Citizen watchdogs go the extra mile to keep an eye on Johnson County governments

01/28/2014 5:38 PM

01/29/2014 9:58 AM

They email. They blog. They attend the meetings, sometimes with a video camera in hand. And often, this band of citizen watchdogs gets things done. Those detailed minutes, transcribed from Shawnee City Council meetings and available online? Thank Tony Lauer and Ray Erlichman for that. The yard sign campaign against a sales tax increase in Roeland Park? That was Linda Mau’s baby, and voters rejected the hike. And if you live in Mission and got a new City Council representative in 2012, Bill Nichols may have had something to do with that. These are some of Johnson County’s citizen activists — a small but vocal group of people well known to city councils and commissions for their persistence, watchfulness and willingness to delve into the smallest details. These are no casual dabblers. They spend countless hours attending meetings and running down facts. In some cases, it runs into money, too. “I’ve spent probably several thousands of dollars on open-records requests since 2012,” Lauer said. Not surprisingly, open access to public records is a pet cause for Lauer, who often helps neighborhood groups negotiate city hall when they have problems with a developer or want to contest city policies. For their efforts, they are sometimes met with distrust and dismissal by the people they keep an eye on. Even casual observers sometimes make the mistake of making light of them. “One expression I hate is when people say I’ve got too much time on my hands,” said Erlichman, who attends most council meetings and writes about them in the blog, Shawnee Ray’s Ramblings. “You jog around the block for two hours or watch Monday night football and that’s better than a council meeting?” Erlichman has been writing about Shawnee’s goings on for about eight years — long enough for his outspoken opinions to have had an effect on the city officials he critiques. Sometimes that means a certain slowness in responding to his questions, he said. But he’s also been on the receiving end of some criticism himself. His response? At the bottom of each blog post, Erlichman runs a couple of lines of small type: “WARNING!!!!!! The City Manager of Shawnee has determined that local bloggers post items that may contain bad or misinformation. Please read these posts with care and determine for yourself whether the information is valid.” In some cases that blowback has been a little harsher. “In 2010 somebody reported to the sheriff I was dangerous,” said Ken Dunwoody, who comments on the doings of the city and the Johnson County Commission in his NOlathe’s Blog. Now, whenever he attends a county commission meeting, he said, he presents his driver’s license to the law enforcement official in attendance. For elected officials, these activists are a regular part of political life. Some politicians take them in stride, others are more bothered by the criticism. Ed Eilert, chairman of the Johnson County Commission, said public comment is just part of the process. “Whether it’s a citizen comment or a staff comment, you evaluate the veracity of that information,” Eilert said Mission Mayor Laura McConwell, frequent target of criticism from Nichols, worries that the frustration and partisan bickering in Washington will spill over into the local level. “My big fear is that what happens with bloggers is going to trickle down and create gridlock at the local level, and that’s going to really impact people’s lives,” said McConwell, who recently decided to not run for re-election. McConwell is thick-skinned enough to work with people who don’t agree, but she said Nichols sometimes is misleading in the numbers he presents to his readers. And his videotaping “creates an uncomfortable situation for everyone” because they know he will edit it, she said. “He’s videotaping and getting right in people’s faces.” Nichols said he always tries to be unobtrusive and polite in his taping. McConwell said she’d much rather have a dialogue with voters who have criticisms of the city’s direction, rather than read about it in a blog. “What that allows is for people just to kind of lob hand grenades,” she said. Shawnee Councilman Jeff Vaught, who has been a target of Shawnee Ray’s Ramblings, said it’s worth remembering that the people in city government live there, too, and are doing the best they can for the community. “These are your neighbors,” he said. “These people live in the community and care about the community.” Vaught said he hasn’t read the blog in over nine months. “I think it’s great that people want to engage and get involved. It would be boring if nobody did,” said Vaught. “But I am frustrated by personal attacks. That really discredits that person.” Mark Grannell, president of the Gardner-Edgerton Board of Education, said the school takes pride in providing the highest level of information to citizens as well as quality education. But some of the scrutiny from Walter Hermreck of Gardner and others can cast a negative light on the school and staff, he said. “Any time you hold public office, there’s going to be a counter-view. That’s healthy,” said Grannell. “But when you continue to pound on negative issues it gets people feeling like there’s always something wrong.” Grannell said he supports open information. But “the flip side is that data can be manipulated to make an issue where there is none.” As for relations with the group of Gardner citizens asking the questions: “I like to think they’re cordial,” Grannell said. “It’s hard to be overly friendly with the negative image the group projects. It’s not like we’re failing here.”
It would be easy to dismiss the efforts of these people as the nattering of right- or left-wing crazies devoted to a grander national agenda. Some people do. But those people don’t get it, say several of the activists. “I hate specific labels,” said Erlichman, when asked if people ever associated him with the tea party. “To me that means you’re just as bad, that you’re marching in lockstep.” Lauer also dislikes labels. He has a blog, For What It’s Worth, but rarely posts and dislikes being marginalized with a “blogger” label. He even demurred at the idea of being called a watchdog. “I’m hesitant to put on labels because that gives others and excuse to dismiss you,” he said. “Being called a watchdog puts others on the defensive.” Sometimes, just being seen talking to someone with political views results in accusations of partisanship, he said. Lauer said he’s open to talking with people from any part of the political spectrum. That said, though, some of them admit to at least a little partisan history. Erlichman, who has another blog supporting gun rights, ran as a conservative Republican for a state assembly seat when he lived in New York more than 20 years ago. “For a long time I would have classified myself as a Rockefeller Republican, but in the past few years I’ve gone a little more to the right.” Dunwoody and Hermreck consider themselves more Libertarian than Republican. Mau is a registered Democrat who campaigns against tax increases and considers herself fiscally conservative. And Bill Nichols, who has served as a GOP committee representative, makes no bones about his conservative viewpoint. The line between citizen watchdog and government official can get a little blurry at times. Sometimes, the natural interest in government inspires citizen activists to run for office themselves. Such is the case with Nichols of Mission, who recently decided he would like to represent the city’s 4th Ward, a spot now held by Suzie Gibbs. But he’s not the only one. Lauer of Shawnee put his name in the hat last fall when City Council members appointed a replacement for Dawn Kuhn in Ward 3. He was nominated, but Stephanie Meyer was eventually appointed. Lauer applied to make a statement about the city’s selection process for vacant seats, he said. And there are those, like Mau of Roeland Park, who have served council terms but continue to be involved in civic affairs. Running for office is a temptation that has so far been resisted by others. Erlichman and Hermreck, for example, say they often are asked whether they’ll run for office. But both prefer the flexibility and freedom to speak their minds that comes with being outside the politically correct strictures of elected office. “I feel I can do more by being an outspoken advocate for what’s right without being locked in,” said Erlichman. “I can speak my mind without having to play politics.” Things look different from the other side of the dais, say the council and commission members who are subjects of scrutiny. Teresa Kelly knows. Just a couple of years ago, she was an activist herself, campaigning for the right to keep chickens in her Roeland Park back yard. Now she is on the City Council, dealing with tough tax issues as the city tries to plan a budget after losing Wal-Mart, its largest retailer. “It’s totally different sitting behind the dais,” she said. “There is so much information that people don’t dive into as deeply as we do.” That means sometimes people don’t understand why certain plans won’t work, she said. Even so, Kelly said, it’s important to treat everyone with respect. “I try to remember how I felt when I would make public comments or write letters to my representative,” she said. Kelly and other elected officials said they welcome the differences of opinion. “It shows no one is in control. We’re having an adult conversation about the issue,” said Kelly.
If there’s one thing that ties this group together, it’s the belief in citizen involvement at the local level. And perhaps a certain frustration that more people are interested in following the big names in Washington than their own city councils. “When’s the last time you saw the president of the United States filling a pothole, mowing lawns or anything else?” said Erlichman. “City government has the largest effect on people of any government. It’s also the easiest place to get involved.” Other points in common: A belief that local government should be open, a love of the hunt for information — and most of all, a hope that all the time and energy they invest will make things better for their fellow taxpayers. Here, then, is a brief who’s who of local government watchers, their motivations and causes.

Ken Dunwoody

Governments watched: Olathe and Johnson County Commission

Blog: NOlathe’s Blog, http://nolathe.net/

Background: Dunwoody served in an elite Navy “brown-water” unit at the Cambodian border. Afterward, he worked as an electrical/mechanical consultant for a soft-drink company. In 1998, he developed health problems due to exposure to Agent Orange and has been retired to his farm since.


Dunwoody’s interest in local politics dates to 2008, when the city of Olathe tried to annex his farm near Heritage Park. “Something just sparked,” he said.

After a little research, Dunwoody and other residents were able to win the fight because of an ordinance that forbade annexation if the area couldn’t pay its own way in taxes, he said.

The fire was lit. Dunwoody continued to explore issues with the Johnson County Commission. He objected to the summarized minutes that appear along with video of the commission meetings on the county’s website, at one point even offering to pay the $500 cost of having them transcribed. The county turned down his offer but decided to make full transcripts available beginning in 2014.

Health problems have made it difficult for Dunwoody to get out to commission meetings as often as he would like, so he follows the meetings online. He’s been particularly interested in the county’s plans for the former King Louie bowling alley and, recently, the future of the county mental health governing board. The commission recently voted not to spend the money necessary to remodel the King Louie into space for the museum and other offices. And the county commission recently dismissed the mental health governing board so commission members could take on its duties directly. Dunwoody contends that action is against the county’s charter.

“I’m never happier than when I’m doing research,” he said. “It’s frustrating when you know the truth and share that truth and it doesn’t change anything. Incredibly frustrating.”

Thankfulness and a hope to inspire others keep Dunwoody going, he said, remembering a high school trip to Washington, D.C., that his parents helped pay for.

“I never lost the meaning of that sacrifice,” he said. “A lot of my life right now is payback.”

Ray Erlichman

Government watched: Shawnee

Blog: Shawnee Ray’s Ramblings, http://shawneeray.blogspot.com/

Background: Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, Erlichman moved to Shawnee in 1989 on a job transfer selling fasteners, nuts and bolts to businesses.


Erlichman got involved in local government because of a proposed smoking ordinance. Passed in 2007, it prohibited smoking in enclosed public places, places of employment and outdoor seating areas.

He had already quit smoking by the time it was being discussed but disagreed that the city should step in to prohibit it. So he went to the council and said so, and ended up on the city’s task force. “It was a learning experience. I wouldn’t say it was a bad experience,” said Erlichman.

As he continued to watch city government, Erlichman became more concerned about how things were being run. When former council member Cheryl Scott delayed her resignation, apparently to ensure her replacement would be appointed rather than elected, and when a relative of the mayor ended up being appointed to the council, Erlichman said things had gone too far.

“It just highlighted the arrogance of officials that they could do what they want,” he said.

Erlichman continued to blog on those and many other issues about the city. He said the blog posts played a part in the city’s decision to bring back detailed minutes of council meetings to augment audio recordings and summarized minutes that were there previously. And he has criticized as “inflated” the job creation numbers city officials use as rationale for special taxing districts.

Shawnee Ray posts can be positive. He pointed out positive pieces he’s done on the fire department and parks. “I can be cooperative. I just can’t stand the hypocrisy going on,” he said.

“My agenda is to try and get more people involved,” he said. His biggest complaint, he said, is “apathetic” people. “That’s why sometimes government gets away with that it does.”

Walter Hermreck

Government watched: Gardner Edgerton school district

Blog: Gardner 24 Seven, http://gardner24seven.wordpress.com/

Background: Hermreck retired from the Army three years ago after 24 years of service in artillery and recruiting. He moved to Gardner a little over two years ago from Wichita and now stays home with his children while his wife attends school.


It was a series of Facebook posts about a Gardner Edgerton High School football game that got Hermreck into the complexities of school district affairs.

The home opener featured festivities with a special appearance by Chiefs mascot KC Wolf. Some commenters wondered where the money for the show came from, he said.

Hermreck set out with the intention to defend the district because he assumed the show was paid for by a booster club rather than the district, which turned out to be true. So he went looking for some open records on school policy. A few days later, he said, he got the records — along with a bill for $122.

“I was dumbfounded,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

But the more he talked to people around town, the more he became convinced the district needed to be more open. School board members’ emails, for instance, are deleted from the system after only 24 hours, he said.

Hermreck also began to question school budget cuts and tax cuts, which he suspects are hurting the school system. He claims the replacement of three school board members and slowly improving access to records as successes. “We’re trying to clean house,” he said.

The issue is transparency, he said.

“I want to get people engaged,” he said. “You can’t control the things that happen in Washington, D.C. City council and school board members make decisions that affect everyday life.”

Linda Mau

Government watched: Roeland Park City Hall

Blog: Citizens for Roeland Park, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Citizens-for-Roeland-Park/201819109961859

Background: Mau moved to Roeland Park in the mid-1980s and became involved in the community as a stay-at-home mom. She is a former City Council member and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2013.


Growing up in southeast Houston in the 1960s, Mau remembers her parents working hard to save money for the poll taxes. “I have three kids, and I tell each and every one of them that voting is a privilege. Don’t throw it away,” Mau said.

When she first moved to Roeland Park, Mau said she’d heard about a series of home break-ins and became worried enough that she went to the police station to ask if it was true that burglars were circling certain neighborhoods. But police wouldn’t tell her unless she gave them her address, she said. “That was what got me started in Roeland Park.”

But perhaps the biggest factor that got her involved was when former Roeland Park Mayor Jack Carpenter used the term “tar babies” to describe city’s increasing expenditures on a new swimming pool. The Tar-Baby was a character in an Uncle Remus story that entrapped Br’er Rabbit with its stickiness, but has also been viewed as a racial slur. Mau called the mayor out publicly for using the term.

“When someone attacks someone else for the color of their skin, you can let it ride or use it as a teachable moment,” Mau said.

Mau became increasingly involved in numerous city committees on such things as parks and Octoberfest. She won a council seat in 2003 but was defeated for re-election four years later. She ran for mayor in 2013, beating incumbent Adrienne Foster in the primary but eventually losing.

Late last year Mau was most visible for a successful campaign against a sales tax increase meant to offset some of the $700,000 in revenue the city will lose when Wal-Mart, its largest retailer, moves away.

People sometimes ask how Mau can be so passionate about issues yet maintain normal blood pressure, she says. “It’s because I love it,” she said. “So many people despair about politics and government in general, and they think, ‘My vote won’t matter.’ Your vote always counts.

“I do what I do because you have to know what’s going on in order to keep the community a community.”

Tony Lauer

Governments watched: Shawnee, Johnson County Commission, De Soto School District among others.

Blog: Shawnee, Kansas — FWIW (For What It’s Worth), http://blog.shawneefwiw.com/

Background: Lauer said he’s been an independent thinker at least since age 12. That was when he took a job stripping and polishing floors in Oklahoma City so he could pursue his own education at home. He and his mother had moved there from Johnson County, but he moved back again in the early 1990s and has made a living at a variety of pursuits, including technology consulting, writing data applications, product development and Internet marketing.


Lauer’s has been a data-driven life. He took to computers in the 1980s, and they are a mainstay in his search for information. Part of his house in west Shawnee is given over to several monitors as well as shelves of printed material he’s requested from governments over the years. “I don’t hack,” he said. “But I know how they work.”

That interest in data drove Lauer to campaign for detailed minutes to be kept of the City Council meetings. The council had been providing audio recording of the meetings plus minutes that provided few details of the council’s discussions.

“Historical data is critical,” he said. “Nobody has a crystal ball to see what the future is going to be, but hindsight should be 20/20.”

Because of his computer expertise, Lauer is able to turn that data into bigger pictures, spotting oversights in spending and other areas of city business, such as the proper recording of plats.

Lauer became interested in city business because of an issue in his western Shawnee neighborhood, Crimson Ridge. The neighborhood was to have 40 acres of trees and jogging trails running among the homes, according to the developer, Lauer said. But neighbors asked him to help when it became known that the land was sold to Habitat Kansas for stream mitigation. Homeowners would not be allowed to use it.

“As far as I was concerned that was like someone trying to take toys away from my children,” Lauer said. In response, he immersed himself in the records, taking a crash course in plats and planning commission minutes. Habitat has since backed away from the mitigation plan, but the neighborhood still doesn’t have its jogging trails, he said.

Since then Lauer has been called upon by many other citizens looking for help in disputes with the city. But he’d prefer to get more people paying closer attention to what’s going on so they can help themselves. “My agenda is to help others do what I do,” he said. “What happens too often is that people spend a lot of time complaining, but they don’t complain to the right people.”

Linda Mau

Government watched: Roeland Park City Hall

Blog: Citizens for Roeland Park, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Citizens-for-Roeland-Park/201819109961859

Background: Mau moved to Roeland Park in the mid-1980s and became involved in the community as a stay-at-home mom. She is a former City Council member and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2013.


Growing up in southeast Houston in the 1960s, Mau remembers her parents working hard to save money for the poll taxes. “I have three kids, and I tell each and every one of them that voting is a privilege. Don’t throw it away,” Mau said.

When she first moved to Roeland Park, Mau said she’d heard about a series of home break-ins and became worried enough that she went to the police station to ask if it was true that burglars were circling certain neighborhoods. But police wouldn’t tell her unless she gave them her address, she said. “That was what got me started in Roeland Park.”

But perhaps the biggest factor that got her involved was when former Roeland Park Mayor Jack Carpenter used the term “tar babies” to describe city’s increasing expenditures on a new swimming pool. The Tar-Baby was a character in an Uncle Remus story that entrapped Br’er Rabbit with its stickiness, but has also been viewed as a racial slur. Mau called the mayor out publicly for using the term.

“When someone attacks someone else for the color of their skin, you can let it ride or use it as a teachable moment,” Mau said.

Mau became increasingly involved in numerous city committees on such things as parks and Octoberfest. She won a council seat in 2003 but was defeated for re-election four years later. She ran for mayor in 2013, beating incumbent Adrienne Foster in the primary but eventually losing.

Late last year Mau was most visible for a successful campaign against a sales tax increase meant to offset some of the $700,000 in revenue the city will lose when Wal-Mart, its largest retailer, moves away.

People sometimes ask how Mau can be so passionate about issues yet maintain normal blood pressure, she says. “It’s because I love it,” she said. “So many people despair about politics and government in general, and they think, ‘My vote won’t matter.’ Your vote always counts.

“I do what I do because you have to know what’s going on in order to keep the community a community.”

Bill Nichols

Government watched: Mission City Hall

Blog: SaveMission, http://www.savemission.net/

Background: Nichols retired in 2009 from his job as a photographer for a listing service. He’s been involved in Republican committee politics and is now a candidate for Mission City Council.


Nichols is probably best known as the guy with the video camera who comes to just about every City Council meeting. He then posts the videos — about 340 so far — on YouTube.

Mission doesn’t stream its meetings online. “People just don’t show up,” he said. “I certainly didn’t before the driveway tax.”

The measure, called the “driveway tax” by critics and “transportation utility fee” by its supporters, has been a thorn in Nichols’ side since it was approved three years ago and is a big reason he spends so much time following up on and blogging about City Hall. That, plus a mistrust of the city’s mayor, Laura McConwell.

He counts the 2012 elections among his biggest successes as an activist. That year he helped elect three new council members of the four who were running, unseating two longtime incumbents. After talking to The Star for this story, he decided to run for a council spot himself.

“I hate to say I stir the pot. But all I want is government that takes care of my money,” he said.

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