Accusations of backroom deals and a critical finding from the Johnson County district attorney dogged the Shawnee City Council the last time it appointed someone to fill a council vacancy. Just sixteen months ago, the council drew outrage from some quarters when it appointed the uncle of the mayor at a meeting at which no public comment was allowed.
By ROXIE HAMILL
Special to The Star
Now there’s a new vacancy on the council. And once again, the public will not be allowed to comment during the meeting when the council interviews the candidates.
The council will appoint a replacement for Dawn Kuhn, who is getting married and will move out of her home in Ward 3. Kuhn’s resignation is effective Oct. 14. Her replacement will be chosen at a special meeting Oct. 28.
Mayor Jeff Meyers, who made the decision, pointed out that the people who want input into the selection have plenty of other ways to speak out, including emails and phone calls. The city will list applicants on its web page at cityofshawnee.org as they come in, he said.
“It’s not like the public has no ability to weigh in,” he said.
Meyers decided to brave possible public backlash because he didn’t like the way a similar meeting went a couple of years ago.
During a special meeting to fill a vacancy, candidates are invited to introduce themselves and give their pitch to the council. The public is not always invited to comment, he said. But two years ago, when Councilman Jim Neighbor and four others were being interviewed, Meyers did allow comments.
“I didn’t really feel comfortable with the way that went, so I decided next time not to allow for public comments,” Meyers said.
A small group of people was boisterous and “a little bit disruptive,” during that meeting, he said. And although there weren’t personal attacks on Neighbor, there were many strong opinions expressed about the way the vacancy came about.
Kansas law allows cities of Shawnee’s size to fill vacant council posts by appointment. The appointee fills the seat until the next time it’s up for election. As a result, it’s unusual to have a seat completely open at election time. A check with the Shawnee clerk’s office showed the last time Shawnee had a completely open spot — unfilled by an appointee — for an election was in 2006.
Since 2010, the council has had a rocky time with its appointments process. That was the year the council looked for a replacement for Cheryl Scott, who had bought a home in Arizona and planned to move there. Instead of resigning early enough to put the seat up on the next ballot, Scott held onto it until after the elections. The council appointed Neighbor to fill the rest of her term.
During the public comment period at Neighbor’s interview, some residents argued that Scott’s replacement and Neighbor’s appointment were all part of a backroom deal, and that the council should have tried harder to convince Scott to give up her seat earlier, according to the minutes.
“I walked away from that meeting saying when this arises again, I will run the meeting in another fashion,” Meyers said.
That opportunity arose in May 2012, when Councilman David Morris resigned. True to his word, Meyers did not allow public comment. The council appointed Alan Willoughby, the uncle of Meyers’ wife, to the vacant spot.
A few months later, the Johnson County District Attorney Stephen Howe said the council violated the spirit of the open meetings law by discussing the appointment outside of the council chambers. Willoughby was defeated in the April elections by Mike Kemmling, who still holds that seat.
The council members who spoke to The Star were split about opening the appointment meeting to public comments. Neighbor remembered the comment period at his own appointment as “extremely distracting to me.” Still, he did not take a position, pro or con, saying only that the mayor has the prerogative to run the meeting as he sees fit.
Council member Dan Pflumm disagreed with Meyers’ decision. The public, “should be entitled the opportunity to comment over something like that, especially after what’s happened in the past with appointments,” he said.
But Kuhn said comments open up applicants to name-calling, “with absolutely no benefit to the process at all.”
Even though some citizens may still be suspicious about the council’s openness, Meyers said he would stick to his decision not to allow comments. “All I can say is I have experienced both situations and the one I think works best is the way we’re going to be doing it.”
So far, one person has applied for the spot, Jason Sheahan. The application deadline is 5 p.m. Oct. 22.