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Fire Department architect takes over Ft. Totten post

McLaughlin "Mack" Harris, a black architect born on the island of Montserrat who moved to the city in 1976, took over the position in late March, after the Fire Department reached a settlement in federal court Jan. 31 that promoted him with a $71,189 starting salary and awarded him an additional $50,000 for lost wages and legal fees."My main thing wasn't to damage the Fire Department, it was just the injustice," Harris said. "I just wanted the promotion. I didn't want money. I just wanted what was entitled."Diana Goell Voigt, senior counsel with the city's Labor & Employment Law Division, said "after careful consideration, this office determined that it was in the best interest of the city and the FDNY to settle this action." Voigt, who represented the Fire Department in the lawsuit, declined to comment further.Battalion Chief William van Wart, who was formerly the head of Fort Totten's Fire Department, is now based in the agency's Brooklyn headquarters working in fire prevention, a Fire Department spokeswoman said.According to court documents, Harris began working for the Fire Department in 1998 as an assistant architect in the agency's Building Maintenance Division based in Long Island City under Director Joseph Mastropietro, who is white and was named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. In 2001, Harris notified the Fire Department administration that he wanted to apply for a soon-to-be vacant managerial position, but the position was never posted and Harris was not interviewed for the job though he has an undergraduate degree in architecture from Pratt Institute and supervisory experience with St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, court documents showed. Mastropietro awarded the job instead to a white colleague who did not have an architectural or engineering background, Harris said in court documents.Harris filed a formal complaint with the Fire Department and then with the state's Human Rights division in 2002. The state's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission conducted an investigation and determined in 2003 that Harris was not duly promoted because of his race, court documents said. In August 2003, Harris sued the city and Mastropietro, asking for $1 million and a promotion to a managerial position within the Building Maintenance Division. Harris and the city settled earlier this year."The position he's in now is to help compensate him for the position he was passed over for," said Harris's lawyer, Paula Johnson Kelly. "It's in a different area, but it's the level position he was qualified for."Harris, who lived in South Ozone Park for 16 years and now lives on Long Island, said he left a lucrative career in private practice designing facilities for investment giant Goldman Sachs because he wanted to work for the public good."By working with the Fire Department, I became a civil servant. I'm an extension of the firefighters," Harris said. "If I can provide better facilities for them, then they can do their jobs much better."While overseeing much of the infrastructural maintenance in Fort Totten, Harris said he also hopes to be able to focus on the fort's Civil War-era buildings, with the ultimate goal of restoring many of the crumbling structures."These are historic buildings just sitting here, and I could be a great resource," Harris said. "Coming to Fort Totten, I see a lot of things that need to be done."And despite the messy path that brought him to Fort Totten, Harris said he has no intention of leaving. "I love the Fire Department," he said. "I'll stay here as long as I want until I retire."Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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