Clay County announces settlements, separation agreements with 5 employees

More than $350,000 will be paid out in settlements
Clay County Courthouse
Posted at 1:12 AM, Nov 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-05 15:24:25-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Five Clay County employees, including three assistant county administrators, will resign by the end of the year, according to separation agreements announced Tuesday.

Brad Garrett, Laurie Portwood and Nicole Brown — all county administrators — will resign effective Dec. 31, 2020, along with Tourism and Project Development Manager Melissa Mohler.

The five collectively will receive more than $350,000 in settlements as part of their resignation agreements.

Public Relations and Events Manager Nikki Thorn will resign on or before Dec. 4, 2020, according to her official Separation, Settlement and Mutual Release Agreement with Clay County.

The county sent the email about the settlements just after 5 p.m. on Election Day, though Brown, Garrett and Portwood had signed their agreements on Oct. 5.

All five employees had filed employment-related claims against the county. The agreements were signed by the employees and Clay County commissioners Gene Owen and Luann Ridgeway.

Garrett and Brown claimed pervasive harassment and retaliation by Commissioner Jerry Nolte, who tried to get a public hearing on rental arrangements the pair had in government-owned housing four years ago and again earlier this year.

Portwood also singled out Nolte, according to the agreement released by the county.

Nolte said Tuesday night he’s received no formal notification about the alleged complaints.

“Those should be coming through HR,” he said. “There is a system in place. As far as I can tell, I’ve not seen anything out of the HR.”

Nolte said such serious allegations should be filed formally and in writing, which the separation agreements mention having happened.

But Nolte reiterated that he’s been made aware of no such complaints.

“I’ve not seen anything and, if there’s an allegation made against the county, those allegations should go through HR,” he said. “That method has not been followed, so it’s hard for me to comment.”

Nolte added that he knew about the resignations and separation agreements, but he refused to sign them.

“I was aware that they existed,” Nolte said. “I didn’t agree with them. I certainly thought they were not in the best interest of the county and the taxpayers. There were other issues, but that is first and foremost — these were not in the best interest of the county.”

The copies of the agreements sent with the press release have a space for the “Clay County Counselor” to sign, but the line was blank on all five documents.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the agreements were binding based strictly on the vote of two of three county commissioners.

What is clear is that the commission will be remade in 2021, when two new commissioners will join Nolte.

Republican Megan Thompson won election as Eastern Commissioner with nearly 65% of the vote, while Democrat Jon Carpenter won by more than 3,200 votes over Lydia McEvoy for the Western Commissioner seat.

Nolte said despite his concerns over the separation agreements and settlements, he welcomes the chance for the new commission to remake the county's senior staff.

The 41 Action News I-Team reported in February on rent-free lease agreements Garrett and Brown, who both received six-figure salaries from Clay County, had near Kearney and Smithville Lake, respectively.

Brown and Garrett both allege that Nolte’s public disclosure of their sweetheart rental agreements violated county policy and constituted a form of harassment.

Brown also alleged gender discrimination, according to the agreement. No settlement is indicated in the document released Tuesday, but it does stipulate that she will receive $500 per day if asked “to provide information and/or assistance to the County in connection with a State or County audit, investigation, and/or defense of any claims asserted against the County to which she may have relevant information.”

Clay County sent an updated copy of Brown's settlement Wednesday, which showed a total settlement payment of $79,124.42.

Brown previously defied two subpoenas issued by Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway arising from a citizen-initiated audit that began in December 2018.

Brown, who worked in Ridgeway’s Jefferson City office when the latter was a state senator, didn’t show up for one deposition, saying she was on vacation, and refused to answer questions at the other.

Portwood is set to receive $86,483.46 as part of the separation agreement and her agreement includes the $500 per compensation agreement for work performed after her resignation date.

Garrett will receive $76,884.72 plus $500 per day, if the county requires his service beginning Jan. 1, 2021.

Thorn and Mohler signed their separation agreements Monday.

Thorn, who will receive $69,047.28 under terms of her agreement, filed claims for a civil rights violation, abuse of process, ethical misconduct, gender discrimination and workplace retaliation.

Mohler, who will receive $42,686.76, has filed claims of gender discrimination, hostile work environment and workplace retaliation.

All told, Clay County is doling out $354,226.64 in taxpayer money as part of the separation agreements and settlements.

The agreements do not bar the five people who are resigning from future employment with Clay County, which said the agreements do not represent “an admission by the County of any liability.”

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