Thursday, January 6, 2011

Lenexa City Council Extends Terms of Three Members, Bypasses Election

In the past, this blog has covered some of the problems with the City of Lenexa, specifically the continual waste of time, energy, money and resources that is the unnecessary Lenexa City Center project. Here's a recap for those of you not keeping score at home:

- Turning a previously easy-to-drive one-mile section of Renner Road into a drivers' ed course by installing not one, not two, not three, but four roundabouts, plus several streetlights topped with odd blue lights illuminating nothing except possibly the deer trying to escape the government-funded hunt at Shawnee Mission Park.

- The failed Lenexa City Center East project, which originally was supposed to start sometime in the Reagan administration (okay, we're joking, but it was 7 years ago), which now has one completed building with one tenant, which probably can't attract any additional tenants because its neighbor is a one-tenth-completed blighted parking garage that serves as a concrete monument to why a city should not let itself bought off by developers. To date, the only other use of this property were billboard-sized Kevin Yoder and Jerry Moran signs.

- The failed Lenexa City Center "West" project, which has seen no action at all, unless there is an underground shopping mall for prairie dogs.

- The bankrupt City Center North project, which is home to nothing except an overpriced apartment complex that is close to nothing -- unless you have little leaguers playing at 3&2 or attend church at the Lenexa Christian Center.

- And, most recently, the utterly ridiculous and offensive "splitting" of 87th Street Parkway into east and west lanes -- yes, Lenexa is spending MILLIONS UPON MILLIONS of taxpayer dollars to move one lane of traffic a few feet to the south. Why? So it can put buildings IN BETWEEN THE LANES (why, we're not quite sure) and as to accomodate the thousands of visitors that will be coming to all the shops and entertainment that will be occurring at Lenexa City Center, of course -- which is, on its current pace, due to complete sometime in the 22nd Century.

Of course, despite the absurdity of these projects and the complete unwillingness of city leaders to admit that Lenexa City Center is an epic failure that perhaps needs rethinking before more tax dollars and city time is committed to "Tunnel Vision 2030", the only way the citizens of Lenexa could alter these plans is to well, throw out the City Council.

And, for a time, it seemed they might have that opportunity, because for a time, it seemed that seven of the eight Lenexa City Council positions would be open. Like most every city, Lenexa is divided into four wards. Each of those wards elects two councilmen to four year terms, elected in staggered years. So, four would be up (one in each ward) in 2011 and four would be up in 2013 (one in each ward).

However, due to the unfortunate death of one councilwoman (Klein) just before the April 2009 election and the subsequent resingations of two others (Sullivan and Green), all of which were councilmembers on the 2013 cycle, there were going to be three additions spots open in 2011.

Reason being is that in most governmental bodies, when a vacancy occurs in the first half of a four year term, there is a temporary appointment (in this case, made by Mayor Boehm) until the next regularly scheduled general election, in which the voters would then fill the remaining two years of the term. So, rather than there being just four spots up in 2011, there was going to be SEVEN. This is appropriate, given that the Lenexa City Council IS, after all, a body elected by the voters, and it's probably not wise to have a council that could have half or more of its members appointed for a long period of time -- particularly in this case, by the Mayor.

As a result, though unintentionally, 2011 was going to be a unique opportunity for Lenexans to choose the direction of their beloved city for the next several years. Literally, the entire focus of the city could change in a way that favored fiscal responsiblity and civic planning prudence rather than the incredible waste and road-to-nowhere-like projects that dominate the city talk now.

NOT ANYMORE.

The Lenexa City Council, in its infinite wisdom, chose to put their judgment in place of the will of the people, when in April of 2010, with little fanfare and no coverage, passed an ordiance doing away with the special elections in cases where a vacancy occurs prior to the two year point, thereby extending the terms of the appointment members an additional two years.

So, in the case of Joe Karlin, who was appointed shortly after the 2009 general election due to the death of Jane Klein (who actually was on the ballot in 2009), he will serve an entire four year term without ever having to face the voters.

If this policy holds, it means that in the case of the entire City Council, which for a time will have half its members appointed by Mayor Boehm (Lemons, Karlin, Serrone and whoever replaces Cindy Green), it means that if Lemons is elected in April, 3 of the 8 members of the Lenexa City Council, DESPITE AN INTERVENING ELECTION, will still have never faced the voters to which they are serving.

And, what's more rich is this -- the members who had been appointed actually voted to extend their own terms, rather than abstaining. Here is the minutes from the April, 2010 meeting where this all went down:

11 b. Ordinance amending City Code Section 1-4-A-3 by establishing requirements for vacancies in office and repealing Code Section 1-3-A-4. Ordinance No. 5140

City Attorney Harmison introduced this item indicating that it deals with vacancies and terms of office. In light of the City’s experience this past year, she recommended the Council consider amendments to its current ordinance. Staff presented two versions of this ordinance, recommending version “B” which is the same as version “A” with the exception that it changes the appointment term for Council Members back to state law whereby an appointed member filling a vacancy would serve out the remainder of the term. City Attorney Harmison advised that not only would the City be consistent with state law, but this amendment would avoid confusion with multiple candidates for one ward on the ballot at the same time.

City Attorney Harmison gave a brief history of the code changes and then highlighted some of the substantive provisions of the ordinance, including the provisions that the ordinance extends the time for the Mayor to make his recommendation to the Council; and it clarifies the definition of vacancy. It also addresses the term of office for appointees.

A Governing Body discussion followed. Council Member Serrone doesn’t believe the current law requiring standing for re-election sooner than the expiration of the term to which a Council Member is appointed makes sense in light of the Council’s ward configuration and staggered terms. He isn’t sure past Council’s understood the ramifications. He appreciates the history of its adoption, but he favors version “B”. Council Member Huckaba states he favors version “B” as he believes it is more stable and reduces voter confusion.

Council Member Karlin stated that he is one member that was appointed and he is one who will have to stand for re-election before the term would normally end. He has struggled with the balance between making something efficient and sensible. Understanding that the voters always have the option of a recall petition if they didn’t feel a council member was representing them well, he felt he could support version “B”.

Council Member Lemons felt Council Member Huckaba articulated his views well. Council Member Lemons likes version “B” as it is practical and avoids the confusion and situation we now have.

Council Member Nolte shared additional history of the current ordinance’s origination, but said he also favors version “B”. He stated there were good reasons for these ordinances. He indicated that it is very seldom that we see two spots open in the same ward and it would be extremely confusing to the constituents to have two people running in the same ward at the same time.

Council Member Linver stated that she agreed with the rest of the Council and could support version “B”, but wanted to be sure the Council is taking action sufficiently ahead of the next election cycle that it would not have any negative affect on the candidates and voters.

A question was raised as to whether or not the ordinance could be applied retroactively. City Attorney Harmison indicated she was researching this issue and the law was not clear. She indicated she would like to continue her research and may seek an Attorney General opinion. The collective preference of the body was to approve Version B of the ordinance with a retroactive application.

Mayor Boehm stated he was comfortable with version “B” as it would be consistent with what State law is and we are not taking away voters rights. He indicated the Council would vote on version “B”, making it retroactive if provided by law.

Hearing no further questions, Mayor Boehm called for a vote.

Action:

Motion to approve version “B” of an Ordinance amending City Code Section 1-4-A-3 by establishing requirements for vacancies in office and repealing Code Section 1-3-A-4 was made by Council Member Serrone, seconded by Council Member Huckaba and unanimously approved.


At the very least, Councilmembers Karlin and Serrone should have exempted themselves from the vote. But, they did not.

What's perhaps more ridiculous is the silliness of the reasoning:

The memers argue that two positions would be up in the same ward, and that would be too confusing to voters. Really? The voters, via campaigns, couldn't figure this out? In some cities, there are at large positions and ward positions, such as in Olathe, which means at the same time, in the same areas, people are running for the City Council. Do we not think this is confusing?

Could they not have adjusted the ordinance, instead, to say "Position 1" (for the normal four year term) and "Position 2" (for the two year term) in the case of two seats in the same ward being open same year, to help educate the voters?

Or, even absent that, could not a special election be held to fill these vacancies, at a time other than the normal general election? That might involve an extra cost, but it's better than having unelected members serve what amounts to the vast majority what is supposed to be an elected position. The cost of an election in one Ward would not be high.

In any event, the comments of Councilman Karlin indicating that "oh, the voters can just remove me" is arrogance in its worst form. Voters, Mr. Karlin, should have the right to elect you to begin with.

To be clear, we at Kaw & Border do not have an issue with temporary vacancies needing to be filled. What we do have a problem with is the following:

1. The vacancies in Lenexa being filled by the Mayor by up to four years. That gives enormous power to the Mayor, without a quick check or confirmation by the voters.

2. The vacancies being filled by the Mayor at all. In other cities, for example, vacancies are filled by a majority of the remaining council members. Or, perhaps, as suggested before, we shouldn't have temporary appointments, but rather, a special election within 90 days of a vacancy. Or, that a temporary appointment shouldn't last longer than 90 days. If there is any government function that is essential, its elections, and it seems in wealthy Johnson County we should be capable of having an off-time election in one ward.

3. Even if we accept the concept of having temporary appointments, the notion of allowing those unelected members to serve without an election, when a city general election is being held in the meantime.

4. The equally absurd notion that there is no alternative to the "two elections in the same ward" confusion point raised by several council members other than NOT HOLDING AN ELECTION AT ALL.

5. Two appointed members, Lou Serrone and Joe Karlin, who were appointed when one law was in effect -- which would require their election in 2011 -- voting to extend their terms to 2013. At the very least, they should have recused themselves.

The moral of this story, whether one is discussing the bloated and blighted Lenexa City Center projects OR the arrogance of the City Council in bypassing an election for three of its members, is that Lenexa desperately needs new blood in its leaders.