A year ago, the Shawnee City Council was labeled “the only conservative-majority council in Johnson County.” Now that majority is being blamed for high city staff turnover, but some council members say some of the departures are normal and the council’s pro-taxpayer efforts prompted other departures.
As reported by the Shawnee Mission Post, some 29 resignations have been handed in this year, and more than 70 since 2020.
Among the reasons for the recent mass exodus:
- A closed-door meeting between then-City Manager Nolan Sunderman and council members in which Sunderman relayed a November, 2021 employee survey blaming council members for ongoing departures.
- Council overriding staff recommendation of a half-mill cut in the city property tax rate last August, and approving instead a 2-mill reduction.
- The September, 2022, resignation of Sunderman.
- Criticism by some council members of the Shawnee Police Department attending KC Pride Fest in June, 2022.
- Staff concerns over some council members stances on LGBTQ issues.
- Criticism by members earlier this year over a new city logo:
- Renewal of the “Parks and Pipes” sales tax. After contentious debate, a 4-3 council vote sent the one-eighth-cent tax, in effect since 2000 for park and trail improvements, on to voters for a decision this November.
- Micro-management by council members in the day-to-day operations of city government. Examples offered by staff included a controversy over lighting the Clear Creek Bridge over K-7 Highway in blue and yellow to show solidarity with Ukraine after its invasion by Russia. Council questioned the gesture after it was undertaken by staff without members’ approval. Additionally, council capped the unilateral spending authority of new City Manager Doug Gerber at $50,000.
Shawnee City Council member Mike Kemmling says the issue of staff departures is overblown:
“People leave one employer to go to another. Our finance director and city manager left other municipalities to come to Shawnee, and then left us to go to others. It’s not unusual to have people “climbing the ladder” or changing jobs for a number of other reasons. This country has had a hiring crisis since COVID. The Shawnee Mission school district has had issues with retaining teachers in that time period as just one example. With that being said, this council is moving forward with a culture change at the city. This council will ask questions and will ask for revisions on ideas put forth. Sometimes we will reject a proposal. If that causes some to leave then they may not be the best fit for our organization. We prioritize listening to our citizen, working with them, and keeping our property taxes low while providing necessary services.”
The Sentinel’s review of the city’s 2022 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) indicates city council members have good reason to ask taxpayer-focused questions on taxes, spending, and employement levels. Inflation increased by 22.6% between 2013 and 2022, and population is 7.7% higher. But General Government spending jumped 90%, partly because previous city councils increased General Government employment by 34%. Property tax revenue is 38% higher but it could have been a much smaller increases since sales tax and other revenues jumped by more than 96%.
Councilwoman Jacklynn Walters says members are just representing the wishes of their constituents:
“The current council took action in 2021 by immediately rejecting additional fees to residents and business owners as well as fee increases like a change of pool pass rates that would have negatively impacted families!
“We added our support of the Fairness in Women’s sport’s legislation to our Legislative Agenda that was passed this last year by the Kansas legislature and is now law. This is simply about supporting Title IX so that young women in Shawnee have a level playing field.
Despite the city staff encouraging us to not reduce the mill levy too drastically, we reduced it by 2! The residents of Shawnee saw a decrease in their taxes. With the rising costs all are facing, the council is doing what they can to be fiscally responsible with their tax dollars!
“Lastly, the council recently rejected a plan to redo Midland Road, the original proposal was for $12.5M total, we would receive $4M from MARC & $2M from the county leaving the remainder to come from the tax payer. We requested they come back with options. With the great leadership of the new City Manager, Doug Gerber, the hard working staff came back with 7 options! We ultimately chose the option that reduced the impact the project would have on the residents of Midland while still checking all the boxes for the much needed improvements. The new proposal has a projected cost of $8.5M. It was submitted again for MARC funding and they again granted us $4M, we still have the $2M from the county, resulting in a total cost of $2.5M to the taxpayers of Shawnee, a total savings of $4M!”
Walters added her respect for city employees:
“I am grateful for city staff and the many hours that go into projects, proposals, budgets, events, and more. To the degree any staff is leaving because of the direction of the council, I will only say that in our system of government, the people are in charge and it’s our duty to represent them. I respect the knowledge of any staff member, but our job is to evaluate recommendations and do what is in the best interest of the people we serve. I will continue to speak on behalf of the voters, offering strict scrutiny on tax incentives, preserving our hometown feel, ensuring we protect the young women in our city, lowering taxes and fees, and I will continue to advocate for the residents as well as ask thoughtful questions to ensure we are doing right by the residents of Shawnee!”