After a few weeks of cat and mouse — #WhereIsCheryl — Cheryl Harrison-Lee has resigned effective Sept. 10, according to a press release issued by the City of Gardner.
Laura Gourley, finance director, has been appointed interim city administrator.
Harrison-Lee has been absent from city hall since the first of September, and residents began a hashtag, #WhereIsCheryl, inquiring as to her employment status.
Several individuals attended the city’s last council meeting speaking in her support. Harrison-Lee was hired as city administrator in 2012, and her last employment agreement was unanimously approved by the council in 2016. Regular payout would have been about $125,000.
No specific reason has been provided by council regarding her resignation, although Lee Moore, council president, wrote on social media Sept. 13 that closed sessions are necessary in certain situations and “Revealing such privileged information could put the city at a severe disadvantage in negotiations, litigation, or potential litigation.” Moore also clarified that executive sessions are conducted in English.
According to Harrison-Lee’s separation agreement, dated Sept. 13, the governing body must refrain from speaking of her employment separation in a public forum, including social media.
Gardner’s taxpayers will pay at least $350,000. That’s the amount of the stated first payment on her separation agreement. Harrison-Lee’s employment contract was for $161,000 annually.
Under the separation agreement there will also be additional payments – for 20 percent of her accrued, unused sick leave, as referenced by the employee’s handbook for separation for employees in good standing. She is also entitled to 18 months of COBRA, and Harrison-Lee’s lodging and airfare to the September 2018 ICMA conference will be paid by Gardner. Under Harrison-Lee’s tenure, Gardner won several awards, including the ICMA award.
The city is required to issue a positive press release, which they did Sept. 14, and to refrain from commenting on her employment in a public forum, including social media. In return, she will withdraw or obtain a dismissal of any complaint that may be filed with either the KHRC or EEOC.
Prior to her resignation, council members spent about six hours total in closed session under the non elected personnel exemption. No action was taken after any of those sessions.
In the two weeks between Harrison-Lee’s “disappearance” and resignation, she was paid more than $6,000 in salary, plus any applicable car or cell phone expenses. Her contract was for $161,000 annually.
As recently as Aug. 30, Harrison-Lee indicated a willingness to work with the city:
At that time she wrote, “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,” Harrison-Lee wrote.
She continued: “In September the City of Gardner will receive for the first time ever an international Certificate of Excellence in Performance Management recognition from the City Managers Association. In 2017, the city also received the following awards: Innovative Recreation Program Award from Kansas Parks and Recreation Association, Distinguished Budget Presentation Award from the Government Finance Officers Association (received three consecutive years), Healthy Kansas City “Silver” Level Certification from the Kansas City Area Chamber of Commerce, and “Tree City USA”, continuing our long history of receiving this award. Gardner now has a new Comprehensive Plan, Land Development Code, Economic Development Strategic Plan, Economic Development Incentive Policy, Growth Management Strategy, and Capital Improvement Element. As a result of this progress, the city was able to compete for Amazon’s next headquarters and we have over $200 million in economic development projects under construction or in review. The city is poised for the future and I hope everyone shares my pride in our city.”
In a press release issued Sept. 14, under the terms of the separation agreement, Steve Shute, mayor, thanked Harrison-Lee for her service to the city
“On behalf of the city, I want to thank Cheryl for her contribution in positioning Gardner for business expansion and economic growth,” said Steve Shute, mayor, in the press release. “She helped set the framework, and we will continue to build upon her legacy to see our complete vision come to fruition.”
The city soon begin the process of a nationwide search to identify qualified candidates to permanently fill the position.