The crowd seemed almost reluctant to leave at the end of Shawnee Mayor Michelle Distler’s town hall meeting. But only so many questions about street repair, snow removal, garbage collection and taxes could be answered in the space of an hour. The rest will have to wait until the next “Third Thursday with the Mayor” in August.
About 25 people showed up for the first event, ready to engage Distler and City Manager Carol Gonzales with sometimes prickly questions about how city policies affect them on the most basic level. That qualified as a success, especially for a weekday morning, Distler said.
“My term is not just about me, it’s about us,” she said after the meeting broke up.
Those attending were generally positive as well. “Having these meetings is a fantastic idea,” said Lance Darby. “This is a wonderful way to interact with the city.”
Of course, open gab sessions with city officials are nothing new, but they’ve received less attention in recent years as cities added Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and online chats. Even so, the old-fashioned town hall has quietly made a comeback in a few Johnson County cities.
Police departments, for instance, are adding the coffee klatch as a way to build bridges with their communities in what has been a rough public relations year nationally.
Lenexa, Mission and Prairie Village police departments have begun the “Coffee with a Cop” a program promoted by the U.S. Department of Justice. Prairie Village had its first coffee at 8 a.m. Friday at Latteland, 7900 State Line Road.
The coffee is a chance for police and citizens to meet as equals in a neutral place, said Sgt. Jason Kuder of the Prairie Village Police Department. “We want to build that partnership,” with the community, he said.
Mission police have held three coffees, said Chief Ben Hadley. Hadley thought it was a good enough idea that he paid for the coffee for the first one out of his own pocket, he said.
Keeping up community relations is an ongoing effort for the department, he said. Officers frequent neighborhood block parties, the city picnic and other city events. “You can never miss an opportunity to get out in public and shake some hands,” Hadley said.
The events help put a more human face on the department for citizens who may only talk to an officer during the less-relaxed atmosphere of a traffic stop, he said.
Although police actions have been questioned in some racially charged incidents in other cities, most of the citizens’ questions at the Mission coffees have concerned traffic enforcement, property crimes and state laws on concealed carry of weapons, he said.
“Something good or something bad, we like to hear it all,” Hadley said.
Keeping in good stead with the public also helps because the police depend on a public comfortable enough with police to call in suspicious activity, he said.
Other area cities handle public relations differently. Olathe has no regular town halls, but does have online question-and-answer sessions and communication through social media. In Overland Park, officials get out to meet residents at homeowner association meetings and neighborhood gatherings.
At the Shawnee meeting, Distler was able to use the time to give an update on road repairs and try out an idea about how to spur development at the largely vacant Westbrooke Village Shopping Center at 75th Street and Quivira Road.
“We are working like crazy to get the shopping center filled but it’s the owner that’s not cooperating,” she said, because the owner of part of the center is still receiving rent payments from a former grocery store tenant.
Distler said she’d like to explore a “blight tax” on property that would increase every year of vacancy. “I don’t know whether it would work. It would have to get to the point that it would hurt them more than help them to let the building sit empty,” she said.
She also answered questions about the county museum from Mary Alice Viscek. The museum, on county property at 6305 Lackman Road, will move its contents to the new county Arts and Heritage Center in the former King Louie bowling alley in Overland Park.
“Why are we giving that up to Overland Park?” Viscek asked.
Distler answered that it is on county property so the city has no say. “We would absolutely keep it if we could and we fought but that’s a decision of Johnson County government.”
Distler encouraged attendees to keep giving suggestions about how the city could do better. “We want Shawnee residents happy.”
The next “Third Thursday with the Mayor” will be at 9 a.m. Aug. 20 at the Shawnee Civic Center, 13817 Johnson Drive.