Shawnee's fractious government rides a storm of criticism

People asking questions are “just fishing to stir up some trouble,” Mayor Jeff Meyers says.

11/19/2012 11:55 AM

05/16/2014 8:20 PM

The Shawnee councilwoman saw a former colleague walk into the meeting — a man she saw as an annoying pest.

She noted his presence in a phone text, adding, “Kill me.”

Except that she accidentally sent the text to the former colleague sitting in the meeting.

Oops.

Actually, it was a perfect Shawnee moment.

Shawnee may be Johnson County’s third-largest city but sometimes City Hall seems to still have its roots in the small town of decades ago when cliques and feuds would have been less surprising.

These days, anyone interested in city government can witness any number of oddities.

Allegations of secret meetings. Questions about how the mayor’s relative got appointed to the council. Snippy council infighting. Fears of retaliatory trash haulers.

Just last week, the mayor fined himself $135 after a political adversary caught him parking in a handicapped spot and reported it to police. A photo of the mayor’s illegally parked pickup quickly surfaced on the Internet.

It’s like Mayberry, or even high school, said John Segale, a former Shawnee city councilman and Johnson County commissioner.

“All of them are not behaving in a way that is productive, and it keeps building,” said Segale, who ran unsuccessfully last spring to replace the mayor. “I don’t understand why people tolerate it.”

Mayor Jeff Meyers is indeed a high school football coach — but he couldn’t disagree more with Segale.

Shawnee is like any other suburb, he said.

“All communities have their unique situations that arise from time to time,” said Meyers, who has been mayor since 2004 and served as a councilman for nine years.

Meyers doesn’t think there are big problems — just a few bad eggs asking too many questions.

“If some people don’t get the answer they want, they sometimes try to rattle the cage a little bit,” Meyers said. “They are just fishing to stir up some trouble.”

Indeed, the city has ridden a storm of criticism from residents and bloggers concerned about the direction of the city.

Tony Lauer, a Shawnee resident and now a leading critic of the city, said he had never paid much attention to local government until he asked for information this year after learning that private parkland behind his house was going to become a snake habitat.

“No matter how I asked for it I didn’t get it,” Lauer said. “I think there is pretty good cause for concern from what I see.”

Since then he has clashed with the city on a number of issues, raising questions about detailed city meeting reports (he led a successful campaign to bring them back), plats that might not have been properly recorded and high wastewater bills.

Meyers and some others in the city do not appreciate Lauer.

Lauer “is making a point to make things as miserable as he can,” Meyers said. “He is asking for all kinds of open records on all types of things. He is one of those people who dig, dig, digs.”

The mayor’s comments about Lauer didn’t surprise Brian Newby, a former Shawnee councilman. Meyers is the type of politician who prefers the public not get involved in city business, said Newby, now the Johnson County elections commissioner.

The way the city operates today has changed from 10 years ago, Newby said.

“It is a different dynamic right now, that’s for sure,” Newby said. “Many of them have lived in the city a long time. Maybe they feel a personal attack against the city is an attack against them.”

Brick wall

It’s not just people like Lauer who see City Hall as a brick wall — a few council members do too.

David Morris was excited two years ago when he was elected to office because he thought he could help his constituents.

But Morris said he soon found himself in a feud with the city manager, Carol Gonzales. The final clash came in May when constituents told Morris that a city contractor was putting down dead sod to complete a storm drainage project.

When he tried to set up a meeting with Gonzales, she wrote in an email that his role as councilman was to be part of a “city team” that works together on policy issues for the “overall good of the community.”

His advocacy was harmful to his relationship with staff, creating an us-against-them situation, Gonzales said in the email, which the Shawnee Dispatch made public at the time.

Morris resigned the next day.

Gonzales said she had no comment on the dispute with Morris.

Kevin Straub was another councilman who said his term left him frustrated.

Straub asked for records regarding the city’s employee vacation and sick leave benefits, which are allowed to accrue over years. He said he wanted to know the city’s liability in case a number of employees resigned.

He sent numerous emails to Gonzales and copied council members requesting the information in different ways over several months. But the council didn’t give him much help.

In fact, after receiving one email, then-Councilwoman Cheryl Scott instead criticized Straub’s writing.

“I can’t even count high enough to enumerate the spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors.  Buy a dictionary,” she emailed him.

Finally, in December 2009, Straub submitted a records request. Marvin Rainey, the city attorney, asked the state’s attorney general for an opinion, and in February the city was told most of the records were public but the city might have discretion to withhold employee names. Straub was told if he wanted the records he had to pay about $100 for them.

Straub said he refused to pay and never got the records, although Gonzales said he paid and received the documents.

What is clear: Rainey’s legal work cost the city and its taxpayers about $15,000.

Gonzales said the city had no option but to seek legal advice because she was concerned that releasing personnel records could expose the city to a lawsuit.

“We would follow the same process regardless of who made the request,” she said.

After Straub was unseated in the 2010 election, he continued to attend meetings.

Which led to the errant text message.

“Kill me,” texted Councilwoman Dawn Kuhn, who is mayor-pro-tem. “Straub at meeting. Happy Valentine’s Day to me.”

But Kuhn accidentally sent the text to Straub.

Keeping a sense of humor, Straub told the council he couldn’t understand “why Councilwoman Kuhn is asking him to kill her,” according to the minutes.

Kuhn said recently she had no comment.

“I will reserve my comments for legitimate issues that deserve attention,” she said.

But Councilman Jeff Vaught said all the Shawnee antics are small and he’s tired of all the racket from critics.

“We are getting hammered,” he said, even though Shawnee is one of the most open and fiscally responsible cities in Johnson County.

“In Shawnee we are getting beat up over this crazy stuff. I don’t get it.”

Phantom elections

When it comes to adding new members, the council sometimes finds ways to take the choice away from voters, critics say.

For example, in late 2009, the news that Councilwoman Cheryl Scott had bought a new home in Arizona near her daughter spun through city hall.

Because a city election was coming in April, several people, including Carri Donohoe-Person, were clamoring for Scott to step down so candidates could file for the seat before the deadline in late January.

But Scott said no. She did not want her seat put up for election, she said in an interview.

The other option: The mayor could take applications to replace the council member and then the council could select a new member — if Scott left after the election.

And that’s what happened, frustrating Donohoe-Person.

“She knowingly was leaving, she knowingly wasn’t going to fulfill the remaining two years of her position, and I thought the right thing to do was to let the voters choose her replacement,” Donohoe-Person said. “Not only did she refuse, but it was a very calculated decision by her and other members of the council.”

Scott said from her home in Phoenix that it was ultimately her seat and she stayed in office another eight weeks, past the election filing date, because she could.

“I was entitled to that seat,” Scott said. “I was still a property owner, registered voter, yakety yak, within my ward.”

When asked what she thought about the request for her to step down so others could run for office, she said, “I thought, well, what the F?”

Scott resigned immediately after the council elections, and within a month, Jim Neighbor was appointed to fill her seat.

Only this summer did allegations surface that the mayor and a majority of the council had decided in secret meetings to appoint Neighbor. Councilwoman Michelle Distler raised the allegation during a special council meeting July 9.

During the same meeting, the council voted on a replacement for Morris, who had resigned.

The two leading candidates: Mike Kemmling, a Shawnee dentist, and Alan Willoughby — the uncle of the mayor’s wife.

Distler and Councilman Dan Pflumm said they wanted Kemmling, who had lost a council election by 11 votes just a few weeks before.

In fact, Distler said she could not support the mayor’s relative because she had been told “the decision had been predetermined,” just as it had been with Neighbor.

The council voted to appoint Willoughby to the council. And in an unusual step, the mayor refused to allow members of the public to comment.

Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe has begun an investigation into alleged illegal meetings by the city in connection with Willoughby’s selection.

Willoughby has not returned numerous phone calls requesting an interview.

Meyers said he did shut down discussion on the Willoughby appointment because, based on past experience, he thought the public comments were not in the best interest of the council making a decision.

As for whether the council pre-determined the choices of Neighbor and Willoughby, Meyers said there were no official meetings, only a consensus that arose through conversations with individual council members.

The conflicts and tension wear on some council members — so much so that Pflumm sometimes wonders if he might be growing paranoid.

Pflumm, a 10-year veteran whose family roots in Shawnee go back 140 years, usually finds himself at odds with the mayor and the council majority. He has raised questions about city contracts and expenditures.

And he concedes that he may sound like he’s crazy, but he thinks someone who broke into his house and car several times might have been trying to discourage him in 2008 when he was running for mayor.

At the same time, trash trucks for Deffenbaugh Industries, which is located in the city, missed picking up his garbage over several weeks.

Pflumm can’t explain it.

“It was just an inordinate number of coincidental things that were going on,” Pflumm said.

Tom Coffman, a senior vice president at Deffenbaugh, said he only knows that a few years ago Pflumm’s trash problems appeared to stem from his using a 55-gallon drum without handles, although Pflumm said that wasn’t unusual for the neighborhood at the time.

Meyers said he didn’t think Pflumm had ever discussed any trash or break-in problems with him.

Meyers, in fact, was far more relaxed about City Hall than Pflumm.

“Things are going well,” he said. “I’m happy, and I think the council is.”

Gonzales said the criticisms of the city are all coming from the same few people.

“For a community of 62,000, we actually receive very few criticisms,” she said. “Our recent citizen surveys showed extremely high levels of satisfaction.”

But several people say the city, the council and the mayor need to remember they are working for the public and realize their actions are tearing apart the city.

“Government is for the people,” Newby said. “I have to work with all of them, and many are friends. It is hard to watch and hard to observe.”

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