also been a grave concern that the minority participation team has continuously raised to Page, for good reason. For anyone who knows how the minority participation process works, this is essentially putting Adams alone – where there was previously a team of four – in the middle of the lion's den.
“It doesn’t bode well with it being pushed down in the organization,” said Jack Thomas, who was the county’s first acting director of the M/WBE program and who hired Adams. “It’s a question of independence. How do you have the person who is over the purchasing also over the M/WBE Office, who will make recommendations of whether or not those contracts go through? That’s not a good look. You have the fox watching the hen house.”
Thomas added that the morgue project is a great example of why this doesn’t work. The American’s June investigation details the hostility that the M/WBE team experienced from the procurement officials and lack of support from Page, leading to Thomas leaving the office.
Thomas and his three team members were up against a small but authoritative group from the Office of Procurement, Department of Transportation and the county counselor’s office, who had a “vested interest” in keeping things the same, Thomas said.