by Daniel B. Frye
When Patrick D. Cannon, director of the Michigan Commission for the Blind (MCB), authorizes the expenditure of public funds to have security guards present at an open meeting of the agency's governing body, it's time to start asking questions. Who exactly requires such protection, agency leaders and staff or blind consumers? Why has Christine Boone been fired from her position as director of the Michigan Commission for the Blind Training Center (MCBTC)? How are programs at the training center being changed in the wake of her dismissal, and are students facing retaliation for supporting Boone's efforts to regain her job? Under Cannon's leadership is the MCB violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by installing inadequate and noncompliant Braille and raised-letter signs in commission facilities, adopting inaccessible statewide computer systems that blind commission employees cannot use, and failing to provide timely access to accessible client records and materials for public meetings?
Such possible lapses take on greater significance when one considers that Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm named Cannon the state's ADA coordinator, responsible for "coordinating, on behalf of the Governor, programs, activities, and services of all state departments and agencies within the executive branch related to compliance with state and federal disability-rights laws..." as outlined in her Executive Order 2004-31, issued in June 2004. Does Cannon try to exercise inappropriate control over the composition and operation of the Commission, the body responsible for agency oversight? What glaring fiscal irregularities need further review at the MCB? Why do blind entrepreneurs in Michigan accuse the MCB of abdicating its responsibility to promote due process and active participation among blind vendors in the state's Randolph-Sheppard Vending Program? In short, why are some blind consumers unhappy with Cannon's administration of the MCB in these and other areas? Whatever else can be said about the quality of services, administrative irregularities, and managerial manipulation at the Michigan Commission for the Blind described in the following report, nobody doubts that the relationship between the state's blind consumers and their principal rehabilitation service provider has been poisoned.
The Braille Monitor originally learned of troubles at the MCB when in early 2010 word of Christine Boone's pending termination for initiating and running a marksmanship course at the MCBTC was made public. After we talked with blind people throughout the state, it became clear that the Boone case was only one of several issues suggestive of systemic problems at the agency. We visited Michigan March 16 to 21, 2010, when the MCB board was scheduled to conduct its quarterly meeting and a Commission board-sponsored special retreat to air vendor grievances was planned. We interviewed a wide range of interested people (including, to his credit, Director Cannon), attended the public meetings, and examined stacks of correspondence and public records to piece this story together. As is always the case in complicated stories, new details emerge almost daily surrounding the Commission for the Blind. This story can provide only a snapshot of these issues through mid-April.
The MCB under Cannon has adopted some innovative programs that, if properly implemented, promise to help blind Michiganders. Notable among these services is an initiative to create at least forty internships with the possibility of permanent employment for qualified blind consumers. Funding from the American Recovery and Re-investment Act (ARRA) is helping to make these opportunities possible. Critics of the agency observe, however, that the MCB is unlikely to generate anything like this number of internships. Cannon has also spearheaded a strategic-planning exercise for the agency, styled Vision 2020, that he says will yield better services and enhance consumer involvement in agency governance. Some agency detractors dismiss this process as merely another bureaucratic exercise. Despite being able to point to such programs that should attract consumer support, our investigation found much for concern with programs, policies, and practices at the Michigan Commission for the Blind. In this first installment we concentrate on the Boone dismissal. The second report will address the other issues alluded to in the introduction. Here is what we know:
The Christine Boone Issue:
We begin with a summary of the events in Christine Boone's account of what led to her termination as director of the Michigan Commission for the Blind Training Center. Pat Cannon and other Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth officials declined to offer balancing or rebuttal comments, citing personnel confidentiality and pending litigation. The department did issue a single statement addressing the matter on Friday, March 19, during the public MCB board meeting. This statement appears in full following the Boone account of events. We also reprint some of the press coverage supporting Boone's fight for restoration to her former position.
According to Boone, the MCBTC provides instruction to blind adults in skills that will enable them to regain or retain the productivity, creativity, independence, enjoyment, and potential that life should hold for any person. Boone, who was intensively recruited by MCB Director Cannon to serve as director of the agency’s training center, relocated her family to Kalamazoo in October 2006. The training center has prospered under her leadership. Programs have been expanded and modernized with the result that customers are better prepared to enter the job market and to resume their roles as full participants in family and community life.
Pat Cannon has voiced nothing but support and enthusiasm for Boone’s work, rating her as high performing in three of the four evaluations he has given her and satisfactory to high performing in the fourth. Cannon’s only complaint was one missed deadline on Boone’s completion of staff evaluations for the thirty-four employees whom she directly supervised at the time. Given the fact that neither Cannon nor any of Boone’s colleagues on the Commission’s executive management team supervised more than seven employees, Boone’s slight delay in this single area hardly seems significant.
As MCBTC director Boone and her team routinely developed and implemented new classes, curricula, and entire programs to respond to the changing needs of their customers and to incorporate the input of stakeholders. Boone habitually communicated these plans to Director Cannon during regular telephone conferences with him, because Cannon told her that he preferred oral communication to the formality of written memos. Once she had received his oral approval of a project, Boone and the MCBTC team never failed to follow through and bring their plans to fruition. One example of this arrangement occurred in October 2008, when several center students decided to go sky diving. The MCB public relations director helped to publicize this grand adventure, but as usual no written communication flowed between Boone and her boss in connection with the event until afterward.
Over the years MCBTC students had expressed interest in target shooting, which has become part of the biathlon competition in the Paralympics. In the spring of 2009 the MCBTC recreation coordinator approached Boone to ask about the possibility of developing a target shooting class. Boone took the idea to Cannon, who expressed concern that the class be particularly safe. Boone assured him that all safety precautions would be taken, and she indicated that staff would explore possible teaching sites both in Kalamazoo and on the center’s twenty-two acre property. Cannon gave Boone his customary oral approval.
During the following six months the staff carefully researched and developed the class. Because the MCBTC is in the city of Kalamazoo, the staff were well aware that firearms would not be permitted on its land. After a thorough search, however, the recreation coordinator was unable to arrange an off-campus site. She then began to search for a gun that was not a firearm. She inquired of the Michigan State Police and then of Kalamazoo Public Safety in the city’s police department and learned that pellet rifles with a caliber of .177 or less were specifically exempted by Michigan law as BB class and not considered to be firearms. Two such pellet guns were purchased at a local Meijer department store, where they rang up as general merchandise and did not require a filing or documentation of any kind. These guns are further distinguished from firearms because they propel pellets by means of a spring rather than using any kind of air, gas, or combustion.
The shooting range was established at the bottom of a ravine in the woods at a considerable distance from the MCBTC building and its well-used walking track. The staff constructed a target of plywood covered with a two-inch sheet of foam and a paper target affixed to the foam. The pellets could pierce the paper and foam, leaving a mark that could be felt and seen and so enabling students to judge the accuracy of a shot. The target also included an audible locater. Safety was further assured by construction of the target range in a thirty-foot ravine with sloping berms on three sides.
Students and staff decided to call the class marksmanship to emphasize the goal of learning to shoot accurately and consistently at a standard target. The first class took place in mid-September, when the student population did not include anyone under the age of eighteen. This step was taken as another precaution to avoid any appearance of impropriety or endangerment of young people at the MCBTC. The class was taught by the center’s recreation coordinator, who is herself a highly skilled marksman and holds shooting credentials. Marksmanship class was an instant success, instilling a level of self-confidence in participants that is hard to achieve. Several students found this class life-changing, giving them at long last the conviction that they truly could achieve the same degree of excellence in their lives as blind people as they would have done as sighted people.
On Sunday, November 8, 2009, immediately following Boone’s speech at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan, in which she mentioned the success of the marksmanship class, Cannon telephoned Boone at home and asked her to discontinue the class at once. He also told her to bring the two guns with her to his office in Lansing early the following morning. Cannon then asked if she was aware of the existence of a Civil Service work safety rule that prohibited firearms on state property. Boone replied honestly that she had not consulted the Civil Service work rule, but that the guns used in the class were most definitely not firearms. She told him that they had been purchased at Meijer, just as countless other items were, requiring none of the paperwork or waiting time that accompanies the purchase of a firearm.
Before leaving for Lansing the following morning, Boone cancelled the class indefinitely. She did not carry the pellet guns with her because she recognized that they could have easily been mistaken for firearms, and Boone assumed it would be unwise for her to enter a state building carrying them.
Cannon was furious that she had not brought the guns to him, interrogating her at length about the kind of guns that had been used. He seemed unwilling or unable to believe that they were simple pellet guns, and he accused Boone of breaking Civil Service Workplace Safety rule 2-20, Regulation 2.05, which bans the possession of firearms on state property. A similar conversation occurred the following day, during which Cannon explained that he had received confirmation from the head of safety for Civil Service that the guns used at the center were firearms despite the fact that neither Cannon nor his Civil Service colleague had seen the pellet guns. Cannon ended this conversation cordially, assuring Boone that they would have plenty of time to discuss the marksmanship class at full length after he returned from a business trip the following week. On or about Thursday, November 12, 2009, Cannon arranged to have a visiting staff person bring the guns to Lansing from Kalamazoo, and he told Boone that they would be destroyed.
The following week, after a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Boone was placed on emergency medical leave because of a genetic condition that nearly resulted in the loss of her lower leg and foot. She remained in regular contact with the MCBTC staff, which was supervised by assistant director Bruce Schultz in her absence. On or about December 20, Cannon called Boone, asking for her return-to-work date. She said that she had a tentative date of January 11, but she explained that this date was subject to her physician’s clearance and that she would likely be able to return initially on a part-time basis only.
On December 30 Boone received correspondence by registered mail informing her that she must attend an investigatory conference in Lansing on January 12 and that the subject of the conference was "marksman class.” She was further informed that she could bring a representative with her to this meeting. No further information was provided.
Boone spent much of the intervening time gathering information and documentation in the hope that she would be able to present it during the conference. She also studied Civil Service Workplace Safety Rule 2-20, Workplace Safety Regulation 2.05. Regulation 2.05 defines a firearm as “A weapon from which a dangerous projectile may be expelled by explosive, gas, or air.” The guns purchased by the Center (and approved by Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth purchasing officials) did not use any of these three methods to expel the pellets. The guns used a spring cylinder. The rule also spells out numerous exceptions, including specific approval by an appointing authority, which can be the CEO of an autonomous entity that is headed by a board or commission. Boone believed that the air rifles used at the MCBTC were not firearms, and indeed they were not sold as firearms. She also believed that she had the approval of the Commission for the Blind director to operate the class.
At Boone’s insistence her Mayo physician agreed to release her to return to work (for not more than four hours a day) on Monday, January 11. She traveled to Lansing on the 12th for the investigative conference. Though she had spoken with her attorney, Anne-Marie Mizel, Boone elected not to bring anyone with her, believing that doing so would only escalate the situation. At the conference were Commission director Pat Cannon, Christine Boone, and Patty Gamin, director of human relations for the Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth (DELEG). Gamin asked Boone a series of questions which appeared to be based on the belief that she had developed the marksmanship class in secrecy. Boone explained that she had received Cannon’s approval before her staff ever began work on the project. While Cannon initially denied hearing about the class before Boone’s presentation at the NFB of Michigan convention, later in the conference he did admit that he remembered discussing the development of a shooting class. He added that he had thought the class would be taught off campus. Because Boone had asked that the conference be recorded, Cannon’s comments are preserved in that recording.
It should be noted that the Civil Service rule at issue here does not distinguish between possession of a firearm on state property and possession of a firearm during actual duty time, since both are prohibited. Consequently, the question of whether the marksmanship class was held on the center’s property or off site, as Cannon supposed, is immaterial.
Although she was never permitted to present her own position on the meeting's topic, Boone did give Gamin a stack of documentation in support of her contention that the class was completely safe, that it was taught by a qualified staff person, that it furthered a legitimate purpose in direct response to student requests, and that the air rifles used in the class did not meet the definition of firearms under either Michigan law or the Civil Service work safety rule. This evidence included numerous articles highlighting the sport of target shooting for blind people (covering both national and international shooting competitions); several articles about Michigan hunters who are blind; a complete chronology of the class preparation, including a record of contacts with both state and local police and their opinion that the air rifles used were not firearms; voluntary statements from five center students who had participated in the class and found it rewarding and truly safe; the text from a number of commission publications discussing the agency’s belief about the capacity of blind people to compete at all levels of life and society; and an email from Cannon dated November 14, 2009, in which he assured Boone most cordially that they would continue to discuss the marksmanship class after his return from a national conference. Gamin accepted these submissions and without any further deliberation ended the conference by telling Cannon that they would meet in his office in five minutes to finish their discussion of the matter.
On Tuesday, January 26, 2010, Boone received an overnight letter (no signature required) ordering her to attend a disciplinary conference on Thursday, January 28 and indicating that “the contemplated discipline is dismissal from employment." Boone contacted Gamin the same day, requesting and receiving an extension of time until February 4. Gamin immediately called Boone back, placing her on paid administrative leave until February 4. Cannon telephoned MCBTC Assistant Director Schultz, informing him that Boone was not to be permitted on the property of the MCBTC.
During the next week Boone’s lawyer repeatedly requested that the disciplinary conference be recast as a hearing. Her requests were denied, and she was told that the purpose of the conference was only to administer discipline. State Representative Robert Jones, a longtime supporter of the center, contacted both Gamin and Skip Pruss, DELEG director, requesting a hearing for Boone. Both parties assured him that she would receive a hearing on February 4, but no hearing was ever provided.
Anne-Marie Mizel also requested an explanation of why Boone was banned from the MCBTC property. This request was not answered until the time of the conference, at which Gamin presented a letter saying that Boone had not really been banned from the property. Boone was also given a letter of dismissal at this conference.
It should be noted here that Regulation 2.05 permits discipline in the following circumstances only:
E. Discipline. The appointing authority may discipline an employee for (1) engaging in an act or threat of violence or (2) carrying or possessing a firearm or explosives at a state workplace or while on actual-duty time in violation of Rule 2—20, this regulation or an agency work rule.
Boone never carried or possessed a firearm under these conditions, and she never even touched the air rifles that were used in the marksmanship class.
DELEG Director of Human Resources Gamin, presided over the disciplinary conference alone, since Cannon had left the country on Saturday, January 30, for a three-week vacation in Mexico. Throughout the conference Boone was not told about any right of appeal or provided information about continuing insurance benefits, leave time pay out, and the like. Gamin refused to consider any of the information that Attorney Mizel had prepared. Boone finally asked Gamin why Cannon’s approval of the establishment of a marksmanship class was not being considered. Gamin responded that Cannon did not know what he was approving.
Boone ultimately did receive information on the administrative appeal process by mail on February 9. Remarkably, the first level of appeal is to the appointing authority within DELEG, who is none other than Gamin.
In Cannon’s absence the Central office of the Commission notified the staff of the MCBTC that Boone was not permitted to be on center property and that she might not communicate with any staff or students. When asked how Boone could be expected to remove her possessions from her former office if she was not allowed on the property, the acting director was told that she could be permitted to clear her office under his supervision.
After Boone's termination she filed the appropriate appeal of this decision, recognizing that a petition to the entity that had fired her was likely to be unsuccessful. Indeed the agency failed to provide a timely response to her appeal, so it now goes directly to the Civil Service Commission for a hearing. At this writing no date for this hearing has been scheduled. Finally, it is notable that Boone's application for unemployment benefits has been approved based on an investigation conducted by the agency responsible for administering unemployment benefits for DELEG. The notice that Boone received said in pertinent part, "You were discharged from the Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth on February 4, 2010, for violating company policy. Available information does not establish that your separation was for misconduct. It is found that you were not fired for a deliberate disregard of your employer's interest." This finding seems significant as the Civil Service Commission prepares to hear Boone's appeal.
Here is the only official statement that DELEG officials have offered in this matter. They insisted that the entire text of the following statement be read during one of the public comments sections at the March 19, 2010, MCB board meeting. Here it is:
On February 17, 2010, Christine Boone filed an action against the Department of Energy, Labor, & Economic Growth (DELEG) challenging her dismissal from employment based on her development and implementation of an unauthorized marksman class at the Michigan Commission for the Blind Training Center, in violation of Civil Service Rules and Regulations and DELEG work rules for workplace safety. It is the policy of this Agency not to comment on pending litigation. Anyone interested in Civil Service Rules and Regulations regarding firearms, however, is directed to the civil service Website at <http://www.michigan.gov/mdcs/0,1607,7-147-6877_8155-72500--,00.html#2_20> and <http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdcs/Reg_2.05_Workplace_Safety_207289_7.pdf>.
Anyone interested in the DELEG work rules on Workplace safety is directed to <http://www.michigan.gov/documents/safety2_121970_7.doc>. The Department of Energy, Labor, & Economic Growth intends to vigorously defend its actions in dismissing Ms. Boone from employment.
Members of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan, disgruntled center students, bewildered MCBTC staff, and others around the country who are outraged at the Boone termination have worked hard to communicate the injustice of Boone’s firing. We end this report by reprinting one of the many articles that appeared in the Michigan press reporting the Boone termination. On February 24, 2010, the following article appeared on the Website of Kalamazoo Newschannel Three.
Former Director of Blind Training Center Breaks Her Silence
She was fired for letting blind students shoot pellet guns, but now the former director of the Michigan Commission for the Blind's Training Center is breaking her silence. Newschannel 3 sat down with Christine Boone to share her side of a controversial story. Until now Boone had been reluctant to talk, fearing what the state could do to her, but now that the dust has settled she's offering her thoughts, and it's something that many in the blind community have been waiting for. “I just have a very unique set of circumstances,” said Boone.
Boone was a successful attorney but says her true calling was to rehab the blind, something she did at the MCB Training Center, but she isn't jumping to take credit. “I would never flatter myself so much as to say I exclusively empowered those guys to do that,” said Boone. However, Boone's students, who have protested her dismissal, say she should get the credit and have taken to the streets to voice their frustration.
“I am so humbled, really, that people would stop what they're doing, that they would stand out in the cold in support of me,” said Boone. Boone believes the blind can do nearly anything anyone else can, so she had a marksmanship class at the center. She says that class was stopped and then cited as the reason for her firing, all of which she says was done without an investigation.
“No one ever even saw the place where the class is taught or spoke to the teacher or spoke to the other staff members about their roles in designing the class,” said Boone. “That just feels like a reaction that isn't fair.” Boone also suspects her dismissal was hard on the staff she left behind. “I think people at the center are scared now,” said Boone, “and I don't blame them.”
Many of those protesting Boone's firing have cried foul that she was fired over using firearms on state property. They say the pellet guns used in the class were not firearms under Michigan law, and they believe Boone has gotten a raw deal. “It's hard to read that you are guilty of serious safety violations,” said Boone. "I was fired for violating a civil service work rule banning firearms from state facilities. That means that the state is attempting to redefine what a firearm is."
Under state law a firearm is defined in Michigan as “a weapon from which a dangerous projectile may be propelled by an explosive or by gas or air. Firearm does not include a smooth bore rifle or handgun, designed and manufactured exclusively for propelling, by a spring or by gas or air, BBs not exceeding .177 caliber.”
"If a .177 spring-activated pellet gun is a firearm, then even someone who's not necessarily an advocate for the second amendment has to say, 'Wait a minute, our second amendment rights are in serious trouble here,’" said Boone. Despite her dismissal Boone hopes the focus goes back to the blind. “The people who live in Michigan who are blind and visually impaired deserve good programs,” said Boone.
Newschannel 3 has made repeated attempts to talk to Pat Cannon, the director of the Michigan Center for the Blind, but we have not been successful. When we asked a spokesperson why Christine Boone was let go, we were told it was for poor performance. No mention was made of the marksmanship class.
In the absence of substantive comment from DELEG officials, we can draw our conclusions only from the information at hand. Based on the Boone account and particularly the assessment of the state in working up its response to her unemployment claim that she did not knowingly or willfully violate rules, we are left to wonder at the true rationale for this decision. According to Boone, Cannon grew threatened by and irritated with her as early as the spring of 2009 for a variety of reasons. Boone believes that Cannon thought she wanted his job, but she says that she had had no real interest in such an opportunity. Instead she says that she was enjoying the job of building a strong training center. Students loyal to Boone's administration tell the Braille Monitor that they have been subject to acts of retaliation for supporting her position, that the philosophical blindness seminar class that Boone instituted during her tenure has been essentially discontinued, and that students' after-hours activities and affiliations are being closely monitored and reported to Cannon. Several students report that morale at the MCBTC has dropped dramatically. Only time will tell how this issue will be resolved. Next month we will examine other aspects of this complicated story.