Archive for Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Open government has become contentious city issue

August 8, 2012

Some Shawnee residents, including at least one member of the City Council, say the municipal government has transparency issues.

Mayor Jeff Meyers, however, wants to make one thing perfectly clear: “I am super confident I did not break the Kansas Open Meeting Act rules.”

The mayor was responding to an online Dispatch report that the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office is investigating allegations that discussions by Meyers and members of the City Council of a recent appointment may have violated the KOMA.

The investigation was prompted by a July 30 letter to District Attorney Steve Howe from Shawnee resident Tony Lauer. The letter detailed a July 9 special meeting, during which applicants for appointment to a vacant Ward 2 City Council seat were interviewed. After the interviews, the City Council voted 4-2 to appoint the mayor’s uncle by marriage, Alan Willoughby.

Ward 4 council member Michelle Distler, who cast one of the “no” votes, said she did not oppose Willoughby personally. However, Distler explained during the July 9 meeting, she was “told on (the previous) Thursday that this is who the appointment was going to be,” who would make the motion and who would second it.

“I cannot be involved with this,” said Distler, who added that similar information had circulated prior to the appointment of Ward 1 City Councilman Jim Neighbor.

Gregg Snell, a resident who started videotaping council meetings after the city dispensed with detailed written minutes last year, then asked Meyers about Distler’s implication that Willoughby’s appointment had been discussed outside of a public meeting.

“I have not had a (private) meeting,” Meyers told Snell. “I have had discussions with different council members about applicants.”

Under further questioning by Snell, Meyers acknowledged he had discussed “good candidates” he was “in favor of,” including Willoughby. Meyers later told The Dispatch he had talked to “two, maybe three” members of the City Council about the appointment process.

According to the open meetings act, a majority of a governing body may not privately discuss, either as a group or through serial communications, a common topic with the intention of reaching agreement on binding action to be taken. In the case of the Shawnee City Council, a majority amounts to five members.

Howe said violators could be fined up to $500 each. But generally, KOMA investigations are undertaken with the aim of educating officials and preventing future violations, he said. Earlier this year, for instance, Howe’s office found that the Gardner City Council had conducted illegal meetings twice last summer, once through serial emails and once during a session that was closed without legal justification. But Howe waived penalties on the condition that the Gardner officials attend KOMA compliance training.

Lauer, who became involved in city government earlier this year as a result of a neighborhood open space controversy, said he did not believe Meyers knowingly violated the KOMA. “Otherwise, he would have tried to hide” the fact he engaged in discussions about Willoughby’s appointment prior to the July 9 meeting, he said.

But Lauer said the DA’s investigation may reveal that a majority of the council took part in those discussions, which, in turn, would reveal that city officials need more training on compliance with KOMA and the Kansas Open Records Act.

“Government has got to be open,” Lauer said. “We’ve got to be able to know what’s going on. ... When I go in and ask, ‘Can I see this (document), please?’ they should be reaching for the file cabinet instead of saying, ‘I need to see if I can give that to you or not.’”

As a result of Lauer’s campaign for more open government, the question of whether or not to resume production of detailed minutes of city meetings has been placed on an Aug. 21 committee agenda. The detailed minutes were replaced by summary minutes to cut costs last year.

Asked if she thought there was a problem with open government in Shawnee, Distler said, “The fact that we eliminated detailed minutes of council and committee meetings does not bode well for open government. ... I objected to their elimination and would support an effort to restore them.”

Distler said Shawnee does offer audio recordings of meetings and disclosure of all city spending online. But she added, “there is still room for improvement” and “it would help if more residents would take the time to speak up.”

Meyers said he encourages citizen involvement. “But there are some people who, when they don’t get the answers they want, get upset enough to try to cause you headaches and problems,” he said. Lauer, for instance, has gone from researching city records on his neighborhood issue to “making open records requests on everything from A to Z,” the mayor said.

According to City Manager Carol Gonzales, Lauer recently made an open records request for “the complete raw and active Lotus Notes email database files” for her, assistant city manager Vicki Charlesworth and city attorney Marvin Rainey.

“In my 27 years of local government, this is the first time I have seen a request of this enormity,” Gonzales said. “We estimate this database includes over 178,000 email files.”

The city declined to turn over those files without charging for the dozens of hours of staff time it would require to review them first.

“There are other laws, state and federal, that allow or prohibit disclosure of specific types of records or information,” Gonzales said. “It would be irresponsible for us to produce any and all records we have and not take these laws into consideration.”

Ray Erlichman, a resident who blogs about city affairs, “is another one who is going to try to make your life miserable if he doesn’t get the answer he wants,” Meyers said. He referred to Erlichman as “the season ticket holder who replaced Charlotte (Hargis),” a deceased former council member and leading critic of the governing body.

Following Willoughby’s appointment, Erlichman was critical of Meyers for not allowing public discussion during the July 9 meeting.

Meyers said he had heard that the pastor of a church attended by Distler and applicant Michael Kemmling had made an appeal from the pulpit for members to turn out in support of Kemmling. “So I decided before we started the process that, this time, I’m not going to get into the circus of people electioneering at the meeting,” Meyers said.

Kemmling said, “It’s odd that if (Meyers) suspects opinions are going to be contrary to his, he doesn’t want to hear them.”

Comments

Arnold 6 years, 4 months ago

Wow. The emperor has no clothes. Mayor Meyers is not only embarrassing himself, but now he's name-calling private citizens that care enough to be involved with city government. How disrespectful. He should direct Ms. Gonzales to restore online council meeting minutes (and any other meeting, for that matter). If he needs council support for that decision, maybe he can convince them at another off-site family reunion.

I did not attend the meeting where he did not allow public discussion. If I had, I would be outraged, too.

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Tony Lauer 6 years, 4 months ago

Wow. I'm okay with the City calling out me out. And I'd bet Ray is used to it, and might even enjoy it. But for Mayor Meyers to reference Mrs. Hargis in the tone that I perceive, is truly shameful. I hope I'm wrong on how I read that. Not cool dude.

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ShawneeFedUp 6 years, 4 months ago

God bless us Shawnee, these are our leaders. With only a couple/few exceptions, I have ZERO confidence in our city government. I have enough information to believe we are only scratching the surface of the corruption issues in which our city government has involved itself. There is a general theory about local government to which I subscribe: "anytime your govt. tries to hide information you should demand to see that information". We have crossed a very unfortunate line in the sand where, again with a couple/few exceptions, it has become painfully obvious that our elected civic leaders now believe the populace is there to serve their needs, rather than the leaders being there to serve the populace's needs. I am decently well connected, to govt. and business figures alike, and I am now to a point where I believe Shawnee faces serious corruption issues (yet again, with a couple/few exceptions). It is my fervent hope that the DA can turn the lights on and expose the proverbial cockroaches as they scurry for cover. Shawnee has the potential to be a terrific city that is friendly to all types of endeavors; first, however, it is going to take leadership that is dedicated to the fundamental principle of serving the needs of its ENTIRE community rather than just serving the needs of the privileged few looking for sweetheart deals, deals typically kept just out of the public consciousness.

There have been all too many examples of abuse of power in the US history of government, Federal and local. One such occasion was the politically opportunistic hearing led by Joseph McCarthy during his Communist witch hunt. Attorney Joseph Welch encapsulated the counterpoint argument of the slandered with his simple but profound question "...have you no sense of decency sir? At long last have you left no sense of decency?" I would like to pose that question to Mayor Jeff Meyers: have YOU no sense of decency?

It is my hope the investigation by the District Attorney's office either turns up evidence to compel a change in the conduct of our city officials, or scares them straight. But I get the feeling that classes could be taught in law school using the conduct of many/most of our city officials as an example of government run amok. Do I know that for sure? No. But I just get that funny little feeling...

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ShawneeFedUp 6 years, 4 months ago

And I'm glad he's "super confident" he didn't break any laws. It appears the District Attorney is "less than super confident" that he didn't break any laws.

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Oosk 6 years, 4 months ago

Kemmling is too kind: “It’s odd that if (Meyers) suspects opinions are going to be contrary to his, he doesn’t want to hear them.” Might be funny if it was happening somewhere else, but this is what we have elected (with two exceptions, and two appointed majority-look-alikes) It REALLY bothers me that some of these clowns claim to be conservative. Yeah...you mean like Nixon was conservative? (finger pointing at YOU Vaught)

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ShawneeFedUp 6 years, 4 months ago

They've gotten away with so much stuff that they get bolder and bolder as time goes on. Unless there is some sort of action taken against them they know they found the limit to what they can get away with, and they'll take half a step back and continue to operate in the same ways they have for years.

I guess the good thing about all this is now there is a pretty important investigation into the Mayor's conduct that will carry a lot of weight come election time. Time for Meyers to be a full time football coach again.

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shawneeray 6 years, 4 months ago

You are right Tony, I'm used to it. What I object to is the Tijuana Two Stepping by the mayor to divert attention from the facts.

This comment from the article: "Ray Erlichman, a resident who blogs about city affairs, “is another one who is going to try to make your life miserable if he doesn’t get the answer he wants,” ""

It's not a question of getting the answer I want. It's a question of getting an answer, period. When a simple question is asked and instead of a direct answer every effort is made to avoid it then I have to wonder what is being hidden. When part of the response is an obvious misstatement of the truth (polite way of saying a lie), then I really have to wonder what is being hidden. When that misstatement is pointed out, and no attempt is made to correct it, then the bovine scatology meter really jumps.

It's time that the people of Shawnee start taking a closer look at their elected officials. And I feel that they will.

I remember seeing Ms Hargis at some meetings. I also remember hearing her comment and the condescending attitude of the mayor and certain members of the council.

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dispatchthis 6 years, 4 months ago

The Shawnee 2012 Standing Legislative Positions (found here tinyurl.com/9pzarss) includes: "The City of Shawnee believes that an open government is essential to building public confidence. However, we recognize that in some circumstances the public interest is better served by preventing the disclosure of sensitive information."

So why does the mayor say “making open records requests on everything from A to Z” is an attempt to "try to cause you headaches and problems”?

I am super confident it all depends on what the definition of the term "sensitive" is...

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ShawneeFedUp 6 years, 4 months ago

"Sensitive", in this context, is defined as "stuff the mayor and majority don't want their constituents knowing about". I understand that some information does not need to be put into the wind, but he's using this fig leaf to cover all sorts of embarrassing tidbits that would otherwise come to light.

I hope the people of Shawnee pay close attention to what is going to be voted upon in the remaining time Meyer's has before his term is up. I learned recently that he plans to leave city government (can't happen fast enough). I would bet there are some pretty shady things that need voting upon before he's out, and his uncle will fall right in line and vote how he's told.

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RebeccaLB 6 years, 4 months ago

All meetings should have detailed minutes recorded. Cost should not be an issue. This is a vital process of every meeting and in this day and age should not be problem. And then, why not have them posted on line? What is there to hide? Denial points to impropriety, whether there is any or not. I get so disgusted with "dirty" politics . . . . it used to be an honor to serve and do what is right for your neighborhood, community, city, state, nation. Sometimes the people "in a position of power" are privy to information that the common person is not. For that reason they make those decisions based on that information. However, that does not mean they are smarter or know better what is best than the common person. Let that person ALSO know and understand "why". Don't assume and force feed decisions (or appointments) on the people you have been elected to serve and support.

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kevinstraub 6 years, 4 months ago

As a former member of the city council in Shawnee I would like to add some personal observations to this discussion.   There were occasions, where in my capacity I requested information from the city manager.  Many times I received only partial information and at other times no information.  Basically, I was being stonewalled.

It got to the point where I had to submitted requests under KORA (Kansas Open Records Act).  The responses to some of the KORA requests were in many cases not timely, some times not at all then they told me there would fees fees.

A council member should not have to do that because city documents should be readily available to council members for review and information.   When I brought this up at various council meetings, one of the other council members would say something to the effect of “Well, I always get the information I request”.  Yes Ms. Kuhn, we can understand that, and why.   There is a definite good ole boy network on the council, coupled with a city manager run amok with power, and forgetting her place as an employee of the council.  I remember seeing this quote in a recent article in the Dispatch by another former council member, David Morris, when discussing his resignation:  “In the political arena, if you get put in the doghouse, answers don’t come particularly quickly, and sometimes phone calls don’t get returned particularly quickly,” he said.

I was in the Shawnee City Council doghouse and did not get answers to questions or emails returned!

Kevin Straub

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ShawneeFedUp 6 years, 4 months ago

I did some searching and finally stumbled upon the voting record as pertains to the open minutes request. Results as follows, minus official language:

Council members Neighbor, Sawyer, Morris, Kuhn, Vaught and Sandifer voted to DENY public open minutes.

Council members Pflumm and Distler voted to ALLOW public open minutes.

Now, I can hear the excuses now, "there is no money in the budget to pay for contracting with a 3rd party to promote open government". Seems fishy considering the budget is as bloated as it is, full of all the crap its full of. They could cut money from any number of places, but they won't.

The absolute most important part of a democracy is a well informed electorate, PERIOD. This vote proves the majority of the council is more concerned with their ability to secretly operate behind the scenes than they are with preserving the democratic nature of their municipal government. As I stated above in a previous post, when the government believes the populace is there to serve their needs, rather than believing the govt. is there to serve the populace's needs, it's time to clean the house.

But you do have to wonder why they're so concerned with their ability to operate secretly...I'd like that exposed "A to Z".

And Kevin, I know they went to a pretty awful, deceitful place in order to ensure your losing your council seat. Fortunately for you you were not among the group that currently holds the majority, and thus need not worry about what will be exposed over time. Because I assure you, their dealings will eventually come to light--and sooner than later I'd imagine. Speed it!

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