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Discrimination lawsuit filed against Ashland Parks

Mail Tribune/file photo A superintendent at Oak Knoll Golf Course in Ashland has filed a $750,000 lawsuit this week against the city’s Parks and Recreation Department citing harassment and discrimination.

A longtime Ashland Parks and Recreation Department employee filed a $750,000 lawsuit this week alleging that she was the target of harassment based on age, gender and sexual orientation, and that there has been a decades-long history of discrimination in the department.

Oak Knoll Golf Course Superintendent Laura Chancellor alleged “she has been paid less than men in similar situated positions; that higher level jobs have been created for men, but not for women; that she has been ridiculed for being a gay woman; that she has had important parts of her job duties and responsibilities taken away; and that she has been treated as a second-class citizen by the males in the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department,” according to her attorney, Tom Dimitre.

Parks Director Michael Black and City Attorney Katrina Brown did not respond to requests for comment by press time Tuesday.

The lawsuit names five people — members of an alleged “Boys Club” — including Black and parks technicians. She claimed the city employees “created a hostile working environment for (her) and other women, older women, and those of different sexual orientation,” according to the suit.

“A months-long investigation has shown that there has been widespread, systemic and long-term harassment of women at the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department,” Dimitre alleged. “There are numerous women and men who will testify about and confirm the hostile work environment due to gender and sexual orientation, and also about the women who have left Ashland Parks due to this hostile work environment.”

The complaint, filed in Jackson County Circuit Court, cites additional violations such as retaliation for opposing unlawful practices and for whistleblowing; failure to keep a safe and healthy work environment; aiding and abetting; breach of contract and assault.

According to the suit, repeated reports to human resources personnel yielded no investigation or meaningful action.

Chancellor filed a tort notice with the city Nov. 2, 2021, and another notice Feb. 15, according to a press release.

“Despite my 17 years working for the city, I am continually forced to fight for equal treatment,” Chancellor said in the press release. “I’ve been nearly run over and had sprinklers at the golf course continually run over, which were both harassment because of my age, gender and sexual orientation. I’ve had to work for less pay and had major job duties removed from my responsibilities.”

In November 2021, a member of the so-called “Boys Club” allegedly nearly struck Chancellor with a dump truck three days after the city received notice of her intent to file a lawsuit, trapping her within a few feet between her vehicle and the truck.

The same individual allegedly began in early summer 2016 voicing a discriminatory opinion in the break room about homosexuals, people of color, Hispanics, and nonwhites, and other members of the "Boys Club“ agreed, according to the suit.

Despite holding the superintendent post since 2010 and certified in 2014, Chancellor said she was “routinely bypassed and my position usurped,” and that a culture treating women as “not smart enough to be in charge” persists.

“I am treated like a lesser person every day that I come to work,” Chancellor said in the press release. “I am treated like I am less competent, less able and not as smart as the men in the department.”

An investigation into the allegations by Dimitre, including interviews with several current and former APRD employees, he said, uncovered instances of women leaving the department due to toxicity and “for fear of their health.”

“All of the males and females that I interviewed agreed that the APRD was harassing women based on their gender, sexual orientation and age,” Dimitre said in an email. “And many of the women quit their jobs in the past due to this harassment as they were disgusted with the way that they were treated.”

Interviewees during his investigation cited a lack of equitable pay and promotional opportunities, ridicule, disempowerment, lack of communication and — for men and women — lack of support from senior leadership in addressing the problem, Dimitre said.

The lawsuit describes examples starting in 2004 — when Chancellor was first hired as a seasonal employee — of hostility from male peers and supervisors, wage disparity, physical and verbal harassment, disregard for credentials and experience, exclusion from projects and decision making regarding the golf course, punitive evaluations, disproportionate assignment of new vehicles to men, and statements such as “homosexuals should be hung on the cross and burned” by one of the alleged “Boys Club” members in 2011.

Dimitre said he could not reveal the names of people who spoke in confidence during the investigation, but “many of them knew that they had to make a choice between their health and their jobs,” he said.

Dimitre said Chancellor was not available for questions. The city is conducting its own investigation into the allegations, he said.