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Councilman: Allentown mayor’s ‘act of revenge’ in firing may merit vote of no confidence

230906 Allentown City Council Tuerk.jpg
Olivia Marble
Mayor Matt Tuerk listens at Allentown City Council's Sept. 6 meeting as Councilman Ed Zucal calls for an independent investigation of city government.

UPDATE: Mayor makes 1st public comments amid backlash

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A city employee who helped spark an investigation into racism and discrimination at City Hall was fired Monday.

Karen Ocasio, a now-former human resources worker who filed complaints against the city with Pennsylvania’s equal-employment opportunity and human relations commissions, was notified Monday that her employment would end the same day.

The letter — viewed by LehighValleyNews.com — was sent by Mayor Matt Tuerk and did not specify a reason for the termination.

Ocasio has repeatedly spoken at Allentown City Council meetings since the NAACP Allentown Branch released a letter in July alleging numerous instances of workplace racism and discrimination.

Allentown City Council in October approved an investigation into those allegations. Council members Ed Zucal, Ce-Ce Gerlach and council President Daryl Hendricks are working with the city’s Purchasing Bureau to hire an investigative agency.

Allentown communications manager Genesis Ortega said Monday that Tuerk’s administration does not comment on personnel decisions.

Ocasio did not immediately respond to LehighValleyNews.com.

‘All my complaints were ignored’

In September, Ocasio told council that some coworkers told her: “Where the managers sit is the United States and where the administrators, back where I was, is Mexico.”

She said she was moved out of her office without warning and taunted for her new working location after returning from medical leave.

“All my complaints were ignored,” Ocasio said Sept. 6. “I went to the solicitor; I went to everybody. No one listened to me.”

Two weeks later, she urged council members to make sure those tasked with investigating complaints at City Hall are given broad authority.

“Uncover the rug, so we can start cleaning up,” she said.

“I am personally concerned to find out this information, just because we haven't even begun the investigation.”
Ce-Ce Gerlach, Allentown City Council

Ocasio worked for the city for about five years, according to her LinkedIn page. She spent about three years as a human resource coordinator, then moved to a benefits manager position, which comes with a salary of about $63,000.

Ocasio’s termination comes three months after Nadeem Shahzad left his role as head of the city’s HR department under disputed circumstances.

Shahzad, who headed human resources for less than two months, claimed he was illegally fired in mid-August at a time when City Hall was facing scrutiny over the treatment of minority employees.

But Ortega, the city's spokesperson, said Shahzad resigned and was not fired. She declined further comment, saying then that the city does not comment on personnel matters.

Shahzad said he intended to pursue federal and state litigation against the city for terminating him without valid cause.

The NAACP Allentown Branch is set to hold a “special leadership meeting” Wednesday night to talk about Ocasio’s firing, according to Secretary Barbara Redmond.

She said the organization would make no comment until that meeting.

'Act of revenge'?

Gerlach, who pushed for the investigation into City Hall and will help pick the investigating agency, on Monday called Ocasio’s firing “concerning.”

“I hope it doesn't open us up to financial liability,” she said, noting Ocasio’s EEOC and HRC complaints against the city.

Gerlach said she hopes the mayor’s firing of Ocasio wasn’t “a form of retaliation” for her complaints.

“I am personally concerned to find out this information, just because we haven't even begun the investigation,” she said. “Now, one of the individuals who has been most vocal about the need for an investigation has been terminated.”

“It’s clear the mayor welcomes neither transparency nor freedom to speak out in his administration.”
Ed Zucal, Allentown City Council

Council member Ed Zucal released a statement Monday night slamming Ocasio’s firing as "an act of revenge" and "blatant retaliation and retribution” by Tuerk.

“A few months ago, Mayor Tuerk stood before council and said he welcomed the investigation and scrutiny into his administration,” Zucal said. “Now, he’s firing one of the first employees courageous enough to speak out and before the investigation has even started.”

“It’s clear the mayor welcomes neither transparency nor freedom to speak out in his administration,” he said.

Zucal also said Tuerk’s firing of Ocasio could put “the city in danger of lawsuits and financial liability.”

Vote of no confidence?

Zucal said he is exploring whether to push for a vote of no confidence “to signal the complete lack of faith that council now has in this mayor.”

A vote of no confidence is “a way of expressing that an organization has lost all respect and confidence in its leader or its leadership,” Zucal said.

The last time City Council took a no-confidence vote was January 2016, when members unanimously voted that they had no confidence in then-Mayor Ed Pawlowski in the wake of an FBI investigation into pay-to-play contracting at Allentown City Hall.

Zucal in 2020 drafted a no-confidence measure against Gerlach and then-member Joshua Siegel for joining protests after a police officer used his knee to restrain a man outside St. Luke’s Hospital’s Sacred Heart campus.

Ultimately, council members did not vote on that measure.