Council votes to investigate election alternative for board vacancies
The Shawnee City Council agreed last week to look into an election process in place of its current appointment system for filling vacant council seats.
In February, the council decided to put off a decision on changing the city's appointment process until the state Legislature passed a bill, which has now been accomplished. However, the state's new election bill has some looming questions that could change the landscapes of local elections. The current bill states that a special election must be held within 45 days of the vacancy if the city chooses to go to a special election. That amount of time, the council and city staff agreed, would be nearly impossible for the county election office abide by.
Despite the questions remaining about time constraints on filling an empty council seat with a special election, the Shawnee City Council decided that it would like to pursue holding special elections, or combining with other elections, to fill vacant seats.
In the most recent council seat appointment, Brandon Kenig was selected after a slight modification to the city's current process.
The applicants were interviewed based on a random draw and each council member's nomination was written on paper with the council member's name, then displayed on a screen and tallied. The name with the most nominations received the first motion to appoint. If that motion were to fail, the order proceeds down the list of applicants with the highest to lowest nominations. In Kenig's case, he received the most nominations and the motion to appoint him passed.
The city has a troubled history with its appointment process, culminating in a 2013 Kansas Open Meetings Act investigation in which the city was criticized by the District Attorney’s Office for having private conversations about who would be selected to fill a vacant seat. For that reason, Council Member Stephanie Meyer brought up the discussion of changing the city ordinance in February.
Shawnee's council appointment process has been in place since 1974 and is the same process that Gardner, Merriam, Olathe, Topeka and the Johnson County Government uses. Council Member Jeff Vaught argued at the recent council committee meeting that the city's current process is fine and that city shouldn't spend additional money for a special election.
"This is the quickest way to do it and the cheapest way to do it," Vaught said.
A special election, according to figures provided by the county, would cost about $3 per voter. In Ward IV, that would cost about $30,000. That elected official would then serve only until the next city election.
The only area city with a special election process is Roeland Park. Meyer and Council Members Dan Pflumm, Eric Jenkins and Mike Kemmling said an election is the only way to let the people decide who they want to represent them. Meyer also argued that its the best way to ensure there are no back room deals in the appointment process.
"The decision belongs with the people of Shawnee, with the people of that ward," Meyer said.
The city could also include the vacant seat on even-year ballots at no cost, but the council expressed concern about potentially having to wait up to a year to fill a council seat.
Council Member Jim Neighbor cautioned the council to make any decision while questions still linger about the state's new election law. He recommended that the city again "kick the can down the road" and wait until the state adds a trailer bill and clarifies its stance on special elections.
"I just don't think we have enough information to make a decision and I don't want to backtrack and have to rewrite ordinances," Neighbor said.
After a lengthy discussion, the council voted to direct the city to investigate how they could pursue a special election process to fill vacant seats with a 7-1 vote. Vaught voted against the decision.
The council also agreed to poll the people of Shawnee in its upcoming 2015 citizen survey about the vacancy process. The council voted 4-3 in favor of including a question in the survey. Pflumm, Jenkins and Kemmling voted against the idea. In the survey, the council agreed, citizens will be able to say whether they support a special election given the cost and the alternatives.