The decision on who will fill vacancies on the Shawnee City Council will come to the voters sooner, now that the city has changed the procedure to favor elections over appointments.
In an attempt to answer past criticism over appointments, the council on Monday unanimously approved a change that limits the amount of time a vacancy can be filled by appointment from other members of the council.
Rather than allowing an appointee to fill whatever is left of the four-year term, the new rule calls for voters to elect a new council member either at the soonest fall election or in a special election. An appointee would fill the spot only until that election.
That could cut months off the time an appointee would serve.
Under the old system, it was possible for a council member to resign shortly after election and be replaced by an appointee for almost the entire term.
The change grew of hours of discussion at five open committee work sessions, but was approved with no discussion Monday. Mayor Michelle Distler said the rule may need to be revised if the Kansas Legislature makes more changes in election law. State lawmakers recently changed local election dates from spring to fall.
“We don’t know what the legislature is going to do going forward,” she said.
How a vacancy is filled under the new rule depends on when it occurs.
If a seat becomes vacant from Jan.1 to May 1, council members can name a replacement who will serve until the fall election. The May 1 date allows enough time for candidates to meet the June filing deadline.
If the vacancy occurs between May 2 and Dec. 31, the council can appoint someone to fill the vacancy until a special election is called. If there are more than two candidates, in either instance, a primary election will be held.
In years past, the city ordinance that allowed council members to name an appointee for the remainder of a term has been roundly criticized. In 2010 the appointment process came under a cloud when the incumbent council member who was moving out of state held onto her seat rather than resign in time for her successors to be on the ballot. That resulted in an appointment that some residents viewed with suspicion.
A couple of years later, the council had another controversy: The council appointed Alan Willoughby, uncle of the mayor’s wife, to another vacant spot – despite the fact that another candidate, Mike Kemmling, had come within 11 votes of winning a council election just weeks before.
That decision drew the attention of Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe, who said the council violated the spirit of open meetings law by discussing the appointment outside of council chambers.
The next time a vacancy came up was in 2013, when Stephanie Meyer was named to replace council member Dawn Kuhn, who was moving out of her ward. During the public interview process, some members of the public expressed their belief that backroom dealings were afoot.
Council members have been discussing how to change the ordinance since February of 2015, but were delayed by new state law changing the dates of municipal elections from spring to fall.
They had considered special elections, but balked because of the cost. A single-ward special election would be about $30,000, plus another $30,000 if a primary is necessary. A city-wide special election for the mayor’s seat would cost about $120,000, city officials said. Appointing a replacement under the former process did not cost the city extra money.
Council member Brandon Kenig came up with the method the council approved, which blends a temporary appointment with an election. The election would not cost the city extra money if it can be included on the annual fall ballot.
Distler said there’s still a question about how things should be handled if an incumbent loses in the August primary, but stays in the council seat until the January swearing-in of a replacement. But the council will need guidance from state lawmakers on that, she said.