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Ex-Spokesperson Sues McLean County, Alleging Race Discrimination

Dion and Kari
Dion McNeal leads a video discussion with Kari Jones, McLean County Health Department's health promotion program manager, earlier this year.

A former McLean County government employee claims in a new federal lawsuit that he faced on-the-job discrimination and retaliation after he publicly raised concerns about racism in the workplace.

Dion McNeal was the county’s communications specialist and one of the most public voices in its initial COVID-19 response last spring. McNeal, who is Black, was involved in a dispute over a county press release and social media post in June—just after the killing of George Floyd—that linked the trauma of racism and police brutality with public health.

McNeal says that put him at odds with some county officials. He then went to the media with his concerns, in which he pointed to a lack of Black leadership in the county’s health department. He says he was fired a few days later.

Dion McNeal
Credit WGLT
Dion McNeal was the county’s communications specialist and one of the most public voices in its initial COVID-19 response last spring.

McNeal’s 13-count lawsuit was filed Sunday in federal court. It accuses the McLean County Board, the Board of Health, and various county officials of unlawful retaliation and discrimination against McNeal based on his race. He is seeking unspecified damages, including for emotional distress.

The lawsuit was not unexpected; McNeal was raising legal funds through a public fundraiser.

Much of the lawsuit centers around the press release linking racism and public health. Health department Administrator Jessica McKnight verbally signed off on McNeal’s draft of the press release, but she also asked him to get additional feedback on it from a county behavioral health coordinator, Amy Hancock, according to the lawsuit.

“(Hancock’s) recommended revisions went well beyond the limited purpose of her review,” the lawsuit claims. “For example, one of her recommended changes was removing the statement ‘racism is a public health crisis,’ language that has been widely used by other health departments and by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois Public Health Association.”

So on June 10, McNeal sent out the original version of the press release. The next day, McNeal was told he would have multiple job duties removed, according to the lawsuit.

McNeal says he faced “severe adverse employment actions,” in contrast with a white co-worker who also sent a letter to the media June 19 raising concerns about the lack of diversity in the health department. That white co-worker was treated more favorably, the lawsuit claims.

McNeal also claims sex discrimination. McNeal has identified himself as a “proud healthy Black queer HIV positive man.”

“Similarly situated female employees … did not suffer the same adverse employment action McNeal did and, therefore, were treated more favorably,” his lawsuit reads.

McNeal’s accusation of unlawful retaliation is based on how the county and health department reacted to him going public in his June 19 statement. McNeal claims he was “speaking as a public citizen on a matter of public concern and was engaged in activity protected by First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

“McNeal suffered several adverse actions and deprivations likely to deter his protected activity, including without limitation, increased job scrutiny, placement on administrative leave, placement on a performance improvement plan, and termination of employment,” the lawsuit reads. “McNeal’s legally protected activity was at least a motivating factor in the defendants’ decision to impose the deprivations.”

A message left with county administrator Camille Rodriguez was not immediately returned Tuesday. Board chair John McIntyre declined to comment.

"As I’m sure you’re aware and can understand, we simply do not comment on pending litigation. Our responses will be contained in the pleadings we file and arguments made to the court," said McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp.

Rodriguez and McKnight issued a joint statement in June indicating they cannot comment on personnel matters.

“We are committed to providing an inclusive and diverse workplace, free from discrimination. McLean County government has and will examine all employee concerns in accordance with McLean County’s nondiscrimination policies and grievance procedures,” the statement said.

The pandemic has strained public health agencies across the country, as they work to share fast-moving information with limited budgets. At key times during the pandemic, the county and its health department struggled to share timely and accurate information with the public.

That was visible in confusion about changes in testing criteria at the Bloomington drive-thru clinic that was state-run and federally supported for a time. The county also has repeatedly sent clarifying or corrected statements to the media after releasing incorrect COVID-19 data.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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