Following concerns from staff, investigation into Lawrence Community Shelter director has begun; staffer says he was asked to sign nondisclosure agreement

photo by: Journal-World File Photos

The Lawrence Community Shelter, left, and its executive director, Renee Kuhl, right.

Following allegations of a hostile environment for both staff and guests, an investigation into the director of the Lawrence Community Shelter has begun and is expected to conclude within two weeks, the shelter board’s leader said.

As the Journal-World previously reported, in 2020 and so far in 2021, about 30 people have quit, been fired or otherwise ended their employment with the shelter, and a dozen former and current staff members have voiced concerns to the Journal-World regarding a “toxic” and “hostile” environment, overly punitive actions taken against staff and guests, and the impact of turnover on shelter operations and capacity, among other concerns. A former manager and a current staffer also sent their concerns to local elected leaders.

The shelter’s governing board announced last week that it had placed Executive Director Renee Kuhl on paid administrative leave while an independent, outside investigator conducts an investigation regarding the allegations of the staff members. In response to questions from the Journal-World, Thea Perry, president of the shelter’s board of directors, said this week that the law firm performing the investigation is Morrow Willnauer Church of Kansas City, Mo. Perry said the firm does not have a deadline, but it expects work to conclude within two weeks.

The board also responded to the newspaper’s request for the shelter’s public tax forms for 2019, but did not yet provide the 2020 form. The salary for Kuhl listed on the form for 2019 was $85,800, and Perry said her salary for 2020 was $93,580, which included a bonus.

The Journal-World asked the board why Kuhl’s salary had been increased from the $67,078 that was provided to the last director. Perry said the board was advised by SS&C Solutions, the consultant hired by the city and county to work with the shelter, on the salary range for the executive director position. She said the shelter was further advised at the time that the salary range was necessary to ensure quality applicants given the lack of continuous executive leadership for several years.

Kuhl has served as executive director since September 2019. She is the shelter’s fifth executive director since its longtime leader, Loring Henderson, retired in May 2014. The board has named the shelter’s finance and operations director as the new acting leader pending the current investigation.

As part of its reporting about the staff concerns that were voiced to elected leaders, the Journal-World spoke with 11 former and current staff members at the shelter, many of them frontline staffers, who said that a “toxic” and “hostile” environment for both staff and guests under Kuhl was a main source of the shelter’s high turnover. They also expressed concern that the turnover rate was affecting the daytime service levels and how many people the shelter could serve.

Since the publication of the article, a former frontline staffer, Frank Chartier, who worked at the shelter for about five years, provided the newspaper with a nondisclosure agreement that he said management tried to get him to sign when his employment ended.

The four-page agreement, which he did not sign, states in part that the shelter agrees to pay severance to Chartier and not contest his unemployment claim under the promises contained in the agreement, which include that Chartier will not bring any claim or lawsuit against the shelter, “will not disparage, attempt to discredit, or otherwise call into disrepute LCS, or any of the other Released Parties, or any of their products or services in any manner which would damage the business or reputation of LCS or any of the Released Parties,” and that Chartier will not divulge the terms of the agreement.

Chartier provided the agreement as an example of the work environment at the shelter. One of the concerns voiced by former and current staff was that employees and staff were sometimes yelled at for perceived mistakes, rashly disciplined, and that staff feared retaliation for speaking up because some staffers had been fired for doing so. Since the article was published, the Journal-World also spoke to another former staff member who said they had been fired for voicing concerns about some of the shelter’s practices.

The newspaper asked the board whether it was aware Kuhl had presented a nondisclosure agreement to an employee, whether it thought doing so was appropriate, and whether the board knew how often such agreements had been presented to staff. Perry said the board was not aware of such agreements being presented to or signed by current or former staff members.

After employees spoke out with their concerns, Kuhl declined an opportunity to comment or answer questions and said she would make a statement to the Journal-World only if the paper agreed before seeing the statement to publish it in full. The newspaper did not accept those conditions, noting that it can’t agree to publish anything sight unseen. The Journal-World contacted Kuhl again this week, and she said she could not comment on the ongoing investigation and the only comment she was making at this time was a statement that she made on her Facebook page.

In the approximately 1,500-word statement, which was posted to Kuhl’s Facebook page after the Journal-World’s original article ran, Kuhl dismissed criticism of her as “personal attacks” and stated in part that she was sexually harassed by two employees and that the shelter had a “pervasive culture of harassment and egregious staff misconduct.” She said that of the 31 employees who quit or were fired during her tenure, most had “disciplinary records.” Kuhl denied ever yelling at staff but said she had raised her voice twice in the last two months at male clients who were being violent or threatening.

The board declined to comment on Kuhl’s Facebook statement.

COMMENTS

Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.