Archive for Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Critic holds Council’s feet to the fire

October 4, 2006

Charlotte Hargis knows that she can be a thorn in the Shawnee City Council's side -- but that's the way she likes it.

"I think Johnson County is getting to be a big sinkhole," she comments. "It does seem like everything is planned by these big wheeler-dealers, and everybody's just supposed to go along with it."

But the former Shawnee City Council member is doing her part to make sure it isn't easy for local government to blindly approve new projects or ordinances. Hargis is a government watch-dog for all Shawnee residents, attending almost every Council meeting and demanding answers and consideration for the taxpayers.

Hargis was not always so involved. Before getting into politics, people in Shawnee may have only known Hargis as a horse-rider, as she often rode her horse to explore the then-rural city.

Hargis was born in Kansas City, Kan., and her family moved to Shawnee in the 1940s. She graduated from Kansas City, Kan. Community College and went to work at TWA, where she would remain for 40 years as a supervisor in the engineering library and then a manual writer.

Early on at TWA, she was the only woman to take a business course the company offered. One of the assignments was to meet with their local political committeemen and committeewomen.

Hargis said she didn't know much about politics at the time, though her father was very interested in the subject.

"My dad loved to talk politics," she said. "That's what we had for dinner every night."

But when Hargis met with the Republican committeewoman in Shawnee, she told Hargis she was moving and offered her the volunteer position. At first, Hargis said no, but then changed her mind. She was soon knocking on doors, encouraging Shawnee residents to register to vote and discussing the candidates.

"It got to be kind of fun -- I got into the politics," Hargis said.

Then, for the first time, a woman was elected to the Shawnee City Council. A friend of Hargis's, the woman asked her to help her out on the male-dominated, good ol' boy Council.

"I agreed to go down and sit in on the meetings so they didn't beat up on her too much," Hargis said.

When her term was nearly up, the woman urged Hargis to run for Council so there would be another female Council member. Hargis agreed, and when the 1972 election rolled around, the other woman lost, but Hargis, who had already met most of her constituents as a committeewoman, won.

"I just got out and hustled and I won, and the powers that be weren't very happy because they were used to getting things their way," Hargis said.

Hargis was a member of a political group in Shawnee called the Citizens for Open Government, formed to reform city government, return two-year terms for the mayor and Council members, eliminate secret and special meetings and provide the minutes of all Council meetings to the public.

Hargis served as chairman and promoted Keith Q. Hayes as a candidate for mayor, and he won.

"It just got hotter than a firecracker," Hargis said of the political atmosphere at the time. "It was such an interesting experience... probably the most exciting election in Shawnee in a while."

The times where interesting, too, because the other seven Council members constantly argued with Hargis and Hayes. Hayes even brought charges against a Council member for voting on something he should have abstained from and filed suit against the Council for not agreeing to his choice for a city attorney.

In 1974, 17 candidates filed for the Council election, with two "parties": those for the Citizens for Open Government and those for the Council majority.

It was a turbulent time for Shawnee, and the population was growing so quickly the government had to grow, too.

For example, the proposed 1974 budget increased 25.8 percent over projected expenditures for 1973, the Northeast Johnson County Herald reported. The increase was largely due to the hiring of the first city manager, city engineer and building inspector.

Though Hargis said the longtime Council members at the time had ways of getting those they didn't like off the Council, she stuck around for five two-year terms.

"I tried more than a lot of them to represent what the citizens wanted," Hargis said. "... I tried to be an honest politician and I think I got pretty close to that," she says. "Unfortunately, it hasn't caught on."

In the early 1980s, just a month short of her 10th year on the Council, Hargis had to resign as she had moved to another ward. She tried to run again in her new ward but was beaten for the first and last time by Frank Goode, the current Ward II Council member.

Though she took a brief break when her mother died, Hargis has continued to attend Council meetings to stand up for the taxpayers and keep an eye on Council members.

"I keep running into people who ask me if I'm still going down there, and they say 'Good, they need someone to keep an eye on them,'" Hargis said. "... (people) remember me because I was outspoken and I stood up for them, and I still try to do that -- but I don't get very far."

Hargis tries to challenge the Council to remember to spend their constituents' money wisely, though she worries that's getting harder as the city grows.

"The chamber (of commerce) and the developers have more to say than we do," Hargis says. "They've taken our government away from us, in my view."

She said she sees competition between the cities for economic development ruling Council decisions.

"Shawnee used to say, 'Well, if Overland Park is doing it, we don't want to,' and now, it's a constant comparison between them," Hargis said.

Hargis demands documentation for many things from the city -- in a filing cabinet in her garage, she keeps track of many city issues. Though she knows some may see her as a nuisance, Hargis said she feels it's her duty to care, even when others don't.

"When I go and ask for these things, I'm not asking for myself," she says. "I just think the people should have a voice."

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