Back in 1863, William Quantrill’s band of guerillas passed through Gardner, Kan., on the way to burn down Lawrence.
These days it’s like some of that rebel chaos rubbed off on Gardner City Hall.
A fistfight between councilmen, illegal meetings, secret pay raises and a fractured council largely appointed by the mayor.
That’s no doubt interesting for a Johnson County suburb, but it could also be a problem. Gardner is no longer the sleepy farm village of Quantrill’s day. Its population has doubled in the past decade and now a monster, game-changing rail hub is on the way nearby, leading some to worry that the city is unprepared for the future.
“Gardner is a good community, but it has taken some hits,” said John Shepherd, a former councilman and teacher of 31 years. “It didn’t have to be. Leadership could have made the difference all around. It is unfortunate this has all transpired.”
One current councilwoman said the public’s patience is wearing thin.
“I think the things I’ve heard from the public, through phone calls and emails, the residents are quite sick of this,” said Kristy Harrison, who was appointed to the council by the mayor two years ago. “There is a lot of blame not solely on one person.”
Many people say Gardner’s civic troubles began with the announcement in 2005 of the intermodal freight depot to be built just southwest of city limits.
The short version of what happened next:
The town split over whether too many tax and financial concessions were being given by the city to the railroad. Edgerton annexed the hub property instead, two council members were recalled and a third quit, leaving only two and the mayor.Off key
These days there are two big voices on the council, and they’re seldom in tune.
One is Councilman Larry Fotovich, newly elected but a frequent challenger to Mayor David Drovetta, who has served as council member and mayor for 17 years. All other council members have been serving for three years or less. Three current council members, a majority, were appointed to vacancies. (They do not include Fotovich, who was elected last year.)
Drovetta said he was simply following advice from the Kansas League of Municipalities in making the appointments.
Indeed, city and state statutes are silent about what to do in such a predicament, said Kim Winn, deputy director of the Kansas League of Municipalities. So common law and common sense come into play, she said.
But others aren’t so sure that leaving it to the mayor to appoint council members is better than holding a special election so the voters can pick them.
Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist, said he was “stunned that there is not legislation on what to do.”
But Drovetta thinks selecting council members rather than electing them might result in more qualified representatives.
“The public opinion of what occurred, our satisfaction in city government actually went up under the appointed council,” he said.
Although Drovetta said he has heard others describing him as a dictator, he denies he is controlling.
As for Fotovich, he’s a lightning rod.
Before he was elected, he and the mayor were on opposite sides of the recall vote — Fotovich opposed the recall.
These days Fotovich comes to meetings with plenty of probing questions.
Once, when a contractor had an overage of more than $4,500, Fotovich said he wanted to examine the records during a council session.
An argument ensued between Fotovich and Drovetta, and the mayor ended the meeting.
At Monday night’s meeting, Fotovich was still asking for the expense records and the mayor was still refusing, even though such financial records are usually considered public.
Another time a discussion about employee health benefits became so electrified that Drovetta exclaimed, “That’s bull----,” and shook his finger inches from Fotovich’s face, according to several people at the meeting.
In November, Fotovich suggested that to encourage civility, the council invest in video equipment to tape the council meetings.
Drovetta opposed the idea and Councilman Dennis Pugh told Fotovich to shut up. Fotovich suggested that if the meeting were videotaped, Pugh might behave differently.
Pugh then threatened to take Fotovich into a back room and “beat the s--- out of you,” according to observers and The Gardner News.
The meeting broke up, but when Fotovich got home, Pugh had followed him. Fotovich grabbed his video camera to try to record Pugh, but Pugh put him in a headlock, tackled him and tried to take the camera away, Fotovich told The Star at the time.
Pugh was charged with misdemeanor battery, resigned from the council in December and entered a diversion program last month. And the council has installed a videotaping system.
Drovetta said Fotovich baits him at every meeting, always asking for more information than staff provides. He wonders about Fotovich’s motivations.
“I do know there has not been any positive moment in the actions (he’s) taken,” Drovetta said. “They’ve all been negative. It doesn’t appear that he is interested in positive outcomes for the city.”
Fotovich describes Drovetta as a dictator because he refuses to release documents and doesn’t answer questions.
“Everything is a chess game,” he said.
“I’m very, very proud to live in Gardner,” he said, explaining why he ran for office. “I love Gardner.”
Claud Hobby, who lives just outside city limits near the hub project and attends council meetings, also sees the mayor as manipulating the city’s agenda, although he notes that Fotovich can be a provocateur.
“He pushes buttons just to push buttons, but he always does ask legitimate questions,” Hobby said. “In these economic times I think his questions are even more viable.”
And with so much distraction on the council, Hobby worries about its ability to tackle the future in a city that has grown from 9,000 in 2000 to 19,000 today.
“It makes it very hard to get business done.”Secret meetings
The council itself got into hot water recently over illegal meetings called by the mayor.
Last month, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said the council violated the state’s open meetings act twice last summer. He warned them that should future violations occur, he would reconsider his decision not to prosecute.
“We hope the mayor and the city council make sure no future violations occur,” Howe wrote in a letter.
But the city continues to withhold information about some pay increases.
Interim City Administrator Mike Press acknowledges he gave a $10,000 raise to Melissa Mundt, an assistant city administrator, soon after he was hired last fall.
Press said he increased Mundt’s salary to $93,000, and that he had given three or four other employees raises since being hired. But he refused to release the amounts of their salaries because a Kansas City Star reporter did not have the employees’ names. The Kansas Open Records Act requires that information be released.
Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said Press must release the information.
“That is just ridiculous,” he said. “That is absolutely a public record. They can’t tell you they’re protecting individual employees.”
Mike Merriam, the press association attorney, agreed.
“It’s plainly not secret,” he said.
Mundt’s $10,000 raise also drew questions from Fotovich. “Why wasn’t the council told about this?” he asked.
Press actually agrees employees’ salaries are a public record.
“It’s the people’s government and they should know to the extent they are entitled to know,” he said.
But he said he is trying to keep employees from being embarrassed or ridiculed.
“I’m just trying to protect the people who work here,” he said.
Drovetta said Press told him about the raises of other employees.
“I know who they are,” he said. “I’m going to go with Mike and not disclose who they are.”
District Attorney Howe said he needed more information before responding.Council strains
Other council members are warily watching developments at City Hall.
Heath Freeman is adamant that the city needs to be looking forward to capitalize on any developments that come along because of the intermodal hub.
And although he was appointed by the mayor last month to replace Dennis Pugh, he said that doesn’t mean the mayor has any particular influence on him.
Brian Broxterman, who was appointed by Drovetta in 2009, also denies mayoral influence —but said Fotovich needed to learn when to stop asking questions.
“I think he asks good questions,” he said. “Sometimes I think he needs to ask them in a little more polite way and when a question is answered, let it go.”
Kristy Harrison, also appointed by the mayor in 2009, blames the intermodal hub for creating a “pretty significant divide in the community” that extends to the council.
“It was a horrible, horrible time this town went through,” she said. “(Drovetta and Fotovich) are personally holding each other accountable for it.”
Chris Morrow, who was elected along with Fotovich last spring, hopes over time his relationship with Drovetta will improve.
“I’m hopeful but not necessarily expectant,” he said.
And the past year?
“I anticipated it was going to be a lively time, and it hasn’t disappointed,” Morrow said.