One of McLean County's most public figures during the pandemic has been removed from the role after he issued a statement on public health guidance for racial justice rallies and other mass gatherings that he says put him at odds with some county officials.
Dion McNeal, McLean County’s communications specialist, on Friday sent the media an eight-page statement (with 26 footnotes). He said he was removed from handling any “public-facing activities” and media interaction one week after he issued the statement that he was told “does not represent the voice of the (McLean County) Health Department or the Board of Health.”
“I find this correlation of the release and the events that I will identify in this letter as targeting,” said McNeal, though he added county officials told him he wasn’t completing documents for media briefings in a timely fashion.
“As I am the only black voice in any kind of leadership or public relations role at the health department and county administration, (it) speaks volumes. Though I take pride in this, the lack of black leaders presents a weakness in our agency,” McNeal wrote in a letter addressed to "members of the McLean County Board, Board of Health, and all."
He said county officials removed language from a news release sent to the media calling racism and police brutality a public health issue and included edits to ensure “the health department didn’t appear that we were choosing sides.”
A news release McLean County issued dated June 10 calls racism and police brutality “forms of trauma that many of our community members experience.” A Facebook post the same day calls racism “a public health crisis."
McNeal, who identified himself as a “proud healthy Black queer HIV positive man,” said he lacked trust in county leadership. He said McLean County Health Department Administrator Jessica McKnight told him the statement on racism and policy brutality “would cause additional civil unrest, that we should not accuse our local law enforcement of racism and police brutality.”
The county hired McNeal last year to serve as a dual role as communication specialist for McLean County government and the health department. He indicates in February he was denied a merit pay raise because his managers told him he “was not fulfilling my job duties the best of my capabilities.”
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, which 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. The health department also did not disclose the county’s 11th COVID-related death was an employee at the Bloomington Rehab nursing home until WGLT raised the issue.
McNeal said his bosses should have consulted with human resources before removing him from 75% of his duties.
“I feel as though my leadership is showing lack of support; not reassuring the safety of its black employees during this dark time,” said McNeal, adding he would like the county to encourage minority hiring and promote cultural competency training.
McLean County Administrator Camille Rodriguez and McKnight issued a joint statement 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.
McNeal did not respond to requests for additional comment.
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