Emails between Prairie Village staff and elected officials obtained under an open records request hint at tensions between the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee chair and administration — tensions that those familiar with the situation say may have led to negative outcomes related to recent parks projects, including the Tomahawk Road fence scheduled to be replaced in the coming days.
The issues appear to have begun this past fall, when a heated interaction between Parks Chair Diana Ewy Sharp and City Administrator Quinn Bennion prompted Bennion to email Ewy Sharp and members of the city staff saying that staff would reduce their involvement in parks projects.
Following those incidents, Bennion and others on the city staff apparently did not feel comfortable enough to take an active role in the planning process for the Tomahawk Road fence project — a project whose implementation drew such intense protest from neighborhood residents that the council ultimately voted to have the fence replaced at a cost of $20,000 to taxpayers. The fence replacement is schedule to be completed around April 1.
In an interview with the Prairie Village Post regarding the fence project in January, Bennion said his department had not been as involved in the planning for the project as it would normally have been. He said that had city staff been involved, they likely would have recommended the city hold neighborhood meetings around the project.
“If city hall was more involved as it was previously, those things would have been discussed,” he said.
The negative outcome along Tomahawk Road prompted a meeting in early February between Mayor Ron Shaffer, Bennion and Ewy Sharp, during which the three discussed how the Mayor and city staff would be informed of developments out of the Parks and Recreation Committee from then on.
“Quinn runs the city, and he needs to know what’s going on,” Shaffer said in an interview last week. “We came to an understanding about how we would all communicate from now on.”
But four days after the February meeting, Ewy Sharp brought forward a proposal to rename Meadowlake Park after former Mayor Monroe Taliaferro, a move that drew scrutiny for its timing in the lead up to an election, and which internal emails suggest prompted a new wave of strained interactions.
Kathy Thompsen, the Ward 6 resident who wrote a letter to the Mayor and City Council questioning whether Ewy Sharp sought political gain from the proposal to rename Meadowlake Park, filed an open records request seeking information related to the city’s response to her letter.
The correspondence obtained from that request suggests that Bennion was caught off guard by the inclusion of the park renaming proposal in the Parks and Recreation Committee’s meeting in early February.
“I was surprised to hear that the item was discussed at PRC (the Parks and Recreation Committee) as it was not on the agenda,” Bennion wrote in an email to Michael Kelly, who had written him seeking clarification about the timing of the introduction of the measure. “I also recognize it is the prerogative of the Chair to add items to the agenda.”
The correspondence also shows that in response to Thompsen’s letter questioning the timing of the proposal to rename Meadowlake Park, Ewy Sharp drafted a letter above Shaffer’s signature, forwarding it to Shaffer and Bennion.
“Would you please look at this draft of a response letter to address the misinformation in her letter and consider getting it sent to her right away?” Ewy Sharp wrote to Shaffer and Bennion.
A subsequent email from Shaffer to Bennion reads: “it continues. look who wrote the response letter.”
“Things are not written as if they came from me unless I know about it,” Shaffer told the Prairie Village Post last week. The response letter Ewy Sharp drafted for Shaffer was not sent.
Contacted late last week, Bennion declined to characterize the nature of his office’s current relationship with Ewy Sharp except to say that it was “adequate to work together in the way we need to get things done.”
But the apparent continued discord between city staff and the Parks Committee chair has some on the council concerned about management of parks projects moving forward.
“In my opinion, asking our well-paid and highly educated administrative staff to play a lesser role falls short of the expectations that citizens have of a well run municipal government,” said Councilmember Michael Kelly. “I would feel similar if the Police Chief removed himself or was asked to play a lesser role in his department. I don’t understand how isolating staff improves parks.”
Ewy Sharp declined to speak via telephone for this story, but sent a statement saying, “There was never any communication from me that asked staff not to be involved in parks matters. A situation regarding the change to the trail map from Roe to Nall circumvented the Parks Board and I asked for a meeting to discuss. This was a personnel matter and has been resolved.”
She also sent the following statement regarding Thompsen’s inquiries into the Meadowlake Park renaming:
In regard to the ongoing inquiry by Ms. Thompsen, I had hoped that her request for all the records would finally address any further concerns. Apparently it did not so I wanted to share the facts with the public again. Mayor Shaffer and I learned in late January that former Mayor Roe Taliaferro and his wife could no longer take care of the garden the city dedicated to them in Harmon Park. We checked the City Council Policy (501) about honoring former mayors for their service to our community by renaming a park for them. Taliaferro meets all the criteria for this recognition. With the exception of our current mayor, Former Mayor Taliaferro is our City’s longest serving mayor. In addition, he is also the only former mayor that meets the policy criteria, who does not have a park named after him. Mayor Shaffer asked me to introduce the idea to the Parks & Recreation committee last month, which I did — the committee discussed and unanimously recommended to the Council that the park should be renamed for him. It is my understanding the City Council will consider this idea at a future Committee of the Whole meeting.
Ms. Thompsen then asked for all the public records regarding this item be disclosed, which city staff did. I was actually glad for the request so that she could see that it was at the Mayor’s direction that I introduced this item to the Parks & Recreation Committee. As for the draft response letter that I prepared for the Mayor to consider sending, I had called the Mayor that night, upon receiving her letter, and suggested one of us respond to her concerns right away and provide her with the correct information. Mayor Shaffer shared he was leaving for a conference in Washington, DC, and would be gone for several days. While he did not direct me to do so, I put together a draft response letter that evening, and emailed it to him for his consideration. We exchanged some voice messages while he was out of town and finally decided not to send a response letter.
Timing seems to be Ms. Thompsen’s concern as it is Election season. If I understand her correctly, she feels I set out to gain some political favor. That is simply not the case. Mrs. Taliaferro happened to tell me, last January, they could no longer take care of the sculpture garden, I informed the Mayor, and he said to me, “Let’s get this done,” as this idea of renaming a park for him has been tossed around for several years. The records show it was Mayor Shaffer that spoke with the former mayor about this and then it was Mayor Shaffer who directed me to take it to the Parks Board for consideration. For the public’s information, the Parks Board does not have the authority to make such a change, they can only make recommendations. I do not have the authority to make such a change either. It would take a majority of the Council to do so. And, for the record, there has been no political favors as Ms. Thompsen suggested. A candidates’ forum was held at Claridge Court a few weeks ago where the Taliaferros reside and both candidates were invited to attend. This opportunity was also offered two years ago to both candidates by Claridge Court but my opponent did not respond to the offer. This time, both he and one of his supporters attended.
I find the timing interesting as well. Ms. Thompsen has been upset with me for many months now, apparently regarding the “Christmas House” on Falmouth, the street where she lives. In the 14 years that I have served this ward, she has never reached out to me about any problems there until last year. During the mayoral campaign last spring, I understand she was supporting challenger Michael Kelly. I had planned to remain neutral in that race but as Mr. Kelly’s campaign began to focus on personal attacks versus City issues, I endorsed Mayor Shaffer. Ever since, Ms. Thompsen has been clearly upset with me, including an uncomfortable confrontation in the City Hall restroom where she was very loud, shaking and visibly upset. I asked her, during that confrontation, if we could meet for coffee and discuss things. She has never responded to that offer. This latest “concern” seems like a repeat of last year’s personal attacks during Election season. Residents that I have been visiting during the campaign are pretty content with the way our City is being run. That tells me that our top notch staff members are doing good work and the Council is making good decisions. I hope voters will look at my public record for the past 14 years, the contributions I have made to this City I love, including being Co-Founder of VillageFest and chairing the Parks Board as these significant upgrades to our parks are being made. I want to continue to serve this special community and would ask voters to contact me directly if they want to discuss this coincidentally & very well timed “inquiry”. Thank you for the opportunity to respond. Finally, as to Ms. Thompsen’s concerns and calls for investigations over this idea, this is simply a matter of asking the City Council to consider honoring this man’s service to our City, particularly while he can enjoy it. ~Diana Ewy Sharp, Prairie Village City Council, Parks & Recreation Committee Chairperson