Neighbor, Vaught win council leadership positions during contentious meeting
In the end, the simple matter of choosing new leadership for the Shawnee City Council was decided by the election of Ward 1 City Councilman Jim Neighbor as council president and Ward 3 Councilman Jeff Vaught as vice chairman.
But getting there didn’t turn out to be a simple matter.
A Shawnee charter ordinance directs the City Council to elect new leaders during its first meeting each April, after the city elections. So as one of the first orders of business during the April 9 meeting, Mayor Jeff Meyers asked for nominations for council president. Ward 3 Councilwoman Dawn Kuhn responded by nominating Neighbor, and Ward 4 Councilman Mickey Sandifer seconded the nomination.
Then, after Meyers opened the matter for discussion, former Shawnee City Councilman Kevin Straub marched to the podium. Straub noted that Neighbor had done a wonderful job as a councilman since being appointed to his seat in 2010 and being elected to it last year. But he added that Neighbor’s fellow Ward 1 representative, Dan Pflumm, had served on the council for 11 years without ever being elected as council president. In addition, he said, Ward 4 Councilwoman Michelle Distler has never been elected to the office by her peers despite having served on the governing body for seven years.
Meanwhile, several members with less longevity on the council have been elected president, sometimes multiple times, over the past several years, Straub said, “and to me it sounds like the good ol’ boy network looking out for each other.”
“If Willoughby were still here, I’m sure he’d be council president,” Straub said.
He was referring to Alan Willoughby, the mayor’s uncle by marriage, who was appointed to his Ward 2 seat last July following private discussions among governing body members that led to an investigation into Kansas Open Meetings Act violations by the Johnson County District Attorney. The DA’s office eventually ruled that the governing body had violated the spirit of KOMA, and some political observers believe that contributed to Willoughby’s loss to new Ward 2 Councilman Dr. Mike Kemmling on April 2.
After Straub spoke, Neighbor was elected council president by a unanimous voice vote.
Then Distler moved that Pflumm be elected council vice chairman, and Ward 3 Councilman Jeff Vaught, who has served as council president for the last year, seconded the motion.
During discussion of the motion, Kuhn said that, if Pflumm were not elected, she also would like to be considered for vice chair, and a subsequent voice vote prompted the mayor to call for a roll call vote.
Neighbor, the first to vote, said “no” to Pflumm’s nomination after a long pause. He was joined by Ward 2 Councilman Neal Sawyer, Kuhn and Sandifer.
Pflumm, Kemmling, Vaught and Distler voted for Pflumm. And Mayor Meyers declined to break the tie, meaning Pflumm’s appointment was defeated.
Then Sandifer made a motion that Kuhn be elected vice chair. And after no one seconded the motion, Sawyer made a motion, seconded by Kuhn, that Vaught be elected vice chair. Some found that odd because Sawyer and Vaught during a recent meeting had gotten into an argument in which each called the other “juvenile.” But Vaught was elected vice chair by a unanimous voice vote.
During discussion before that vote, Kuhn noted that the selection of council leaders “is not a popularity contest or a question of longevity.”
Rather, she explained after the meeting, “we are voting for the person who will (as president) will faithfully be able to serve as the mayor,” when the mayor is unavailable. She said she could not vote for someone for council president who she wouldn’t cast a ballot for as mayor.
Following Vaught’s election as vice chairman, Sawyer then explained why he hadn’t supported Pflumm for president. He said that on April 3, Pfllumm had sent a letter to all council members, letting them know that he wanted to be elected council president.
“To me, that very much has the flavor of what happened last July,” said Sawyer, who added that Pflumm’s letter had opened the door for the type of private discussions the governing body was chastised for by the public and the district attorney following Willoughby’s appointment.
Pflumm said he had called the district attorney’s office after his letter was questioned and was told he had “absolutely not” violated the open meetings act.
“They said I could talk to anyone on the council and the mayor about anything,” Pflumm said. “You just can’t communicate to anyone else what was said.”
In response to Sawyer’s accusation, Distler noted that Neighbor had approached her privately after the previous council meeting to ask her to support him for council president.
In addition, resident Gregg Snell, who films all council meetings, said he had seen Neighbor handing an envelope to Sawyer after the same meeting. Neighbor, upon realizing the exchange was being recorded, then uttered “an audible ‘oops,’” Snell said.
When Snell asked Neighbor if he cared to elaborate on the contents of the envelope, Neighbor declined, saying it was personal and between him and Sawyer.
When Sawyer was asked the same question he said the envelope had contained precinct-by-precinct voting results from the April 2 elections.