FRONTENAC — Half a year after they were fired at a contentious city council meeting, three former City of Frontenac employees have struck back with a federal lawsuit — against not only the city government, but each of the six council members who voted for their termination.
The plaintiffs in the case are Brad Reams, former Frontenac city administrator, Terri Kutz, former city clerk, and Tim Fielder, former city attorney. All three were fired at a Sept. 16, 2019 Frontenac City Council meeting where Linda Grilz, the former mayor, also resigned.
“As I’ve said before, I think those people were fired for doing their jobs,” Grilz said Wednesday, adding that she hopes the suit results in their vindication.
The defendants, besides the City of Frontenac, are council members Pat Clinton, Mike Snow, Marc McCully, David Hogard, and LaDonna Pyle, who are all still on the council, as well as John Macary, a former councilman and acting mayor between September and January of this year.
The complaint also includes extensive discussion and allegations regarding a city employee that it identifies only as “Ms. X,” but from the context it is clear this refers to Jayme Mjelde, who is currently the city clerk.
The complaint alleges that while “Ms. X” had previously been fired from her position as municipal court clerk for failing a drug test and refusing to comply with an agreement that would have allowed her to keep her job, the firings of Reams, Kutz and Fielder circumvented city policy.
Selection of interim replacements for the three fired employees — including Mjelde, who was not only reinstated but promoted to city clerk and awarded back pay for the week she was off work — was also done illegally, violating an ordinance “that required the position be advertised, application received, and applicants interviewed prior to the position being filled,” according to the complaint, which also alleges the same ordinance was violated in selecting John Zafuta, previously public safety director, as interim city administrator and later city administrator.
The complaint alleges “the defendant councilmembers made these selections during illegal private secret meetings outside of public scrutiny and prior to the September 16, 2019 City Council meeting and in violation of Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA).”
The six councilmember defendants “wrongfully agreed and conspired to violate the KOMA and the Constitution of the United States and the State of Kansas with regard to Plaintiffs’ civil rights under Federal law, specifically 42 USC § 1983 concerning Due Process in employment rights and, in pursuance thereof, did treat each Plaintiff disparately as compared to other employees in terms and conditions of their respective employment,” the complaint alleges.
When Fielder arrived at the Sept. 16 meeting “he was surprised by the large number of citizens in the back of the hall,” according to the complaint. “Where it was not unusual for 15 to 25 of the same citizens to attend City Council meetings, this time they numbered over 100 and included many faces he had not previously seen attend these meetings.”
While waiting for the meeting to start, Fielder observed Clinton telling Grilz that Macary was in Topeka, but wanted to participate in the meeting over the phone. “The Mayor responded that she did not believe that was a good procedure,” the complaint states.
“An angry Defendant Clinton got up from her chair, came into the well in front of the Mayor, and slammed her hand on the table yelling ‘this is bullsh-t’ and physically leaned into the Mayor while pointing a finger at her and in a loud and insulting voice demanded to know why Defendant Macary would not be able to participate in the meeting by telephone.”
Fielder, who “saw Councilwoman Clinton was openly hostile and the Mayor was at a loss for words, responded on her behalf by stating that if Defendant Councilman Macary wished to participate by telephone that as soon as the meeting started Defendant Clinton should make a motion to allow his participation by telephone,” according to the complaint. “As Plaintiff Fielder looked up, he saw a majority of the crowd either laughing or grinning in approval at the exchange that had taken place at the Council table.”
Shortly after the meeting began and Macary’s participation by phone was approved — as the Morning Sun was first to report last year — Clinton made a motion, which Macary seconded, to fire Reams, Kutz and Fielder.
“There was absolutely no discussion and the motion passed on a vote of 6-2,” the complaint states. “Plaintiff Kutz took roll and recorded the vote.”
Following the vote, Mayor Linda Grilz offered to resign, which Clinton said the council would accept, according to the complaint.
“Plaintiffs Reams, Kutz and Fielder rose from Council table and were escorted from the building” by Zafuta — then public safety director and now the city administrator — the complaint states. “As they walked the gauntlet up the aisle to leave the building, most of the assembled crowd jeered, applauded and made rude comments at the Plaintiffs as they were marched from the meeting. No one voiced disapproval of these acts. Citizens made pointed ‘cat calls’ to different Plaintiffs yelling and laughing at them as they were led away.”
The complaint alleges “based on information and belief,” that “a majority of a quorum of the members of the Frontenac City Council,” including “some or all” of the six named defendants “at various times met, conversed and discussed clandestinely and in violation of the law at least once and possibly more times, concerning the termination of Ms. X, who they all knew, were related to or lived by as a neighbor.”
Several days before the Sept. 16 meeting, “Defendant Council woman LaDonna Pyle, the aunt of Ms. X, came to City Hall and asked the office staff if Ms. X had been fired. When she was unable to get a definite answer to her inquiry, Defendant Pyle left but not before saying she would be back. Based on information and belief, Defendant Pyle was hostile and angry during her visit,” the complaint alleges.
“On information and belief, Defendant Clinton is either the next-door neighbor, or nearby neighbor of Ms. X. and Ms. X’s parents,” the complaint also states.
“I respect and appreciate the life of a small community and the closeness of its neighbors and how people come to support one another, but you know, a legislative branch of the community has a function, and there’s a right and a wrong way of doing everything,” Benny Harding, attorney for the plaintiffs, said Wednesday. “If those same neighbors and supporters followed the law, then we wouldn’t be in court, but they didn’t.”
The only thing his clients did wrong, Harding previously told the legal news service Law360, “was piss off an employee who was well-connected.”
Earlier in the day on Sept. 16, Councilmember Trey Coleman — who did not vote in favor of firing Reams, Kutz and Fielder and is no longer on the council — “came to speak with City Administrator Reams concerning Ms. X” and a letter he and other council members had received from her attorney, according to the complaint.
“Councilman Coleman stated Councilman Snow had called Councilman Hogard stating his fear of being sued by Ms. X’s attorney,” the complaint alleges. “Councilman Hogard then called Councilman Coleman with the same fear. This serial communication is a KOMA violation.”
The initial reason “Ms. X” was terminated from her court clerk position was that she failed a random drug test for marijuana, according to the complaint. “Ms. X” disputed the positive drug test result, saying it was a false positive caused by her use of CBD oil, and asked to have her test sample re-tested.
After the second test again came back positive, during a Sept. 3, 2019 council executive session, Reams told the council an unidentified employee had failed a random drug test, according to the complaint. “He also explained that all City administrative employees wanted the employee (Ms. X) to remain a City employee and that the City Attorney had prepared for submission to the Council an agreement for her continued employment by the City that had been prepared for that purpose in accordance to the City personnel policy. The Council reviewed the proposed agreement and the sense of the Council was that the proposed agreement was fair.”
When presented with the agreement, however, “Ms. X” initially refused to sign it, the complaint alleges. Several days later, after consulting her own legal counsel, when she again met with Reams and Kutz, she still refused to sign the agreement, saying she “was not going to go to rehabilitation for a drug problem she didn’t have,” according to the complaint. She was then “terminated by the City Administrator in accordance to City personnel policy and was provided two letters stating the violations of city policy.”
The six defendants concluded Mjelde had been treated unfairly and as her supporters, “they needed to take matters in their own hands and misuse the authority of their elected positions by knowingly violating the law,” the complaint alleges. “The mere manner in which the City Council meeting of September 16, 2019 was conducted and how immediate replacements for each of the terminated Plaintiffs accepted their new positions verifies that the activities of that evening were all prearranged.” The number of people at the meeting “and their unruly behavior verify that these Defendants told their friends to be in attendance and what to expect since they had prearranged the termination of each of the Plaintiffs, that their handpicked replacements had been selected to take their place and that Ms. X would be rehired.”
Once in the position of interim city clerk, “Ms. X,” according to the complaint, “displayed her incompetence and lack of understanding of the difference between exempt and non-exempt employees when she responded to the Kansas Department of Labor and misreported information on the contractual compensation of Plaintiff Reams and Kutz,” interfering with the plaintiffs’ contractual severance benefits and their ability to receive unemployment benefits.
The complaint additionally notes that “Ms. X,” in response to requests under the Kansas Open Records Act from media organizations including the Morning Sun, “first claimed she could not do a records request since the City did not have a City Attorney; then when she was advised that this was also a violation of law and was actually forced to perform the records request, she claimed it would cost $3,500 for the City to fulfill this statutory duty and then required that amount be deposited before the requested records be produced.”
The response “was so egregious” the complaint alleges, that it resulted in a finding of a KORA violation by the Kansas attorney general’s office.
At its last meeting, the council approved a resolution outlining how it will respond to future KORA requests, as required by an order that accompanied the attorney general’s finding, and council members and relevant city employees will receive training April 17 in how to respond to KORA requests.
The plaintiffs in the case are alleging they were deprived of equal protection guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution, violation of the KOMA, breaches of Reams’s and Kutz’s contracts, and a “civil conspiracy” involving the six defendants.
They are seeking “damages for each Plaintiff; for depravation of constitutional rights, back pay, including wage and benefits increase as well as reimbursement of any lost fringe benefits, retirement plan benefits and contributions, an award of front pay, emotional distress, pre-judgment interest, for reasonable attorney fees, for expert witness fees, costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1988, all in excess of $75,000.00 for each Plaintiff, and for such other relief as the Court may deem just and proper.”
The City of Frontenac and the other six individual defendants in the case did not respond to requests for comment.