A race discrimination complaint filed with the city's Human Relations Commission details an incident involving the DCSS executive director and a black employee.
The gift wasn't well received.
It was a Monday morning, July 12, 1996. The executive director of Douglas County Senior Services, Marguerite Carlson, had just given receptionist Margie "Stormy" Samuel a balloon in recognition of Samuel's birthday.
The problem, Samuel said, was that the helium-filled balloon was adorned with watermelons. A white employee was given a balloon with pictures of flowers.
"As a black person, I was shocked, hurt, horrified and angry because of the negative racial stereotyping and symbolism watermelons signify to black Americans," Samuel said.
According to Samuel's pending race discrimination complaint filed with the Lawrence Human Relations Commission, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Carlson told Samuel: "When I saw the balloon, I just had to get it. It was just you."
Douglas County Senior Services, a nonprofit, tax-supported organization serving elderly people of Douglas County, is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, age, gender, color, ancestry, national origin, disabilities, sexual orientation and size.
In an interview, Carlson confirmed that she gave the balloon to Samuel. Carlson said she understood the stereotypical implications of watermelons, but denied her gift was motivated by racism.
"I am culturally sensitive," Carlson said. "We've done everything we can to get that resolved."
Paul Getto, who was chairman of the DCSS board of directors last year, said the incident was lamentable.
"Marguerite gave this lady on her birthday a bouquet of flowers and a balloon," he said. "Unfortunately, it had a watermelon on it. This is a Negro person. She took offense to it.
"I feel kind of bad about that. I know Marguerite feels bad about it. I don't think she did it in a vicious manner at all. Her husband is a minister."
Carlson, who has been executive director of DCSS since 1994, has had disputes with other employees. In cases involving former staff members Mark Strand and Marty Shupert, she declined to comment in detail.
"I don't think any of these deserve my comment in the press, frankly," she said. "Those issues are private issues."
Strand, a former fiscal director at DCSS, filed a civil lawsuit against the agency in 1996. Strand contends Carlson violated personnel procedures when she fired him in July of that year -- two months after giving him an outstanding rating in an evaluation.
The lawsuit alleges Carlson fabricated two employee complaints against Strand, a conclusion supported by a DCSS grievance panel. That panel also decided Carlson ignored procedural steps in the disciplinary process.
In the end, according to the suit, Strand was fired by Carlson for insubordination after conducting agency business in Lawrence "without specific written instructions authorized by me."
He maintains he was wrongfully discharged because Carlson learned he intended to file a grievance with the Kansas Department of Human Resources regarding DCSS' decision not to pay him for 700 hours of overtime.
The lawsuit seeks in excess of $50,000 from the agency. Jim Jesse, Strand's attorney, said the case could go to trial later this year if not resolved with mediation.
"I'd love to have my old job back," said Strand, who is unemployed. "Absent that, I'm seeking lost overtime, wages and damages to my future earnings."
Shupert, a former DCSS transportation director, is still resentful about being fired by Carlson.
Shupert said he was dismissed without proper notice the evening of Oct. 3, 1995, in the driveway of his home in front of his wife's parents.
In an interview, Shupert said his termination occurred after he tried to discipline an elderly bus driver who had a couple of minor accidents while driving a DCSS vehicle. The driver didn't report the accidents and allegedly used spray paint to conceal damage to the bus.
A conference with Shupert, Carlson and the driver was called. Before entering the room, Carlson told Shupert that the case against the driver need not go far.
"She pulled me aside before the meeting and said (he) was a member of her church," Shupert said. "She said absolutely, no way we are going to fire him."
Feeling powerless to dismiss the driver, Shupert decided to reduce the man's workload from four days to one day a week. The new schedule was posted on a Friday. Carlson fired Shupert four days later.
"There was no written warning. There was no evaluation," Shupert said.