Olathe & Southwest Joco

Lawsuit fights takeover of mental health board

Two Johnson County citizens — one of them a former member of the county’s mental health governing board — have filed a lawsuit against the county commission’s decision to dissolve the board and replace it themselves.

Saying the commission’s action violates the county’s home rule charter, Ken Dunwoody of Olathe, and Benjamin Hodge, formerly on the governing board, have asked the court to put a stop to the commission’s proceedings as the new governing board.

The suit has the potential to slow the search for a new executive director of the mental health department, but Dunwoody said it’s more important to see that the commission follows the charter, which is essentially the county’s constitution.

“What they did was illegal and I’m going to do everything in my power to keep it from happening,” he said.

The suit asks for a temporary injunction while the decision is being made whether the board’s action late last year was legal. No monetary damages were requested.

At issue is whether the county’s charter allows the commission to end the terms of governing board members early.

Last December, after financial and personnel troubles in the mental health center came to light, the commission decided to end the governing board and take over its duties, which include overseeing operations of the center. However, not every term on the governing board was set to expire in 2013. Three board members would have had until the end of this year; two more, including Hodge, would have served until December 2015. The board’s dissolution infringed on Hodge’s right to deliberate and vote on mental health business, the suit said.

That violates a section of the county charter that says governing board members shall be appointed to “definite terms,” the suit says.

Formerly, the nine-member governing board worked through the issues of programming and budgeting the mental health center then reported to the county commission, which had the final say over the center’s budget. Last year, though, a combination of factors, including failure to replace fee-generating employees like caseworkers, caused the center’s income to fall short of its expenses.

The county commission authorized a bailout of up to about $1 million, the executive director resigned and the county manager’s office took over day-to-day oversight. Assistant County Manager Maury Thompson is temporarily in charge of the department and a new advisory board has been appointed to give the community input on the center’s services. But a new executive director has not yet been found.

Removal of board members has been a sticky issue before. In 2011, the county charter commission, which reviews the home rule charter every 10 years, considered the question but failed to make an amendment. Instead, it urged the Kansas Legislature to clarify rules about appointments and removal of board members for “good cause.”

The county commission’s decision to dissolve the board came with some agonizing about their right to do so. But commissioners said at the time they were confident the state law gives them that power.

Dunwoody said his suit is not about whether the mental health center has been well or poorly run. “I care very deeply about adequate mental health care in the county,” he said. “But I care even more about the constitution.

“I want the rule makers to follow the rules.”

Hodge did not comment about the suit.

Don Jarrett, the commission’s legal counsel, also would not comment.