A lawsuit challenging the Johnson County Commission’s right last year to dissolve the Mental Health Governing Board has been dismissed.
District Court Judge Thomas Sutherland ruled in the county’s favor, saying the commission acted legally when it dismissed the governing board members last December.
The suit, brought by Ken Dunwoody of Olathe, maintained that the commission violated the county’s home rule charter in disbanding the county department’s governing board. Ben Hodge, a former member of the governing board and also a former state representative from Overland Park, also was a petitioner in the suit.
The county commission dissolved the mental health board late last year during the upheavals in operations of the county Mental Health Center. The center had run out of operating money and the former executive director was put on administrative leave and later resigned.
The nine-member governing board, which hired the director and oversaw budget and policy issues, was replaced by the seven commissioners. They later named an advisory board for citizen input on the center.
But not all the terms of the governing board were set to expire last year. Hodge and two others were terminated from their positions early.
Dunwoody’s suit maintained that the commission did not have authority to do that because the charter, which is essentially the county constitution, says board members serve “definite terms.”
The court disagreed. Sutherland said a Kansas statute allowed the commission to end the governing board, and that the governing boards serve at the pleasure of the commission.
Dunwoody said he’d hoped the court would enforce the charter, which was first adopted in 2001. But even so, the ruling shows voters that county leaders will find ways around the charter if it suits them.
“Local government picks and chooses what they want independent of what the voters said,” Dunwoody said. “The home rule charter is effectively worthless at this point.”
Putting state statute ahead of the charter could have unintended consequences for the county, he said. According to state statute, county treasurer, register of deeds and clerk are elected offices. But they are appointed positions in Johnson County, answerable to the county manager’s office. Dunwoody wondered what might happen if someone insists they should be able to run for those offices.
Dunwoody said he’s thought of trying to make a point about the issue. But in the meantime he said he will not appeal the district court’s decision.
The county’s position has been that Kansas law gives the authority to make the kind of changes the commission made. Don Jarrett, lawyer for the county, said he’s happy the judge agreed.
“The outcome was what we expected,” Jarrett said.
He said the law also allows the county treasurer, clerk and register of deeds to be appointed, as they are specified in the charter. The ruling on the Dunwoody lawsuit does not affect that, he said.