Former Harrisville, Utah, city administrator files suit alleging discrimination due to sexual orientation

Former Harrisville city administrator Bill Morris has filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming the city of Harrisville, Utah, discriminated against him and created a hostile work environment because of his sexual orientation.

By the mid-2000s, Morris had spent a considerable part of his legal career in city administration and planning. In addition to his own law practice, Morris had served as the ethics commission chair for the City of West Jordan, and as an administrative law judge for Saratoga Springs.

In 2005, the city of Harrisville originally hired him as their land use planner. Since Morris was already providing the same services for the newly incorporated city of Marriott-Slaterville, the move proved effective and efficient since the two cities share boundaries, congruent land interests, and similar development trajectories.

In 2008, Morris’ employment contract was amended to include serving as Harrisville’s city administrator, whose responsibilities included managing city code compliance and violations cases; making recommendations to the city planning commission, city council, and mayor; overseeing personnel in the administrative department; assisting in planning and managing the city budget; and coordinating with the administration to prepare and submit a balanced budget to the city council for approval each year.
A few short years later, Morris was also hired on as the city attorney and prosecutor. Similar to a district attorney, this role represents the city, not the mayor or other city executives. This ensures the ability to operate independently, free from political interference or pressure from city administration. If there are ever allegations involving a city employee, the attorney makes an initial inquest into the foundations of the complaint, its scope, and implications and reports the matter to the city council, which is then responsible for the investigation via a hired third party.

By the mid-2010s, the challenges of population and cultural shifts in Utah were in full swing. Morris met with officials in various cities to assist in drafting and updating their anti-discrimination policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Morris worked tirelessly alongside Brandie Balken, then the executive director of Equality Utah, to develop strategies to educate lawmakers and protect LGBT communities from discrimination and hate crimes.

Then, in 2014, Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage was challenged in court and found to be in violation of the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court against the move, and Utah’s governor, attorney general and the majority of its legislators pulled out as many stops available to them to prevent same-sex marriages from taking place. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all bans on same-sex marriage, which effectively legalized marriage equality in all 50 states.

While same-sex couples celebrated their nuptials in Utah, the state’s predominant religion took an increasingly hostile position on the matter, labeling same-sex marriage as a form of apostasy and denying baptism for children in same-sex families. Utah’s legislators followed in similar sentiments, passing “Religious Freedom” laws that allow public servants to opt out of performing any civil duties related to same-sex marriages. These types of religious freedom exemptions made their way into every piece of subsequent pro-LGBT legislation in Utah: the anti-discrimination bill in 2015 includes broad legal exemptions for all religious institutions, their business entities, business subsidiaries, and business affiliates, including schools and hospitals, real estate holdings (residential and commercial) and any business affiliates that have contracts with a church. This quiet hostility escalated further in 2016 when an update to include sexual orientation and gender identity in Utah’s hate crime bill failed after the LDS Church made a statement to Utah lawmakers that making the proposed changes would upset the “balance of religious liberty rights and the LGBT community’s rights.”

Hostile Working Environment

During this tenuous period, Morris was entering his 13th year of public service in Harrisville. In 2017, Michelle Tait, a member of the city council, was elected mayor. Her campaign championed her being a long-time resident of the city, an active member of her church, and committed to protecting Harrisville’s “long-held traditions and values.”

Shortly into her term, Tait learned of Morris’ sexual orientation. According to Morris’ complaint, whenever he would mention his husband in a passing conversation, Tait would roll her eyes and change the subject. Soon after, both the mayor and the city recorder, Jennie Knight, reportedly avoided referring to Bill’s husband as his spouse and, instead, used dog-whistle terms like “his gay lifestyle.” This passive harassment and disparate treatment intensified, the complaint states when Knight’s daughter left to proselytize for her church in 2020. Later that year, the city terminated the employment of its only other gay employee under the pretense of city budget constraints, according to Morris, only to hire a replacement with higher pay who, incidentally, was not gay.

That same year, Tait was made aware of an incident involving a city employee and wanted Morris to prosecute the employee. Morris explained in the complaint that since he represented the city, he was forced to recuse himself from the investigation, and the matter was sent to the Davis County Attorney’s Office. They declined to prosecute, citing not sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction.

After receiving the results of the investigation, Morris wrote that Tait told him and the city council at their end-of-year review meeting that she was not satisfied with the outcome of the case or with Morris’ performance. She refused to accept that he was not legally able to represent the city to prosecute a city employee and stated he failed to do the job she asked of him. During that meeting, Morris, fellow attorney Scott Young, and the city council attempted multiple times to explain to Tait that Morris had no choice but to recuse himself due to the conflict of interest.

Also, in 2020, an employee of the neighboring city of Marriott-Slaterville was accused of sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and creating a hostile work environment for other employees. Since Morris was one of the whistleblowers in this accusation and also an employee of the city, he recused himself from the investigation, and Young handled the case. Young gathered the evidence, conducted interviews, and submitted his recommendation to the city of actions to take to reprimand the employee.
This matter should have been closed, but unbeknownst to Morris, Young sent a copy of his recommendation email to Tait, who was in the beginning stages of her re-election plans. The email Young forwarded, according to Morris’ EEOC complaint, contained private, detailed, and protected whistleblower information about Morris as well as details of his personal life. Tait, the complaint continues, ignored the legal ramifications of opening and saving the information about the accused employee and the victims in the case, which included Morris. Despite the multiple violations of attorney-client privilege and whistleblower laws, Tait allegedly used the contacts in the email to obtain more information about Morris and his private life. She then called Young, according to the complaint, and began working with him behind the scenes to force Morris to resign, using the information she obtained about his personal life as blackmail.

Anti-Hispanic Hostility

Meanwhile, Harrisville’s growing Hispanic and Latino communities also began feeling a change in the intensity and frequency of harassment by both residents and city police after the mayor’s election.
In 2000, the city of Harrisville, Utah, had a population of 3,645. It’s a small city, less than three square miles, located in Weber County, just north of Ogden. Harrisville’s demographics reflected much of the rest of the state at that time, with close to 95 percent of its residents reporting as White, while the Hispanic and Latino residents made up just 4.7 percent, compared to the 9 percent in the rest of the state that year.

In the two following decades, Harrisville maintained its geographical area, but its population nearly doubled to over 7,000 residents. The small, quiet, rural city quickly became surrounded by the sprawl from other neighboring cities and towns within the county. An even more dramatic shift occurred within the city’s population demographics: the Hispanic and Latino population tripled to 17.4 percent of the population, and those who identified as two or more races climbed to nearly 11 percent. The population of White residents fell to 73 percent.

Complaints by Hispanic residents of police harassment escalated in 2020 and 2021, ranging from repeated, targeted property code violations to citations for violations that had not actually occurred.
These incidents were reported to Morris, and, as the city attorney, he was obligated to investigate the claims for validity and enforcement of the applicable city code if there was indeed a violation. During his investigations, Morris obtained police camera footage and clearly saw that no crimes had been committed by those receiving the violation notices. Morris advised the court to drop the cases as there was no evidence of an infraction.

Due to the volume and frequency of these occurrences, Morris went to Harrisville’s chief of police, Mark Wilson. Morris showed Wilson the complete lack of evidence and advised him to cease allowing his team to issue citations without the proof required by law, according to the complaint. Morris said that Wilson seemed uninterested in discussing the issue further and did not report back to him about any corrective action taken or reprimand to his staff.

Morris said he also found a trend in the multiple property code enforcement complaints residents had been filing. The complaints were only targeting specific residents who didn’t fit into the city’s majority demographic, instead of the bulk of residents who were violating the particular code. This repeated, deliberate, and targeted acts of discrimination and lack of accountability, Morris said, eventually led him to open an investigation on Harrisville city officials, specifically Tait and Knight, in 2021.

Forced resignation

Morris continued that he was summoned to Tait’s office in February 2022, where he was met by the mayor and Knight. He said the mayor instructed him to resign and endorse Knight as his replacement. Morris said he refused and requested to know the reasoning behind this, to which Tait said she had a list of reasons but wouldn’t show Morris that list. Morris said he told the mayor that there were several cases he was investigating that were still ongoing and he intended on seeing them through.

The complaint states that Tait then told Morris that she had incriminating information that she had obtained after receiving the email from Young and that she would expose him to public embarrassment, which would ruin his career if he did not resign. After the threat to expose his private life to the city, Morris said he would sign the resignation, even though he had no idea of the veracity of the information.
The following day, in a closed-door meeting about his resignation in front of the city council, Morris inquired about his severance. He was informed that, due to his part-time employment as city administrator, he did not qualify for benefits or severance. Morris says this was knowingly false since he personally knows other city employees who retained their benefits and severance after resigning. As he pushed back, Tait began bringing up his unwillingness to prosecute the way she wanted and threatened to expose incriminating details about his personal life to the city council, the complaint says.

According to Morris, Tait subsequently hired Knight as the city administrator without posting the position and allowing all qualified candidates to apply and gave Knight double the salary she had been paying him.

Complaint, Lawsuit filed

Morris obtained counsel and filed a complaint with the EEOC shortly after the resignation. After reviewing the details of his experience with Tait, the EEOC gave him the green light to file suit in federal court for discrimination. However, upon requesting Morris’ case files and emails, Morris and his attorney were informed that shortly after Morris left, the city migrated all their files to a new server and “accidentally forgot” to migrate anything tied to the previous city administrator. This, according to Morris, means court cases, voting records, ongoing investigations, and evidence — over 15 years of the city’s legal matters — were unretrievable.

The case, Morris v. City of Harrisville et al., is now pending in the US District Court for the District of Utah. Named defendants are the City of Harrisville, Michelle Tait, Jennie Knight, Cynthia Benson, and Jessica Hardy.

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