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Cincinnati pays $48K to settle lawsuit by former city workers over Harry Black's behavior

Cincinnati pays $48K to settle lawsuit by former city workers over Harry Black's behavior
Posted at 4:45 PM, Oct 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-30 16:53:49-04

CINCINNATI -- The city of Cincinnati spent more than $48,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former employee who alleged dysfunction at the city's 911 center and that then-City Manager Harry Black berated her before giving her an "uncomfortable" hug.

Elizabeth Christenson and her husband Blake Christenson filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in March, alleging they suffered emotional distress and retaliation from Black.

The settlement, which was signed on Oct. 16, authorizes the city to pay the couple $39,286 and an additional $9,400 for their lawyers' fees.

Elizabeth Christenson left her job as a senior computer programmer analyst for the city's 911 center in early February, leaving behind a scathing exit interview memo.

She described dysfunction at the 911 center: "emotional outbursts" from the center's civilian manager, such as "screaming, swearing, and slamming doors"; a double-standard for police personnel; and, ultimately, "critical failures... due to mismanagement" that delay service to residents and threaten state funding.

She also made allegations about Black. After she questioned a plan of his in December 2016, Black "responded by lashing out angrily" at her, according to the lawsuit.

He "yelled" at her, "berated" her and threatened to "clean house up there" at the 911 call center, the lawsuit alleged. Later, Black called a meeting to apologize.

He never did but asked Elizabeth Christenson for a hug, the lawsuit states. It was "uncomfortable" and made more so by the fact Black only shook hands with male colleagues who were there, according to the lawsuit.

Afterward Black wrote a letter to city council stating that he offered an apology and did not intend to make Christenson feel uncomfortable.

"My main purpose at the conclusion of the meeting was to convey that I respected her and there were no hard feelings," Black wrote. "It was more of a paternalistic act to convey empathy and respect."

In the aftermath, Blake Christenson, who was then a senior crime analyst, said Black retaliated against him for his wife's actions by denying him a promotion. He no longer works at the city.

Blake Christenson was expecting a promotion and raise March 1 after he and others met with police officials last fall to discuss concerns about crime analysts leaving their city jobs due to low pay.

However, his promotion was removed from the Cincinnati Civil Service Commission agenda, the lawsuit alleges.

"A member of police management" told Blake Christenson that his promotion was removed from the agenda "as a direct response" to allegations his wife made in her exit interview memo, according to their lawsuit. They accused Black of having "direct involvement" in the decision.

Emails obtained by WCPO between city attorneys and lawyers at Minnillo & Jenkins also reference a settlement in the case of a Greater Cincinnati Water Works leader for unequal pay.

A request for any settlement agreement between the city and Ellen Betsch was not immediately provided.

However, emails reveal the city agreed to pay $91,000 to settle both the Betsch and Christenson lawsuits.

Betsch, a 28-year city of Cincinnati employee, filed a federal lawsuit in May, accusing the city of paying men more. Although she was promoted to a group leader, she did not get a raise to match the salaries of the other three managers, who were men, the lawsuit states.

These are two among a slew of lawsuits filed against the city by employees over the past two years. Many focused on Black's behavior, accusing him of berating employees and retaliation.

Black resigned from his job last spring, after weeks a public feud with Mayor John Cranley. City Council approved a $174,000 cash payment to Black, plus $6,000 for attorney fees and health insurance for eight months.

Then in September, city leaders agreed to pay Black an additional $370,000 to end his threats to sue the City. The new deal makes Black's total buyout worth $544,000 in cash -- plus benefits.