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Two St. Louis County leaders were once powerful allies. Records detail their falling-out.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch - 12/4/2023
Dec. 4—CLAYTON — The former aide to a St. Louis County Council member was ready to file suit against her former boss before the parties settled outside of court Wednesday. A draft of her lawsuit levels withering criticism of Councilwoman Rita Heard Days and what it was like to work for her.
Maria Chappelle-Nadal said her time working as a legislative assistant for Days before she was fired were the darkest days of her career as a policymaker. She claims Days fired her for expressing her political views and that St. Louis County didn't properly accommodate her mental health disability.
"When I joined Councilwoman Days as her assistant, I couldn't have been more optimistic about the public service opportunities the job would provide me," Chappelle-Nadal said in a prepared statement shared by her attorney. "Unfortunately, because of how I was treated by Councilwoman Days and St. Louis County, the last two years of my life have been and remain the darkest of my entire career in public service."
In February, Chappelle-Nadal took her complaints to two agencies that handle disability discrimination claims: the Missouri Commission on Human Rights and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She and her attorneys began negotiations with the county and a third-party mediator to settle out of court, said Chappelle-Nadal's attorney, Jeremy Hollingshead.
Meanwhile, Hollingshead and Chappelle-Nadal prepared a lawsuit to file in St. Louis County courts in case a settlement didn't materialize. But just before the latest deadline, mediation began again, and they reached a settlement for $77,000 earlier this month, Hollinshead said.
A copy of the draft was obtained by the Post-Dispatch last week.
It describes a hostile work environment where the county failed to accommodate Chappelle-Nadal's mental health needs, such as a need to work remotely or to have an emotional support dog at work. The lawsuit also details Chappelle-Nadal's political views and how she aired them publicly, attracting ire from Days and County Executive Sam Page — and eventually costing her job.
But Chappelle-Nadal lost her job because she wasn't doing it, Days said. The two had been allies when they served alongside each other as state legislators, but the relationship soured when they had both left their state posts and started working together in the county, Days said.
"It's unfortunate that she felt it was difficult," Days said. "But I've not had any problems with working with any of my assistants since I was in the House or the Senate. None of them will tell you that I have been difficult to work with. So that's her opinion."
A breakup of allies
Chappelle-Nadal, of University City, and Days, of Bel-Nor, are both influential Black women whose voices can lend power to campaigns and lift up causes. And at first, they were political allies.
Days was first elected as a state representative in 1993, and she served in the House before winning a seat in the state Senate in 2002, a post she held until 2011. Days had the same two assistants throughout her time in the Legislature, and she has had the same assistant in the county since she fired Chappelle-Nadal.
"I do expect you to do the job, but I don't consider myself difficult to work with," Days said.
Chappelle-Nadal began working alongside Days when she was elected to the House in 2004 and later described her as a mentor. Chappelle-Nadal then succeeded Days in her Senate seat, which she held until she left because of term limits in 2019. She was then elected to another House seat, where she served until 2021.
Chappelle-Nadal was a relentless and controversial legislator. She was central in raising awareness about the need for cleaning up radioactive waste in the St. Louis region, and she was known for filibustering bills she felt were harmful. She also took part in Ferguson protests in 2014 following the police killing of Michael Brown, advocating on behalf of activists seeking police reform.
But her comments on social media, sometimes expletive-laden, repeatedly landed her in hot water.
In 2017, she called for the assassination of former President Donald Trump on the platform formerly known as Twitter. She apologized for the post and removed it. Later that year, she leveled insults at a fellow legislator and five lobbyists, calling them "baby killers" who should "burn in hell" for opposing legislation that would have provided state buyouts for constituents who live near the radioactive West Lake landfill.
By the time Chappelle-Nadal's time in the Legislature ended in January 2021, Days had assumed office on the St. Louis County Council. She was elected in August 2019 to fill the seat left vacant when Councilwoman Hazel Erby, the first Black woman to serve on the council, quit to accept a job in Page's administration.
Chappelle-Nadal was looking for work after she left the Legislature, and Days was hiring.
"She did not have a job leaving the Legislature, and I did not want her to be without a job," Days said. "So I asked her to come and work for me, and she agreed."
Chappelle-Nadal began working for Days in November 2020. Days knew about Chappelle-Nadal's political stances when she hired her, the draft lawsuit alleges, views Chappelle-Nadal "would continue publicly advocating for."
Criticizing the county
Chappelle-Nadal indeed continued to express her opinions.
She aired a regular podcast where in one episode she heavily criticized St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell. In June 2022, she tweeted that the county was downplaying the potential public health risks associated with development by the Boeing Co. "on land improperly tested for contamination" near the airport. She tweeted frequently all last year about contamination and its risks.
That spring, she began "actively" questioning the county executive's office about her concerns surrounding the development of land near the airport, according to the draft lawsuit. In June 2022, the Riverfront Times published an op-ed from Chappelle-Nadal that criticized the county's plans. It called out Page and the County Council, including Days, "for failing to exercise proper leadership" in remediating nuclear waste. Then in the summer of 2022, Chappelle-Nadal publicly supported Page's opponent in his bid for reelection.
Throughout Chappelle-Nadal's time with the county, Days instructed her to not make such public comments and prohibited her from doing the podcast.
This moratorium was a violation of Chappelle-Nadal's First Amendment rights, her lawyer said.
"As a St. Louis County resident myself, I was surprised with not only the level of health effects my family and neighbors face due to the radioactive waste that continues to plague our community but with the county government's willingness to hide this reality — to the point of firing employees who publicly raise awareness of the issue," Hollingshead said.
And the councilwoman was a difficult person to work for, Chappelle-Nadal claims in the draft lawsuit.
Legislative assistants earn $47,000 annually and are typically responsible for responding to emails, scheduling, researching and doing other tasks for the council members.
Days, known for her directness in public meetings, was impatient with Chappelle-Nadal and the necessities her disability required, the lawsuit says. She was critical of Chappelle-Nadal's need to work from home and accused her of failing to get her work done. Days also increasingly asked for Chappelle-Nadal's help in her 2022 reelection campaign, responsibilities outside of the scope of Chappelle-Nadal's county job.
But the allegations in the draft lawsuit won't be heard in a courtroom. The settlement prohibits Chappelle-Nadal from filing suit against the county.
Days wished Chappelle-Nadal well.
"I wish her the best in whatever she decides she needs or wants to do," Days said. "But it just was not working out for us."
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