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Ex-fire chief fights City Hall

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Former Rocky Mount Fire Chief Keith Harris stands Thursday outside City Hall.

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BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Staff Writer

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Whoever said you can't fight City Hall hasn't met retired Rocky Mount Fire Chief Keith Harris.

The 59-year-old Harris, with slicked hair, trimmed beard, signature sunglasses and cigar planted firmly in the corner of his mouth, looks much younger. These days he's feeling invigorated as well.

"I was enjoying retirement," Harris said with a puff on his cigar. "But I've saved this city before and I'm going to save it again. First time it was floodwaters — this time it's a flood of mismanagement."

When he learned that longtime Public Works Director Jonathan Boone was leaving city employment, Harris said he had to do something. So he attended the Jan. 28 City Council meeting to find out what was really happening at his former place of employment.

"When the mayor treated us like children and told us to hit the pause button, I hung my head," Harris said.

Harris said he left the meeting feeling totally and utterly rejected and insulted.

"Like all the other people who attended the meeting to show their legitimate concerns with the current city administration, I was pretty much called a racist and a member of a lynch mob," Harris said. "But you know what? I've risked my life for my entire adult life for the citizens of Rocky Mount. I'm not going to be quiet now."

Harris has become an overnight social media darling for his posts with sharp criticism of City Hall.

"With all due respect, don't tell me to 'hit the pause button' SIR ... In 1979 when I advanced into Planters Oil Mill with a hose line in hand and exploding chemical tanks going past my head, I didn't hit pause. When I stood in neck-deep flood water on Lafayette Avenue hearing city residents screaming for help over hurricane force winds knowing that I was in charge and had to make a quick decision, I didn't hit the pause button. No SIR, don't you DARE tell me to hit the pause button," Harris posted the day after the Jan. 28 meeting.

A native son, Harris became a firefighter right out of Rocky Mount High School. He spent three decades fighting fires in Rocky Mount, earning recognition from the governor's office for pulling a black man from a burning building and giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

"Does that sound like the actions of a racist?" Harris asked.

During Hurricane Floyd, one of the worst natural disasters in North Carolina history, and its aftermath, Harris helped relocate 800 households.

Harris became chief in 2007. He retired April 1, 2010. The same day current Fire Chief Mike Varnell is set to retire.

Still keeping people safe, Harris is a safety officer for a tri-state concrete construction business.

Recent happenings at City Hall have lit a fire under Harris, he said, yet he never set out to be a spokesman — but neither will he back down.

"My life's been an open book of public service," Harris said. "I don't have any secrets for them to use against me."

Harris was quick to dispel the rumor he is planning a political campaign.

"I have no interest in public office," Harris said. "I want people to see that department heads with all that knowledge are leaving and we're 18 months without a police chief and on our fifth murder of the year — and it's only February."

Harris said he has his sights on the entire council, not just councilmen Andre Knight and Reuben Blackwell, who have come under fire in recent weeks.

"I'm doing my homework," Harris said. "I have lots of sources. Current and past employees trust me."

Harris said he worked directly for retired City Manager Charles Penny for years.

"Mr. Penny wasn't perfect, but he earned my respect," Harris said, explaining that he went to Hurricane Katria-damaged areas with Penny, Susan Perry Cole and others to help impoverished neighborhoods fight casinos trying to move in on their storm-damaged homes.

Harris said the race card being played doesn't intimidate him.

"They're playing with a predictable deck: 52 race cards and two jokers," Harris said. "Arrogant."

Harris said he's gathering information to turn over to state authorities. While he's putting together a case, he said, political opponents are busy trying to douse his efforts.

Knight told the Telegram about Harris' education level and residency and the same information was posted on the Dancy Information Network blog.

"As I have stated in the past when white folk had the power they used it and now that black folk got the power they just mad," Curmilus Dancy stated about Harris in a recent blog post.

Harris responded online by saying: "Appearently, there is a small, insignificant man with horrendous grammar, who lives in Pinetops, and he is concerned about my credentials and service with the city."

Harris said he lived two miles outside the city limits when he was asked to be fire chief and the City Council, including Knight, approved his hire. Harris also said he has an associate's degree when the job calls for a bachelor's degree, but again the council approved of him as fire chief due to his extensive experience.

Just like the current fire chief, Harris took dings for running a department that lacked employee diversity.

Harris pointed out that right now, Rocky Mount is second only to Winston-Salem when it comes to firefighter diversity.

"When I was chief we created the minority recruitment team," Harris said, adding that the team set up job fair displays at area community colleges and military bases and offered a firefighting elective at the local high schools.

"We had a steady stream of white boys in the rural areas who grew up volunteers and dreamed of being a firefighter," Harris said. "The challenge was to get a young African American living six blocks from the fire station to see himself as a firefighter. But I feel we made significant inroads."

Harris said his goal is to restore faith and trust in City Hall, which has an air of suspicion and perception of corruptness.

"Specifically, City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney needs to go," Harris said. "Then a national search should be conducted to find a manager with vision who cares about the community. We also need to stop the bleeding: Too many people have left. If the City Council allows another one to walk they will answer for it. When all this is said and done, any council member who used their position for personal gain needs to go, too."

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