The city of Gardner, one of Johnson County’s fastest growing suburbs just 30 miles from Kansas City, will earn national recognition later this month for excellence in performance management.
But the administrator who has led that city government’s performance since 2012 is on leave, and her future with the city is in doubt.
Cheryl Harrison-Lee has been on leave since late August, according to several sources familiar with the situation. City council members remain tight-lipped about what is going on with her employment status.
“I have no comment,” Mayor Steve Shute said when asked about Harrison-Lee’s employment, referring questions to Public Information Officer Daneeka Marshall-Oquendo.
“Unfortunately, I am unable to discuss personnel matters,” Marshall-Oquendo said in an email.
Most other city council members did not return phone calls seeking comment, nor did Harrison-Lee.
But Harrison-Lee issued a statement Aug. 30 that was posted by the Gardner News: “There are questions regarding my status with the City of Gardner. I do not intend to make any public statement, except that I hope to continue serving our city.”
Councilman Randy Gregorcyk, who took office just this year, said it’s not clear even to him what’s going on. He said some information about the city administrator was discussed in executive session at the last city council meeting, Sept. 4, but he declined to provide details and said no decisions were made.
He said he expected it would be discussed again in executive session at the next meeting Sept. 17, but any decisions would need to be announced in an open public setting.
“I’m still in the due diligence stage myself,” Gregorcyk said, noting that he’s not ready to judge Harrison-Lee’s performance based on his eight months in office, and he wants to know more about her entire tenure since 2012.
Several of Harrison-Lee’s supporters spoke up for her this week and said there’s uncertainty and questioning in the community about what’s going on. They lamented that her status is in limbo at a time when the city is receiving national recognition and has been on a roll with economic development projects.
“She’s fantastic,” said former Mayor Chris Morrow, who was defeated by Shute in the November 2017 election. Morrow said Harrison-Lee had held high-ranking jobs in Orlando and other Florida cities before Gardner hired her in July 2012. “We were fortunate to get her.”
Morrow also noted that the city council, including Shute and several other current council members, voted in January 2016 to renew her contract for another four years. Her base salary in January 2016 was $161,000, and it called for annual increases based on meeting performance expectations. Termination of the contract, except for “just cause,” would require a six-month severance.
Harrison-Lee’s tenure has included friction with some employees.
The city was sued in 2016 in federal court by Mary Beth Bush, whose job managing human resources in the city was eliminated in 2015. Harrison-Lee had recommended that action and the city council voted unanimously for it. That lawsuit settled earlier this year.
The Gardner News also obtained a copy of a May 24, 2018 memo from Johnson County Fire District No. 1 Chief Rob Kirk saying that Harrison-Lee did not work well with him or provide good leadership.
Kirk did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.
Several people have said that Harrison-Lee had also clashed in the past with Police Chief Jim Pruetting. But Pruetting said Tuesday that the friction from a few years ago has been resolved.
“It was something we dealt with internally and got past it,” he said. “We have a normal working relationship. Professional.”
Kristy Harrison, who served on the Gardner City Council from 2010 until the end of 2017, spoke publicly at the Sept. 4 Gardner City Council meeting in favor of Harrison-Lee and said she regretted the ongoing uncertainty.
“We hired her because of her professionalism, her proven track record with economic development and her strong background in planning,” Harrison told the council. Harrison-Lee, no relation to Kristy Harrison, was not present for that council meeting.
Harrison said she realized some had questioned Harrison-Lee’s leadership over the years, “and yet she continued to show up for work, do the job she was hired to do and keep the level of professionalism I had grown to appreciate. And will be recognized with a top award later this year for the city’s performance under her leadership.”
Harrison regretted the lack of transparency in Harrison-Lee’s status and said any talk of removing Harrison-Lee “not only creates an instability for our growing city but also opens the city up for unnecessary litigation.”
The national recognition pertains to Gardner’s receipt of a 2018 Certificate of Excellence in Performance Management from the International City/County Management Association, given to governments that demonstrate commitment to using performance data for decision-making. The city said it was evaluated for its strategic plan as a road map for community goals and improving business practices.
The award, announced in June, is to be given out in Baltimore in late September. On the city’s webpage, Harrison-Lee was quoted as saying, “It is an honor to be recognized among other high-performing cities, such as Austin, Phoenix and San Francisco, who have also been recognized for their data-driven management and performance-focused culture.”
ICMA said Tuesday that the award recognizes an entire organization, not a particular individual.
Morrow also credited Harrison-Lee with recent economic development accomplishments in a fast-growing city with more than 21,000 residents. In 2017, Gardner beat out other cities locally and in other states in an intense competition for a $38 million, 646,000-square-foot facility to house a manufacturing and distribution center for Excelligence, a California-based educational supply company.
It also landed a new Hampton Inn Hotel and Conference Center that is expected to open late this year.
“Year in and year out we were doing innovative things,” Morrow said, adding that Gardner residents he’s talked to are dismayed and don’t know what’s going on.
“I think most people are terribly confused,” he said.