Shawnee Dispatch

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.”

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