Archive for Sunday, July 16, 2000

Small communities using ‘recall as a weapon’

You don’t actually have to prove what you allege, you just allege it’

July 16, 2000


The tiny central Kansas community of Pawnee Rock will have something in common come Aug. 1 with the town of Cherryvale in southeast Kansas.

That's because citizens of both towns will go to the polls to decide whether to oust their mayors in separate recall elections called in part over alleged open meetings violations.

In addition, Cherryvale residents will also vote on whether to remove a city council member over the same issue.

And these two Kansas towns are not the only places where citizens have recently used recall elections as a way to boot out their city officials in often bitter public disputes over an array of local issues. Halstead, Towanda, Cedar Vale and Eureka have all gone through recall efforts recently.

At the Kansas League of Municipalities, executive director Don Moler calls the growing phenomena "recall as a weapon" -- and he blames the state's vague recall statute for its abuse.

"Recall is not a search for truth, it is about hardball politics," Moler said. "You don't actually have to prove what you allege, you just allege it."

In the latest cases, the Kansas Open Meetings Law has been invoked as a means for local residents to challenge unpopular or secret decisions -- injecting a new dimension into the personal interplay of small town politics.

"I want the secrecy gone," said Pawnee Rock councilwoman Marsha Voelker, who is leading the charge to remove Mayor Debra Hawkins from office. "Government is supposed to be open. People have a right for every bit of information that we hold."

Hawkins denied any secret meetings or other improprieties.

In Cherryvale, the city council signed a statement acknowledging it improperly closed one meeting and asked the Kansas League of Municipalities to send someone down to instruct them on the state's open meetings law. They also agreed not to commit other open meetings violations in a deal struck with Montgomery County Attorney Bob Claus.

"The council members were put on probation for a year, and that was that. At least that was what we thought anyway," said Cherryvale Mayor Steve Cushenberry, who's now facing a recall election over the issue. Also targeted in that recall effort is councilman Rick Valverde.

Moler is not familiar with the specifics of the various recall efforts in Kansas, but their use of the open meetings statute did not surprise him.

"The Open Meetings Act is a convenient way of getting your foot in the door of this petition ... that would fall under misconduct in office," he said.

'Rcealling' communities

Other communities caught in the recent flurry of recall activity include:

--Halstead, where council members Mark Wilkerson and Karen Koehn are subjects of a recall effort by a group of local citizens. Wichita State University officials declined in May to help the council search for a new city administrator and clerk because of the volatile nature of the political problems in the town and the very public recall effort. No recall election has been set to date.

--Cedar Vale, where an effort to remove the mayor and two council members failed last month at the polls. Recall backers alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act.

--Towanda, where Mayor Ed Rando stepped down just two days before a March recall election to oust him from office. City administrator Micki Healy also resigned in support of Rando. The city officials quit in the wake of the resignations of a former chief of police and all but one member of the town's police force.

--Eureka, where voters ousted Greenwood County commissioners Christopher Lance and Stanley Kurtz in separate recall elections in September and December last year. The two recall elections stemmed from what some county residents claim was a violation of the open meetings act. Commissioners were accused of viewing a landfill site in Garden City without public notice after a Wichita company proposed putting a regional landfill in Greenwood County.

"My perception is that there have been a growing number of recalls, especially in medium and small cities and medium and small counties," Moler said.

That is because it is easier in small communities to get the requisite minimum signatures -- 40 percent of votes cast at the last regular election -- to put the issue before voters in a special election, he said. That is a lot harder to do in big cities like Wichita or Topeka.

In Pawnee Rock, a small community of about 500 people, it took just two days to gather the necessary signatures since just 94 people voted in the last election there, Voelker said. It was their fourth attempt since March to word a recall petition so it was legal under Kansas law.

Grounds for recall

An elected official can be removed from office in Kansas either through a court procedure called an ouster or through a recall election, Moler said. Grounds for a recall petition are conviction of felony, misconduct in office, incompetence or failure to perform duties prescribed by law.

"My issue has been, and continues to be," Moler said, "that the recall statute does not lend itself to searching for truth because ... it comes down to how many votes you get at the polls in a specially called election."

Fewer communities are waiting until the next regular election to vote out their elected officials, especially in small towns where issues hit close to home and personalities come into play.

In Pawnee Rock, petition backers who wanted the local police chief gone are angry about a decision to put him on three months probation instead. That decision was reached in a closed meeting after a motion to reappoint him failed to get a second in an open public meeting, they said.

Their petition alleges a number of special meetings have been illegally called. Voelker left a February meeting in protest, and said it is common for council members to have discussions about issues before and after the public meetings.

"The people feel they have been shut out and they are requesting they be heard, and this is one of the ways we can do it," Voelker said.

Hawkins said there was nothing illegal about the way the police chief was put on the probation or about any other special meetings the petition claims were improperly called.

"It is not true, and I truly wanted to do something good for Pawnee Rock," she said. "I guess I failed."

In Cherryvale, the mayor and council member under siege there blame the recall effort on a small group of people unhappy with their firings of the police chief and city administrator.

In addition to the open meetings violation, the Cherryvale recall petition alleges obstruction of legal process after a councilman questioned why a family member had received a traffic violation. And it also claims they put a housing grant in jeopardy with the firing of the city administrator.

Both denied those allegations, and say the city is in no danger of losing the grant.

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