Government & Politics

City council in JoCo approves $350K in taxpayer money to encourage admin to resign

Cheryl Harrison
Cheryl Harrison

With no explanation to the public, the Gardner City Council has voted to spend more than $350,000 in taxpayer dollars to buy out the contract and accept the resignation of City Administrator Cheryl Harrison-Lee.

The council’s vote Monday night, taken without any comment, ends several weeks of uncertainty over the employment status of Harrison-Lee, who was hired in 2012 and who helped the fast-growing Johnson County city win awards and bring in several hundred million dollars worth of new development.

But the vote makes no clearer why the city council pushed to end Harrison-Lee’s employment 16 months before her contract was set to expire.

In fact, the written separation agreement specifically says the two sides can’t talk about what happened.

The city simply agreed to issue a “positive” press release stating the Harrison-Lee had resigned, effective Sept. 10, and mentioning her strategic planning and economic development accomplishments, including helping to secure about $200 million in current and future development.

“Neither party shall issue any other statement in a public forum, including social media, relating to the subject matter of the employee’s resignation other than the referenced press release,” the separation agreement stated.

The language of the separation agreement indicates the city was working hard to avoid a lawsuit. It said Harrison-Lee “does hereby RELEASE, ACQUIT, AND FOREVER DISCHARGE (capital letters included) the City and its agents, elected officials, representatives, and employees from any and all rights, claims, demands and damages of any kind.”

It further stipulated that Harrison-Lee “will not pursue any complaint or charges of harassment, retaliation and/or discrimination with either the Kansas Human Rights Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or any other administrative agency.”

Harrison-Lee was placed on administrative leave in late August, and she has not returned The Star’s calls seeking comment. She issued one statement that was posted Aug. 30 by the Gardner News stating, “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.”

She was not at Monday night’s meeting. Only about half a dozen people were in the audience Monday night. A few said privately that they thought Harrison-Lee had done an excellent job and they were sorry to see her go. But no one spoke publicly about her resignation or the separation agreement.

Harrison-Lee had held high-powered jobs in Florida before she was hired to come to Gardner in southern Johnson County in 2012. The City Council voted in January 2016 to extend her contract another four years. Her annual salary was set at that time at $161,000 with the possibility of annual increases. Her 2018 salary was projected to be $174,137 according to the Gardner News.

But a new mayor and some new council members were elected in November 2017 and took office early this year. Some in the community have said that the new leadership, including Mayor Steve Shute, wanted a change in city government leadership. Shute and other council members have declined to comment.

The agreement calls for paying Harrison-Lee $261,568 in severance pay, $85,931 for unused vacation hours, and $2,500 for a claim waiver under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. In addition, the city also agreed to pay her COBRA health insurance payments for 18 months, either in a lump sum or monthly.

Gardner will receive an award for performance management later this month in Baltimore from the International City/County Management Association, and supporters had said Harrison-Lee was instrumental in that award. The city is still paying her way to attend that conference.

The council agreed to appoint Finance Director Laura Gourley, a longtime Gardner employee, as interim administrator. Shute said she’s currently on vacation but will start her job Sept. 25. Council members said they discussed in executive session the priorities they want Gourley to concentrate on, sort of a “road map” for her first 120 days, but they declined to spell out those priorities publicly.

Shute said the council will soon appoint a selection committee to begin a national search for a new city administrator but there’s no timetable yet for that selection.

“We want to make sure we get the right person,” Shute said.