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District attorney says Shawnee violated spirit of open meetings law

The Shawnee City Council violated the spirit of the Kansas open meetings law when “backroom deals” were made to elect the mayor’s uncle to a council seat, Johnson County District Attorney Stephen Howe said Wednesday.

Howe’s decision was especially hard on Mayor Jeff Meyers, saying he found the mayor’s actions “unacceptable.”

Meyers did not return phone calls asking for comment.

The problem began last May when the Ward 2 seat was vacated and the council had to find a replacement. Several people applied, including Mike Kemmling, who had just lost a council race by less than a dozen votes.

The evidence showed, Howe said, that Meyers had conversations about appointing his uncle Alan Willoughby to the seat with at least four of the eight council members. That led Councilman Jeff Vaught to talk with two other council members about the appointment.

In addition, there were several side conservations between various council members and Meyers about the appointment.

“In the end, Meyers and the entire city council (except for Councilman Neal Sawyer) knew how the vote would probably go, prior to the actual special meeting to vote on the vacancy,” Howe wrote in his report to the council.

Vaught and Willoughby did not return phone calls. Willoughby is currently running for election to his seat.

The public learned about the problem in July when Councilwoman Michelle Distler announced she could not vote for Willoughby because she had been told before the meeting how the vote would go. The council voted 4-2 in favor of Willoughby.

Councilman Mickey Sandifer said Wednesday that he didn’t do anything wrong. Meyers had talked to him in a hallway about the candidates, but no deals were made.

“I’m not aware of it being a backroom deal,” said Sandifer, who had not yet seen Howe’s report.

Howe said it was difficult to determine whether the council broke the letter of the law, but it was clear they broke the spirit of the law.

He recommended that the council receive detailed and specific training on the state’s open meeting laws.

The penalty for violating the state’s law is a slap on the wrist, Howe noted. But he added that the voters will be the judge of Meyers’ and the council’s actions.

Tony Lauer, the Shawnee resident who filed a complaint with the district attorney, said he believed the evidence was strong that there were violations, and he was disappointed that the penalty was weak.

Howe at least should have required the council to publicly apologize to each of the candidates who applied for the Ward 2 seat, Lauer said.

“Howe did not stand up for us,” he said.

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