Lawsuit: Former Zona Rosa manager fired for refusing to use funds meant for charity

Young shoppers on what they would like to see in an improved Zona Rosa

Young shoppers explain what they envision an improved Zona Rosa would look like, including more green space and locally owned shops.
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Young shoppers explain what they envision an improved Zona Rosa would look like, including more green space and locally owned shops.

Former Zona Rosa general manager Rosemary Salerno claims in a lawsuit that she was fired in retaliation for refusing a directive to use parking meter fees that ordinarily go to charities instead for the Northland shopping district’s operating costs.

Salerno sued MPI Properties, which does business as former Zona Rosa owner Olshan Properties, in a lawsuit that is now in federal court. In it, Salerno claims she was discriminated and retaliated against after telling corporate executives of Olshan Properties that diverting parking fees away from charitable purposes was “unethical and immoral.”

Salerno, who had been Zona Rosa’s general manager since 2004, was fired on Feb. 5, 2018. She now manages the City Market in downtown Kansas City on behalf of KC Commercial Realty Group.

“Rosemary Salerno was a long-term employee,” said Athena Dickson, an attorney representing Salerno. “She won numerous awards, she received raises and great evaluations. We believe she was wrongfully terminated.”

An attorney for Olshan Properties denied Salerno’s claims.

“We disagree with almost every allegation that she’s made,” said Samuel Lillard, an attorney in Columbus, Ohio, where Olshan Properties has a corporate office. “Our position is they are false and we’re going to prove that at court.”

Olshan Properties sold Zona Rosa to Trademark Property Group late last year. The development, which was hailed as the Northland’s answer to the Country Club Plaza when it opened in 2004, has not generated enough sales tax revenue to support debt issued to build its public parking garages. The Platte County Commission has said it would not make up the shortfall, leading to downgrades in its credit rating.

Olshan Properties sued Salerno in Platte County Associate Court late in 2018, claiming she bought equipment using Olshan Properties funds to support a furniture restoration business she was running with another Zona Rosa employee.

Salerno, who had authority to make purchases of up to $5,000 without prior approval from Olshan Properties, bought a plasma cutter — a device used for cutting through materials — and air compressor for a combined cost of more than $1,000, according to the lawsuit. A bench trial in that case is scheduled for May 2.

“We deny any claims brought in the associate circuit and view that case as additional retaliation,” Dickson said.

Salerno’s lawsuit against Olshan Properties addresses the furniture restoration dispute, describing it as a pretext for firing her.

On Salerno’s account of events, she and a co-worker rented a booth with their own money at Zona Rosa’s Vintage Market Days — an event where vendors sold furnishings and other items — and sold furniture that they made on their own time and away from Zona Rosa property.

Salerno claims that Olshan Properties representatives knew about her participation in Vintage Market Days and didn’t object to it until five months later when they used it as the reason for firing her.

Salerno’s lawsuit does not address Olshan Properties’ allegation that she purchased furniture restoration equipment on the company’s dime. It does say that the male co-worker who helped her sell furniture was not fired.

Salerno’s lawsuit said that on Jan. 30, 2018, a corporate treasurer for Olshan Properties told Salerno that Zona Rosa was having cash flow issues and she should “figure out a way” to use parking meter funds for operating costs instead of sending it to charity.

Zona Rosa has 250 parking meters for on-street parking. Zona Rosa’s practice has been to distribute parking fees to local charities.

Salerno, according to her lawsuit, told Olshan’s corporate treasurer that diverting parking revenues would be “unethical and immoral.”

She was confronted again on Feb. 5, 2018, by Olshan Properties’ vice president of finance about using parking fees for cash flow issues, Salerno’s lawsuit says. When she refused, she was fired that day.

Olshan Properties’ lawsuit alleges that Jan. 30, 2018, the day that Salerno claims she first heard about and refused the parking fee idea, was the same day that the company received an internal complaint about Salerno allegedly buying the plasma cutter and air compressor for which Zona Rosa had no use.

Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.