The fallout from a bitter 2008 power struggle involving a major contractor used at Cincinnati City Hall is about to spill over into the courtroom.
Linda S. Kirkland, who had been hired by Invest in Neighborhoods Inc. (IIN) two years ago to be its executive director and then was summarily terminated just days later, has filed a lawsuit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court. She alleges the organization breached her contract and charged its leaders with gender and racial discrimination.
Regardless of the verdict, the result could be devastating to the already beleaguered organization, which oversees how taxpayer money is distributed to Cincinnati’s neighborhood groups through its system of community councils.
After a turbulent few years plagued by infighting, clashes with Cincinnati City Council and the dismissal of former director Gerald Tenbosch — who had been charged with stealing $16,500 from a local athletic group — Invest in Neighborhoods was poised to hire a new permanent director in summer 2008. Its two candidates were Kirkland, an outsider, and Rick Dieringer, who had been serving as interim director of the group since Tenbosch’s departure.
That June, IIN’s board of trustees voted 9-8 to hire Kirkland and signed a contract with her. She was to start on July 1, 2008, and earn $65,000 annually as long as IIN was serving as the administrator of the city’s Neighborhood Support and Neighborhood Business District programs, which it had been since at least the mid-1990s.
That’s when things changed drastically.
Days later, the group’s minority-bloc board members staged a coup, ousting those who had voted for Kirkland while another three trustees quit in protest. Although the ousted trustees complained to City Council, the remaining board members took another vote and installed Dieringer as executive director. The struggle resulted in claims of backroom dealing and ultimately led the city to terminate its contract with IIN in early 2009, instead administering the programs in-house through its Community Development Department.
Now, almost two years later, Kirkland is claiming she was never terminated according to the terms of her contract and is seeking compensatory damages. According to her June 11, 2008 contract, either party had to right to terminate the contract with cause but had to do so in writing and with 60 days’ notice.
Kirkland’s attorney, Mark J. Byrne, says that never happened.
“A couple of days after she signed the contract, she was told by a member of the board that Invest in Neighborhoods wasn’t going to follow through on the contract, but she was never given written notice,” Byrne says.
A letter from IIN’s ousted board members to the city, complaining of the 2008 coup, spells out what transpired.
According to the letter, IIN board president Elliott Ellis “announced that Invest’s Executive Committee had conducted a background check on the outside candidate for executive director and found her to be unsuitable. Mr. Ellis did not explain how the background check was conducted and ... (t)he outside candidate confirmed that she did not provide written permission for a background check, suggesting a violation by Mr. Ellis and the Executive Committee of the Fair Credit Reporting Act and other laws protecting privacy.”
The letter was signed by seven former IIN board members.
It was Ellis who informed Kirkland that IIN was terminating her contract, Byrne adds, but gave little reason. Afterward, she tried to contact other IIN board members for more information but got no response.
Kirkland is hoping her suit will pay her the balance of two years’ salary because she was never properly notified.
That kind of payout could be devastating to IIN, which lost its annual $113,000 contract with the city last year. Dieringer, who still serves as IIN’s executive director, and the group’s attorney, Peggy Barker, both declined comment.
Kirkland, who is black, also is charging the group with racial and gender discrimination in the suit because the remaining board members chose to hire Dieringer, who is white. Those charges are bolstered, Byrne says, by the fact that the ousted trustees included six women and one African-American member.
“They replaced them with, generally, white males,” Byrne adds.
IIN’s current 13-member board has only three female members.
The lawsuit is now set for the discovery phase and should come before Judge Pat DeWine later this year.