Conflict over council vacancy appointment process continues
Shawnee City Council members remain in conflict over the historically controversial process of appointing new members to the body as a date nears for choosing a new Ward IV member.
A majority of the council now wants to pursue a special election after deciding months ago to wait until this summer to consider changing the city's process for filling vacancies. As a result, Mayor Michelle Distler has called a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday before the council's regularly scheduled city council committee meeting, just one day before the deadline for applications for the vacant seat.
The discussion about this year's appointment process began in February, when three of the four candidates for Shawnee Mayor were sitting council members. That meant that odds were good that the council would have to appoint a new member within 60 days of the April 7 election. Council Member Stephanie Meyer brought up the topic because of the controversial history of the process, which led to the involvement of the District Attorney's Office in 2013.
The February debate ended with a unanimous vote by the council to table the issue until this summer, after the state legislature had made a decision about moving municipal elections to the fall. The vote directed the city to proceed under the current charter ordinance that requires a majority vote of the council to appoint members to vacant seats.
"The decision at that time was to place it on the July 7 committee meeting agenda for further discussion, and should we need an appointment in this election, we would do an appointment," City Manager Carol Gonzales said at last week's city council meeting. "That is how staff has proceeded and that has been how the public has been informed and notified."
Distler said that she initially supported holding special elections to fill vacant seats on the council, but she said changing the process now would be "disingenuous."
"Based on the fact that the city has already advertised an appointment process for this seat and Ward IV residents have applied, I feel it is important to keep our word and move forward with that process in order to maintain the trust of our citizens," Distler said.
She said it is also important to fill the seat as soon as possible because the city is beginning its budget process. According to the Johnson County election office, an election would be held about six months after the city notifies the department of its intent to hold a special election.
The city's charter ordinance states that if the governing body fails to appoint someone to the seat within 60 days of the vacancy, the process will move forward to a special election. A special election, according to figures provided by the county, would cost about $3 per voter in Ward IV, totaling about $30,000. Mail-in ballots are not available for council elections.
Christine Loomis-Nay, Brandon Kenig and Douglas Hill have applied and were scheduled to appear at the May 11 council meeting to seek the council's vote. All three of the they wouldn't mind it it went to an election but Loomis-Nay did say she would not want to incur the extra cost on the city.
At the April 27 council meeting, Council Member Dan Pflumm and a majority of the council said that they would like to see the selection made by the people of Shawnee in a special election and directed city staff to investigate how that could be accomplished for this council vacancy.
"If everyone of those individuals wants to put their name in for an election," Pflumm said, "I think that's the way we should go."
Jim Neighbor said he was worried about voter fatigue after having multiple elections within the last year and about already-low voter turnout, but he ultimately voted in favor of directing city staff to investigate how they could hold an election.
Jeff Vaught, who was the only council member to vote against the shift to an election, said that not following the charter ordinance as the council agreed to do earlier this year would be wrong.
"I think we're elected to follow the charter ordinance," Vaught said. "I think to purposefully disregard it, to circumvent the system, is not a real ethical way to do it. I think if we're going to do that, then we need to actually change to the charter ordinance."
Vaught also argued that 18 of the 19 Johnson County cities have similar appointment processes and Shawnee should not have an issue following the same procedure.
Meyer argued that the process has been flawed in Shawnee and that the city can't ignore that.
In 2013, the a Kansas Open Meetings Act controversy unfolded when Ward II City Council member David Morris resigned, and then-Ward IV representative Distler raised concerns about private meetings being held before the interview process. The District Attorney’s Office found that Mayor Jeff Meyers and all members of the City Council except for Ward 2 representative Neal Sawyer engaged in private conversations about who Morris’ successor should be.
The council eventually voted to replace Morris with Alan Willoughby, Meyers' wife's uncle. Distler said 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.
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, District Attorney Steve Howe said.
Ahead of Tuesday's special council committee meeting, City Communication Director Dan Ferguson said the city will continue to move forward with the current appointment process by the council. The deadline to apply for the Ward IV seat is May 6.
"For now, we continue to encourage people if they are interested to continue to apply," Ferguson said.