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Allentown mayor: 18-month investigation prompted 3 firings in HR department

230906 Allentown City Council Tuerk.jpg
Olivia Marble
Mayor Matt Tuerk at the Allentown City Council meeting Wednesday as Councilman Ed Zucal calls for an independent investigation of city government.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The firing of an Allentown human resources employee that sparked City Council's no-confidence vote against Mayor Matt Tuerk was just one of three HR workers the mayor terminated in November, Tuerk's spokeswoman has revealed.

Amid council’s discussions Wednesday before it declared it had no confidence in the mayor for firing Karen Ocasio, Tuerk's Communications Manager Genesis Ortega read a prepared statement about “recent firings” in the human resources department.

“I’ll start by saying this is not typical, but there has been a lot of public discourse and reporting in the media,” Ortega said.

The mayor’s office in April 2022 hired “outside, independent counsel to investigate multiple complaints involving employees within the city’s human resources department,” she said.

Those investigators interviewed more than two dozen workers over 18 months, and recommended “the termination of three employees” in the department last month, Ortega said.

“After careful consideration, the mayor decided to follow the recommendations put forth by the investigation and terminate the employ[ment] of the three individuals,” she told council.

“As is the case in all human resource-related matters across industries, municipalities, and even in the corporate world, we cannot provide details about the specific findings of the investigations,” Ortega said.

“The interviews, findings and conclusions are confidential employment matters that cannot be disclosed.”

Ortega’s prepared statement on behalf of Tuerk prompted a series of questions from Councilwoman Ce-Ce Gerlach about the investigation’s cost and timing and a lack of communication with council.

“With everything going on, why are we just now learning that there was an investigation for over a year?” she asked the mayor.

Tuerk and Ortega did not answer most of Gerlach’s questions, offering to collect more information for council members.

No-confidence vote

By a 4-3 vote Wednesday night, Council approved a no-confidence resolution that called the mayor’s service “a detriment to the well-being of the city, its residents and city employees.”

Councilman Ed Zucal had been calling for the no-confidence vote since the mayor fired Ocasio on Nov. 20.

Ocasio repeatedly called for an investigation into City Hall after Allentown’s NAACP branch publicized a letter in July detailing numerous allegations of workplace discrimination and racism.

She’s also filed discrimination complaints against the city with Pennsylvania's equal-employment and human-relations commissions.

Zucal has said her termination was “an act of revenge” by Tuerk and could open the city up to costly lawsuits.

Former Allentown Human Resources Director Nadeem Shahzad also is pursuing state and federal litigation against the city. He has accused Tuerk of forcing him to resign after less than two months in the job for not firing Ocasio.