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Ex-Allentown HR director claims race and religion factored in his ouster

Allentown City Hall
Allentown City Council Vice President Cynthia Mota said she will call for an investigation after HR Director Nadeem Shahzad was forced to resign Friday. The city is facing high-profile complaints of mistreatment of minority employees.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The city's ousted human resources director claimed his race, national origin, religion and skin color led to his forced departure from City Hall as he was responding to city council's inquiries about severance payments to former city employees.

Less than two months after being hired to lead Allentown's human resources department, Nadeem Shahzad resigned Friday under pressure from Mayor Matt Tuerk, Shahzad said in an interview Monday.

  • Nadeem Shahzad said he was forced to resign Friday as Allentown's human resources director
  • Shahzad said the city has a poor record of equal employment violations and that he believes he was pushed out due to his skin color, religion and status as an immigrant
  • City Council Vice President Cynthia Mota said she will call for an investigation of the human resources department

Shahzad said he has already filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and intends to bring state and federal lawsuits against the city.

"Why on earth would he terminate? I didn't steal. I wasn't rude. I was not disrespectful. I did not refuse to do anything that was legal," Shahzad said.

"It must be because I am a Muslim, a minority, a brown-skinned person of color, off-the-boat," he said.

In a statement through a city spokesman, Tuerk responded, "Mr. Shahzad was not terminated. He resigned."

"It must be because I am a Muslim, a minority, a brown-skinned person of color, off-the-boat."
Nadeem Shahzad, on the reasons he says he was forced out

Between Shahzad's departure and a letter last month from the NAACP alleging several cases in city government of discrimination and racism, the city's treatment of minority employees has grabbed center stage.

Council Vice President Cynthia Mota said she will call for an executive session of city council so it can order an investigation. She declined to go into specifics, saying council needed an opportunity to review the facts before she could comment.

"We need to get together and hear things out," Mota said.

Severance payments in Allentown

Tensions between Tuerk and Shahzad developed quickly this month, Shahzad said.

The city has experienced high turnover in the past few months, and city council members had inquired about severance payments going to some former employees, he said. Council members had questions about whether the administration needed council's approval to authorize the payments and wanted information about how much was being paid and to how many ex-staffers, Shahzad said.

"Previously, they would ask his [Tuerk's] office, and they would get nothing. His idea was to ignore them — to not respond," Shahzad said.

But Shahzad said that he had a responsibility to provide that information to city council, which holds final say on the city's fiscal matters. He said he needed to clear the release of the information with the the law department, however, because some payments involved non-disclosure agreements.

Shahzad said this put him at odds with Tuerk, who felt he was too close to council.

"He could not control me," Shahzad said. "Council was asking for things they had asked for before, and they were getting frustrated."

"There have been numerous people who are no longer employees of the city. Some resigned, some were forced to resign, some were fired. That information would be helpful."
Ce-Ce Gerlach, Allentown councilwoman

In his statement, Tuerk denied having a conversation about city council's inquiries over severance payments with Shahzad. He did not address questions about whether his administration needs council's approval to authorize severance payments, how many former employees his administration has agreed to pay severance or how much his administration has paid in severance payments.

"Our administration is preparing a response to city council’s request," Tuerk said in the statement.

Councilwoman Ce-Ce Gerlach confirmed Councilman Ed Zucal has been inquiring about the severance payments being doled out without council oversight. She did not know if other council members knew of his requests, but Gerlach said he had her full support. The city has seen a wave of turnover in the past two years, and council has little insight into its true costs.

"There have been numerous people who are no longer employees of the city. Some resigned, some were forced to resign, some were fired," Gerlach said. "That information would be helpful."

Zucal did not immediately return a phone call or email seeking comment.

Other problems in HR

Shahzad said there were other smaller issues that popped up between him and Tuerk. One point of contention was bringing in a software vendor to streamline the HR department. The office, he said, is 30 years behind on the times and operates largely on pen and paper.

"Ninety percent of their time is spent on paperwork. They could be doing real HR work if they had the software," Shahzad said.

With the administration's approval, Shahzad said he organized demonstrations from potential vendors for their products. He favored products from developers ARP and Paycom, he said, while the city's IT and fiscal departments preferred the ERP system Munis. Shahzad said he pushed back.

"I don't tell you how to run your departments, so you don't tell me how to run mine," Shahzad said.

Shahzad said he was summoned to a meeting with Tuerk on Friday where he was presented two letters to pick from — one in which he was being fired and one where he was resigning. Shahzad said he opted to resign so he would not be escorted from the building. During the meeting, he said Tuerk accused him of being on the payroll of Paycom — a claim Shahzad denied.

In his statement, Tuerk confirmed the software issue came up in Shahzad's last meeting.

"During the conversation that led to his resignation, I reiterated my concern about his efforts to skirt the city’s procurement process and advocate for a potential vendor outside of that process. I mentioned to him that many employees had questions about his relationship with a potential vendor," Tuerk said.

Shahzad's departure comes about a month after the Allentown NAACP wrote Tuerk a five-page letter making numerous allegations of discrimination and racism within city government. Among the allegations, the letter claimed white police officers have threatened to shoot Black colleagues in the head, that the city was failing to follow its own regulations about posting job vacancies and that minority employees were not receiving the same training available to white coworkers. In an email to city staff, Tuerk denied his administration was ignoring complaints from minority employees but did not address the allegations.

While the letter carries the names of the chapter's six officers, President Walt Felton and Vice President Dan Bosket said it was sent without their authorization.

Chapter officers did not comment on the letter during their public meeting last week, and Bosket declined to discuss the status of the letter and its allegations.

Reporter Sarah Mueller contributed to this article.