A lawsuit filed in federal court last week says the city of Sherman violated the civil rights of Jonathan Kirksey.
Kirksey, who is African-American, went to work for the city in August of 2016 as the assistant director of Public Works. He had previously worked for the U.S. Department of Defense as Public Work Site lead in Afghanistan where he implemented and managed public works projects, court documents say.
In November of 2016, Clay Barnett, Kirksey’s boss, resigned as director of public works for the city to take a job with Grayson County as its engineer. The lawsuit says that Kirksey became the acting director of public works at that point.
“In spite of being the most qualified person for the vacancy,” the lawsuit says, Kirksey “was not given the opportunity to promote permanently into the position of Director of Public Works.”
The suit says that on Jan. 4 of this year, the city placed the public works department under the supervision of Steve Ayers, “a Caucasian, who was a former police officer with no prior experience in public works.”
The suit says that Kirksey was then demoted from the second person in charge of the department and replaced by Kevin Winkler, “a Caucasian, who had no experience in public works.” Kirksey was then given the title of assistant Public Works manager, which the suit says did not exist before the changes were made and which had no job description. The complaint says that Kirksey was provided a job description about two weeks after the city was notified that Kirksey had complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
At that point, the lawsuit says Kirksey’s “new job description stated he had the same responsibilities as he did before being demoted, but in his day to day job, he was routinely kept out of the loop and prevented from performing his prior job functions.”
Kirksey says he was told he had not done anything wrong and would have to train the two people who had been promoted over him. The suit says he was told the changes were made so that city Manager Robby Hefton could “get the management organizational chart the way he wants it to look.”
“According to Winkler, he was given (Kirksey’s) position after calling Ayers and telling Ayers that Winkler was bored working Parks and Recreation and wanted a better job,” the suit said before adding that Winkler then began creating a hostile work environment for Kirksey by questioning his employees about his work habits and supervisory skills.
Winkler, the suit says, refused to discuss work-related matters with Kirksey, avoided him and only showed up at the office after Kirksey had left.
“In (Kirksey’s) first meeting with Ayers, Ayers, like Winkler, raised the issue of racism without prompt, attempting to assure (Kirksey) that Ayers was not a racist,” the lawsuit alleges.
Kirksey’s attorney, Ed Richardson, did not immediately return a phone call seeking a comment on the case Thursday.
“The same attorneys suing the city for appointing our first minority police chief in one case are suing for racial discrimination in another, lest anyone wonder how sincere these lawsuits are,” Community and Support Services Manager Nate Strauch said of the suit via email. “The facts have not changed since these cases were originally filed months ago: At the time of the reorganization, Mr. Kirksey was not even eligible for a promotion, given his probationary status as someone who’d been on the job less than six months. His lawsuit has been forwarded to the city’s attorneys and will be reviewed alongside the others.”
Kirksey filed a complaint with the EEOC in January alleging that he was denied the promotion due to his race in violation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The suit says the city then began a campaign of harassment against Kirksey.
The suit says that the city investigated Kirksey’s allegations in February and dismissed them, blaming Winkler’s actions on a breakdown in one-on-one communication. The suit alleges that the city then began to pile on reprimands to Kirksey, including one in March alleging he had claimed that he had not spoken to a supervisor on the phone when he actually had done so.
Another instance cited in the suit said that Kirksey had used profanity on the telephone with another city employee while off duty. Kirksey told Ayers that the two were friends and often spoke to each other in such language but was given a reprimand. The suit says the person who complained about the conversation was then promoted and Ayers was also promoted to assistant city manager. The suit says that during the time in question, Kirksey was the only African-American in middle or upper management working for the city of Sherman.
Herald Democrat Managing Editor William C. Wadsack contributed to this article.