A Sexual Harassment Investigation Reveals Seedy Dealings in Denton City Hall
A sexual harassment suit reveals the hijinks inside Denton City Hall
City of Denton
The comments Chris Lanzi made when she walked into his Denton city office sounded as if he pulled them from a sexual harassment prevention training video: “Hey, it’s been a long time; we should make out.” “I am staring at your butt right now. You have got a nice ass.” “Well, look at your boobs, they look huge today.”
He was the assistant building official known for a heavy-handed approach when handling his city employees. She was a city employee with a question about a fee for an occupancy certificate. “He says stuff about my boobs a lot,” the unidentified employee said in her Aug. 2 statement to the city.
The city’s investigation into Lanzi, obtained by the Observer, reveal more than just sexual harassment. It also claims an improper relationship between Lanzi and his boss, Aimee Bissett, who was director of development services at the time. At the conclusion of the investigation, Lanzi had to take sexual harassment training. Bissett resigned with a severance package worth more than $91,000.
City officials refused to answer direct questions related to why they paid an at-will employee, meaning one whose contract allows them to be fired for any reason, so much money after being dismissed. “The resignation of Aimee Bissett as the Director of Development Services was a mutual and voluntary separation,” Denton public relations officer Lindsey Baker wrote the Observer in an email response. “It is in the best interest of both parties to respect the terms and conditions of the separation agreement. To this end, please refer to the documents that have been legally obtained through a public information request.”
Those city documents depict an employee with a bad track record. She allowed an unsafe work environment to fester and “demonstrated a pattern of not understanding and/or not following city procedures related to purchasing and the budget.”
Bissett was also accused of signing a business agreement with a personal friend, despite not having the power to execute contracts on behalf of the city. She canceled meetings at the last minute or missed them altogether.
Given this record, the $91,000 city officials gave her doesn’t make much sense, especially when city officials wrote in her nondisclosure agreement:
Aimee agrees that such payment upon an employee’s resignation is contrary to the City’s normal policy, and in exchange for such good and valuable consideration, Aimee further agrees to release and waive, to the fullest extent she can legally do so, any and all claims she had or now has which may arise by virtue of her employment with or resignation.
This isn’t the first time city officials have paid former employees who were forced out the door. In 2011, the Denton Record-Chronicle uncovered five cases in which employees were paid sums “to leave quietly and not rattle any cages once they were gone.” The employees were given a total of $224,700 in taxpayer money. City officials argued that “these agreements are a tool used to provide an amicable separation by both parties to avoid rumors, liability exposure and to protect taxpayers from unnecessary expense.”
It's an unusual position to take since state law prevents state employees from receiving severance pay to protect Texas taxpayers. Denton Mayor Chris Watts told the Record-Chronicle that city council didn’t need to review Bissett’s agreement because the city manager has the authority to spend up to $100,000 without council approval. “We are prohibited by the city charter from getting involved in personnel matters,” Watts said.
One difference between those employees and Bissett is what would happen if they violated their non-disclosure agreements. Sources claim the other employees are required to refund the severance money, while Bissett is only required to pay $5,000 if she talks.
The Development Services Department, created in 2015, coordinates and reviews projects, including zoning, platting and variances. The initial red flag that something was rotten in the new department was raised by city employees who filed complaints against both Lanzi and Bissett. They accused them of consorting around the office “like two teenagers in lust.” Questions were also raised about favoritism shown toward Lanzi, who one complainant said received his position as assistant building official before it was even posted for people to apply.
Lanzi was accused of sexually harassing one of his subordinates and discriminating against an older city employee in his department. “This has been going on for about a year, if not daily then weekly, when he walks by he will make a derogatory comment about me not working, being too old to work or retiring,” that city employee told human resources. “These type of comments made to me and about me are extremely embarrassing and humiliating.”
Another complaint claimed the “Good Ole Boy” culture existed in the new city department, which was created by a city manager, George Campbell. The council voted to fire Campbell in June.
“A few months ago in a meeting to discuss our office move, the financial implications were brought up and Bissett stated, ‘Funds are not a problem. After a couple of drinks, George (the former city manager) will give me whatever I want,’” a concerned city employee wrote. “It is bad enough that this happened, but to publicly admit it simply shows a great lack of maturity and a complete lack of professional tact.
“I am fearful of retaliation, so I don’t want my supervisor, Athenia Green, Aimee Bissett or Chris Lanzi to see this,” she added. “Athenia and Chris are friends and Aimee and Chris are friends.” It’s a fear other complainants also mentioned.
The lack of professional tact seemed to be a recurring problem mentioned in witness statements as the city investigated the complaints in August. “Chris and Aimee spend a lot of time together in his office and her office,” one witness claimed. “The actions I see lead me to believe they are having an affair. They act like high schoolers in lust.”
This relationship between boss and subordinate created a power vacuum within the new department. “Mr. Lanzi says things such as ‘I own this place. I run this place. My boss is Aimee,’” another witness claimed. “I believe other people have overheard these statements. Mr. Lanzi says these things while at the front counter office area in a relatively loud voice.”
The examples of Lanzi’s behavior given in witnesses’ comments resemble each other. “Because of the perceived relationship between Mr. Lanzi and Ms. Bissett, people are afraid to come forward and say anything in fear of retaliation," one said. "I have heard that Mr. Lanzi has flaunted his sexual escapades (with other employees) with his inspections team.”
Some witnesses in the new planning department claimed Lanzi was “very boisterous,” “loud” and “inappropriate.” Some claimed others may think he’s “overbearing” if they didn’t know him. One claimed she didn’t have problem with Lanzi and Bissett’s relationship outside of work but at the office was another matter altogether. Another said, “Chris is a big joker.” Yet another said, “Chris’ behavior has been swept under the rug and considered normal.”
Not everyone got the joke. “Mr. Lanzi is not sensitive to other cultures, religions, races or sexual orientation,” a witness stated. “For instance, he asked me, ‘Do you have toilets in Dubai?’ I believe he is a bigot and believes that people who are not Caucasian are below him. I could smell something and asked him what the smell was. He said African Americans don’t have proper hygiene.”
Munal Mauladad, the deputy director of development services, reported to the city investigator that the age discrimination complainant told her that she reported Lanzi’s behavior to two employees in human resources, but “they just laughed it off and told her that is how he is.” Mauladad claimed she tried to address Lanzi’s behavior with a building official who directly oversaw Lanzi, but that official declined to get involved.
Lanzi, who's worked for the city for 16 years, claimed in the investigation that he was only joking with the person who filed the age discrimination complaint. He also said he was friends with the sexual harassment complainant because they had a drink together and hung out together outside of work. "I'm shocked because I never thought she would take anything I said seriously and to this level," he said. "I don't recall her ever telling me anything was inappropriate or that I needed to stop."
Bissett told the city investigator that she was surprised by the accusations because people "seem drawn to him" and "tease with him." "Generally, my observation of Chris is that he's a little rough around the edges and needs some coaching," she said. "I've attempted to do that to him."
The city investigator claimed Lanzi did in fact violate several policies related to sexual harassment and age discrimination. On Aug. 23, Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune offered Lanzi a “Last Chance Agreement” with several stipulations:
Placed on two weeks suspension without pay
Demoted to the position of building inspector with a lower salary
Write a letter of apology to both complainants of sexual harassment and age discrimination
Encouraged to contact the City Employee Assistance Program and attend any suggested meetings.
Keep his interactions with Athenia Green and with Aimee Bissett within the workplace professional and work-related basis only
Attend mandatory Harassment Prevention Training
Quit violating city policies
Create a harmonious and productive work environment
Lanzi, however, didn’t have to worry about his relationship with Bissett because she resigned three days later, severance package in hand. The city indeed demoted Lanzi, but he continues to work for the same department.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.