Effort to appoint interim Michigan civil rights director fails

Michigan Civil Rights Commission Chair Alma Wheeler Smith | Ken Coleman

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) deadlocked twice on Monday evening in its attempt to appoint an interim department leader after firing Director Augustin Arbulu in August over misogynistic comments. 

Both Mary Engelman, current Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) acting director, and Sylvia Elliott, the department’s director of legal affairs, offered themselves as candidates. They were interviewed during the almost three-hour special meeting in Detroit.

Civil Rights Commission votes to fire Arbulu

The interim director will not be considered for the permanent directorship. The body set forth a process that will include a national search for a permanent director with a selection made by February 2020.  

MCRC Chair Alma Wheeler Smith and Commissioners Ira Combs and Denise Grim voted for Engelman. She was named acting director in August after Arbulu was fired Engelman had served as deputy director for the department under Arbulu since 2018, as well as executive director of the Michigan Women’s Commission. 

Michigan Civil Rights Commission Vice Chair Stacie Clayton | Ken Coleman

Vice Chair Stacie Clayton and Commissioners Rasha Demashkieh and Laura Reyes Kopack voted for Elliott, who has worked in the department since 1997. Commissioners Regina Gasco-Bentley and Jeff Sakwa did not attend the meeting.

Arbulu was pink-slipped after making objectifying comments to describe a woman to a male staffer. Arbulu told the staffer in May, referring to a woman, “Check out her ass.” 

Prior to the firing, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who does not appoint the department’s director, called for him to resign or be fired. So did NAACP Detroit Chapter President the Rev. Wendell Anthony and more than two dozen state lawmakers, including state House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills).

Michigan Civil Rights Department Acting Mary Engelman | Ken Coleman

The commission will seek to break the deadlock during its next meeting on Nov. 18. Engelman will continue as acting director. 

Smith, a former longtime Democratic state lawmaker, said the option of co-acting directorship would not work. 

“There has to be somebody in charge of the department,” she said after the second deadlocked vote.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.


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