As the Kansas City Council on Thursday agreed to settle yet another lawsuit against the city, Jan Marcason urged her colleagues not to “rehash the past.”
They meekly complied with her request, but we won’t.
What has happened in the past two years — as the city has paid out $8.5 million to resolve lawsuits brought by current and former city employees — has been an infuriating use of public funds.
These actions have drained the city of money that could have been better used to provide services to taxpayers.
In Thursday’s case, the council approved paying $1.5 million to end a suit involving just over 110 emergency medical workers. They contended the city had shorted them on overtime pay once they began working for the Fire Department after the city killed the Metropolitan Ambulance Services Trust in 2010.
This week’s decision came on top of a 2014 council-approved agreement that cost taxpayers $2 million to settle similar claims with more than 120 other public safety workers.
It’s true the city is considered an easy mark for some workers and their attorneys. Yet it’s also extremely disappointing that taxpayers have had to shell out funds in so many successful cases brought against City Hall.
Consider what happened on April 16, when elected officials were pondering the settlement of a discrimination case by Tonia Titus, the former aide to ex-council member Michael Brooks. On that day, only one council member questioned what was going on.
“I don’t think the city has done anything that justifies that amount of money,” Dick Davis said.
But in the end, the full council easily approved awarding $225,000 to Titus, who had accused Brooks of creating a hostile work environment. Brooks resigned from the council Jan. 2.
Brooks disputed the settlement and wanted “his day in court,” his lawyer said.
Easy for them to say. After all, it was city taxpayer money at stake, which Mayor Sly James pointed out, though not in a very reassuring way that day.
“Where there’s smoke, a lot of times juries think there’s fire,” the mayor said in favoring not going to court with the case. A trial could air some of the “dirty laundry” at City Hall.
The Titus/Brooks case was the most recent one in a string of legal settlements with 26 individual employees that have cost the city — and thus taxpayers — more than $5 million in the last two years. (That’s on top of the $3.5 million paid out to the emergency medical workers.)
After an open records request, the city supplied The Star a list of payouts to individual workers since early 2013. Many included accusations of discrimination based on age, gender or race.
The largest settlement was $750,000 to a former Water Services Department manager. Five others ranged from $300,000 to $500,000. The smallest was for $4,000 in a suit based on gender discrimination and a hostile environment.
In an interview Thursday, City Manager Troy Schulte acknowledged city officials had made mistakes. One was to give glowing reviews to employees who didn’t deserve them. The solution, he said, has been requiring stricter evaluations by supervisors. The city after its past problems also is treading more carefully when it reassigns people to different jobs rather than eliminating their jobs.
Schulte says the city has had to settle some lawsuits because, if they had gone to court, jurors might have found the city guilty of poor supervision and awarded employees even more money.
But enough rehashing the past.
Looking to the future, Kansas City officials clearly must do a better job following the law when it reassigns, lays off or fires employees.