Government & Politics

It will cost nearly $1 million to resolve two KC water lab lawsuits

Kansas City Water Services lab supervisor Wilbur Dunnell appears in an education video as “Dr. H2O.” The Kansas City Council has voted to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by Dunnell.
Kansas City Water Services lab supervisor Wilbur Dunnell appears in an education video as “Dr. H2O.” The Kansas City Council has voted to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by Dunnell. City of Kanasas City

It will cost nearly $1 million for Kansas City to resolve discrimination lawsuits filed by two chemists in the Kansas City Water Services laboratory.

That’s on top of another $500,000 settlement in March with a third lab chemist.

The City Council on Thursday agreed to settle a lawsuit from Wilbur Dunnell for $557,567 and to settle a lawsuit from Thomas Sanders for $400,000. The payments include attorneys’ fees, and the two plaintiffs agreed to retire from their jobs. The settlement money comes from Water Services funds, which come from ratepayers.

Dunnell was known as “Dr. H2O” for his educational videos and visits to schools to teach students about the science of water quality. Dunnell and Sanders, both African-American, were longtime employees and senior chemists in the lab division of Kansas City Water Services. They said they were discriminated against as they were passed over for promotions by younger white employees. Their cases had been scheduled for trial this year.

The settlements follow a $500,000 settlement that the city agreed to last month with water lab employee LaDonna Nunley, who also retired. That settlement followed a trial in late January in which Nunley also alleged discrimination.

A Jackson County jury sided with the city on Nunley’s discrimination allegations, but found in favor of her on a sexual harassment claim. City officials pointed out that, even though the city prevailed on the discrimination counts, attorneys’ fees could still apply because of the jury’s finding on the sexual harassment claim. The settlement avoided future appeals and resolved all those costs.

Regarding the settlement vote Thursday, City Manager Troy Schulte said the city has brought in a trainer to work on labor/management relations within the lab.

While these three longtime employees have retired, Schulte said he has no concerns about the city losing its reputation for having some of the best water quality in the country. The lab employs about 45 people, and Schulte said the lab manager has extremely high standards and is scrupulous about detail and a focus on superior water quality.

“There’s no issues with that,” Schulte said. “We just have to deal with the work environment.”

Councilman Jermaine Reed, chairman of the council’s Transportation and Infrastructure committee, was the lone dissenter against the settlement. He said he didn’t think it was a good resolution, and it was a shame that these veteran employees had to retire.

“We should be doing everything we can to retain quality employees who do the job,” Reed said.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

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