The issue has taken up several council sessions, elicited comment from the public on both sides of the issue and has divided the council not only on the substance of the ordinance, but on an ethics question regarding whether a councilor can vote or even discuss the issue.
Councilor Robert Meyers recused himself from the votes Monday because of his service on the St. Agnes finance committee. However, he strongly objected to the suggestion by an ethics attorney and other councilors that he could not even participate in discussion about exemptions. The council ended up using a second ethics attorney for an opinion because the first attorney to give an opinion also is a member of the finance committee.
“It is a violation of my civil and religious liberties,” Meyers said of the request that he not participate in the discussion. He had agreed not to vote. Councilor Jennifer Gunby had asked anyone with a conflict not to vote or speak to the issue. Marek Gliniecki also said he was a member at St. Agnes, but said he and Meyers had stated their affiliations and should be able to discuss the issue.
The ordinance involves a fairly routine renewal of a franchise agreement with KCP&L to provide electric service in the city. In return for using public right of way, a typical franchise fee of five percent is charged on sales of electricity and turned over to the city. Roeland Park’s expiring ordinance had exempted a number of organizations – utilities, governments, schools and churches – from the fee. Many cities have removed all exemptions from franchise fees.
The fees amount to about $44,000 per year but approximately $10,000 would be fees the city charges itself. After being sharply divided over whether the exemptions should continue, the council agreed to bring the ordinance to a vote with wording retaining the current exemptions. St. Agnes church and Bishop Miege school were frequently cited during the debate as entities that should retain the exemption because of their contributions to the community. Both also lobbied the council for the exemption.
Before a vote could be taken, the council went into executive session to consult with the city attorney about the process while the public waited. On its return, the council voted 4-3 to make public an email from attorney Courtney Koger. That email read in part: “Mr. Meyers should not vote on the issue due to the appearance that his service to the church will affect his independent judgment.” It went on to say, “we strongly advise that he not take part in the discussion or comment.”
Meyers had revealed his church involvement when the issue originally came before the council. The original opinion from attorney Dan Church suggested a councilor involved in the finances of an organization should not vote or participate. Church also noted his membership on the St. Agnes committee, which led to the second ethics opinion.
The council voted on the proposed ordinance retaining all the exemptions. Myers did not vote and Becky Fast was not present. Councilors Gunby, Megan England and Teresa Kelly voted against it with Sheri McNeil, Mel Croston and Gliniecki voting yes. Mayor Joel Marquardt voted against the ordinance.
Gunby then called for a vote striking all the exemptions and the votes were reversed with the mayor voting yes. However, five votes are required to pass an ordinance, so the motion failed.
The current franchise agreement will remain in place until the council can resolve its impasse. That effectively allows exemptions to continue.