Council debates vacancy appointment process
The Shawnee City Council is still at odds on how council member appointments should be handled.
With three of the four candidates for mayor in this spring's election being current City Council members, there is a 75 percent chance the city will have to appoint a new council member in the coming months.
The appointment process for the city has been a controversial one in recent years, culminating in a letter from the Johnson County District Attorney's Office in 2013, in which District Attorney Steve Howe said the city's appointment of a replacement included “back room deals" and violated the spirit of the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA).
The current City Council is made up of five members who, at one point in time, were appointed to fill vacancies, including Ward III Council Member Stephanie Meyer. Meyer said she wanted to discuss the city's appointment process before the upcoming election to avoid any more controversy and to see if some aspects of the process could be changed.
"(The process) was about as pleasant as a heart attack," Meyer said.
Shawnee's charter ordinance pertaining to appointments to the council states that the council appoints a replacement member with a majority vote and that the mayor has the power to cast the deciding vote in case of a tie. The city has followed the ordinance since 1974 when the city changed the process from a mayoral appointment with consent of the council.
Assistant City Manager Katie Killen provided a long list of Johnson County cities and others in the state that follow the same practices as Shawnee.
The charter describes who has the authority to fill the vacancy but it does not go into detail on how the council shall go about having applicants apply, interview and be selected. In 2013, after the resignation of Council Member Dawn Kuhn from Ward III, the city solicited resumes and letters of intent from any interested applicants. The applicants then were interviewed at a special council meeting which was then followed by a vote to appoint the replacement.
Council Member Mickey Sandifer voiced his support of the current system.
"I think that what's been working for 40 years works just fine," Sandifer said.
Others disagreed. Mike Kemmling, Michelle Distler, Meyer and Dan Pflumm said they would rather see a special election held to appoint someone.
"I think it's a disservice to citizens and whoever is going through the process," Meyer said.
Distler raised concerns about previous appointments, saying that the process has been flawed in the past because there have been times when the council seemed to agree on who the replacement would be prior to the interviews being held.
After the 2013 KOMA controversy unfolded when Ward 2 City Council David Morris resigned, Distler was one of the council members raising concerns about special meetings being held before the interview process. The District Attorney’s Office found two years ago that the mayor and all members of the City Council except for Ward 2 representative Neal Sawyer engaged in conversations about who Morris’ successor should be.
The council eventually voted to replace Morris with Alan Willoughby, who is the uncle of the Mayor Jeff Meyers' wife. Distler said she voted no against Willoughby because she had been “told on (the previous) Thursday that this is who the appointment was going to be,” and who would make the motion and who would second it. Distler supported Michael Kemmling in the vote, in part because he had lost a Ward 2 race against Sawyer by only 11 votes the previous Spring.
According to KOMA, a majority of a governing body may not engage in private discussions with the intention of reaching agreement on a matter requiring binding action by the body. The act may be violated through private group meetings or serial one-on-one communications, as took place in the case of the appointment selection.
“The evidence showed that Meyers had conversations about the open seat with (council members Mickey) Sandifer, (Dawn) Kuhn, (Jeff) Vaught and (Jim) Neighbor,” the district attorney wrote in 2013. “This led to Vaught having similar conversations with Distler and (Dan) Pflumm. ... In the end, Meyers and the entire city council, except for Councilman Sawyer, knew how the vote would probably go, prior to the actual special meeting to vote on the vacancy.”
The controversial history of recent appointments in Shawnee sparked some tension during last Tuesday's special council meeting. Kemmling responded to what he called the "passive aggressive nature" of comments directed at his appointment. Sandifer responded to Kemmling, saying that he didn't vote to appoint Kemmling because he questioned Kemmling's community involvement. Kemmling was verbally restrained from responding by Council President Jim Neighbor. Kemmling said he is in favor of a special election which would potentially cost the city $30,000 per election.
"I want the person up here that the people chose, the person they want," Kemmling said.
Vaught took several stances on the issue at the meeting, first saying that he didn't want to change the ordinance ahead of the upcoming election because it, "would appear too political."
"This is not some back room deal," Vaught said. "The process is not broken, why try to reinvent the wheel."
Later, he said he would be in favor of a system in which the mayor appoints the replacement with support of the council, saying that the candidate who ran "at large" in the entire city knows best who the residents of each ward would want.
Meyer responded to Vaught, saying the suggestion to change the process to a mayoral appointment is more of a political move.
"I think trying to change it to a mayoral system while we are in the middle of a mayoral election, one that you are running in, is more political than anything," Meyer said.
Vaught then retracted his statement after the, "push back" he received on his earlier statement and said the system should go unchanged. He said he was opposed to a special election because of the cost.
The debate ended with no action being taken and the council voted to table the issue until July when the state is supposed to have decided whether or not to hold city elections in the Fall, rather than the Spring.
Despite several of the council members saying they wanted to stay ahead of the state's decision, they voted unanimously in favor of tabling the issue. A motion to leave the ordinance by Neighbor failed in a 4-3 vote with Sawyer abstaining and Pflumm, Kemmling, Meyer and Distler voting no.
While the city could have made adjustments to the practice of how applicants apply and are selected before the upcoming election, the ability to change the city ordinance to a general election or mayoral appointment would not have been possible before the April election because of time restraints.