By Elizabeth Donald
For the Times-Tribune
A former county department head is suing Madison County and multiple officials, including Chairman Kurt Prenzler, alleging she was fired for reporting sexual harassment.
Kristen Poshard was hired as the community development director in 2016 shortly after Prenzler took office, then the sole Democrat in a slate of Republicans that the newly-sworn chairman hired to replace department heads for the county.
In her federal civil rights suit filed on March 19, Poshard states that Republican board member Philip Chapman (R-Highland) harassed and stalked her while she was employed there, and when she reported it, she says she was ordered to spend more time with Chapman. When she refused to come to the building while Chapman was present, she says, she was fired.
Prenzler disagrees with Poshard’s interpretation. “Sexual harassment has no place in my administration and I take every complaint of sexual harassment very seriously,” Prenzler wrote in a prepared statement.
The lawsuit alleges that Chapman requested a confidential, off-site meeting with Poshard at a local restaurant, and she complied, believing it to be a business meeting. Instead, she alleges, Chapman wrote out a series of questions on Post-it notes designed to “engage [Poshard] in personal and sexual conversation,” asking questions about what she felt for him and what kind of undergarments he was wearing. Poshard said she refused to answer and left the restaurant.
Chapman could not be reached for comment.
Poshard says that she then informed county administrator Doug Hulme of Chapman’s behavior, but Hulme allegedly ordered her to pair with Chapman at an upcoming golf tournament, telling her to “take one for the team,” according to the suit. She also alleges that she reported the behavior to technology director Rob Dorman, who said he would intercede, but then told her Hulme was insistent.
Poshard stated that Chapman continued to text and visit her with inappropriate comments and messages, and asked her staff for her schedule.
According to the suit, Poshard next reported the incidents directly to Prenzler, and during a meeting on June 7, 2017 with the county compliance officer, Chapman appeared again at her office.
Prenzler then escorted Chapman from the building. In his statement, Prenzler said that June 7 was the first time he and Hulme were aware of the situation, and he confirmed that Chapman was in the reception area of Poshard’s office during the meeting.
“I, together with Hulme, immediately escorted Chapman out of that building and took him one block down the street to the county administration building, where we discussed the allegations,” Prenzler wrote. “As a result of that conversation, I asked Chapman to resign from the county board. He refused.”
The lawsuit alleges that Prenzler and Hulme agreed to ban Chapman from the county building and permitted Poshard to work remotely, while hiring retired Madison County Circuit Judge James Hackett to investigate the allegations.
Hackett’s report was made available to the county board, according to Prenzler. The lawsuit alleges that Hackett did not find the events adequate to qualify as sexual harassment, and Poshard was placed on administrative leave, which she alleges was announced to the press before she was informed.
Prenzler states that Poshard “refused to return to work,” and thus was removed from her position. She was fired in October 2017 by a unanimous vote of the county board.
In addition, Poshard states that she was hired at a salary of $92,000 per year, but her male predecessor, Frank Miles, was paid $103,000 per year. Eventually her duties increased as she was given another department to oversee, but did not receive additional pay, according to the suit. She also alleges that the county contested her unemployment claim.
The suit is filed against Madison County and against Prenzler, Hulme and Chapman individually. It requests unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. Her complaint was initially filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she was issued a notice of right to sue in December 2018 by the U.S. Department of Justice.