Shawnee Dispatch

Council vacancies will now be brought to an election

File photo. Shawnee City Hall is located at 11110 Johnson Drive. Enlarge photo

August 22, 2016

The Shawnee governing body now has a new way of filling a vacant council seat.

At its meeting Monday evening, the council unanimously voted to change the city’s policy so the filling of a vacant council seat will go toward a public vote. This is a major change from the council's past practice of filling any seats left vacant during the four-year term through an appointment process.

The controversial history surrounding that appointment process is one major reason for the change, said council member Brandon Kenig.

Three years ago, for instance, the governing body found itself in hot water when concerns were raised that private meetings about an upcoming council appointment were being held before the interview process had even begun.

Those concerns prompted a letter from the Johnson County District Attorney's Office, in which District Attorney Steve Howe accused council members of “back room deals" that violated the spirit of the Kansas Open Meetings Act. The council has been eyeing a change to its vacancy policy ever since.

This year, however, changes to the state’s election process has made changing the city’s vacancy policy a little tricky.

Kansas lawmakers recently eliminated spring elections in the state, making August or November the only regularly scheduled election periods in which citizens could vote on a council replacement.

Plus, to hold an election during those two periods, the city would have to inform the Johnson County Election Office by May 1st.

So, if a councilmember were to resign May 2nd, the seat would remain vacant, or be filled by a temporary appointee, for well over a year, which was a situation that made several councilmembers uncomfortable.

If the city held a special election to fill the vacancy, it would cost a minimum of $30,000, which also made some council members balk.

To make the best of both worlds, the council adopted a hybrid plan created by Kenig.

With his proposal, if a vacancy occurs between Jan. 1st and May 1st, the council may appoint someone to temporarily fill the seat and then use an already-scheduled election in August or November for voters to choose a replacement.

From May 2nd through Dec. 31st, if a vacancy occurs, the council may appoint someone to temporarily fill the seat, until it schedules a special election.

With the city’s new policy, the longest an appointed council member could sit on a council would be 10 months.

Kenig, ironically, was appointed by the council to fill Mayor Michelle Distler’s council term when it became vacant.

He plans to run for election when the term expires next year.

And while he’s happy to have been given the opportunity to serve Ward IV, he understands residents’ concerns with having a non-elected representative for the city.

“It’s really not fair to deprive Shawnee citizens of their vote,” he told the Dispatch.

At a council committee meeting on Aug. 16, several councilmembers spoke in favor of Kenig’s policy, agreeing it was the best solution to minimizing the length of potential vacancies.

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