Kansas City, Mo., has settled four discrimination lawsuits filed by former part-time municipal prosecutors at a cost of more than $1 million since last July, and four similar lawsuits are still pending.
The prosecutors’ office replaced part-time assistant prosecutors with full-time positions in 2011. Eight of the part-time employees who were replaced sued the city for age, race and/or gender discrimination, The Kansas City Star reported.
“One of the biggest expenses we seem to have, year in and year out, (is) lawsuits for discrimination, retaliation, and it just seems to me that we could do a better job on the front end,” said City Councilman Ed Ford, a private practice lawyer. “It’s just costing us too much money.”
The eight former assistant city prosecutors filed their lawsuits individually and alleged different circumstances. They had each worked part time for years and all applied for the new full-time jobs but were not selected. They alleged the city hired younger, less experienced candidates.
Former city prosecutor Lowell Gard, who oversaw the 2011 prosecutors’ office reorganization before retiring late last year, said the change has worked out well, despite the lawsuits. Gard said that in 2011, the municipal court was switching to a fully computerized, paperless system that required prosecutors to be much more involved in the court’s case management and preparation. That made moving from 16 part-timers to eight full-timers a sensible move, he said.
“It was necessary to bring the city’s prosecution effort into the 21st century,” he said.
Mayor Sly James said the City Council wasn’t involved in the municipal prosecutor reorganization. James also said he didn’t know if it was a good decision or not and he understands the frustration over the settlement payments.
“Yes, that’s more codes officers you can’t hire. I agree wholeheartedly,” he said. “If we didn’t have to have a huge legal fund, we could divert some of that money to other stuff.”
City Manager Troy Schulte said while the reorganization was justified, the city is taking steps to minimize future discrimination complaints with better training and more consistency in promotions, terminations and discipline. He said it’s a challenge to eliminate all discrimination complaints from an organization with 4,000 employees.
“We’ve got some engrained bad habits, and we’ve got to root them out,” he said.