Weeks after OP council election, tensions stew in over perceived ‘ultra-con’ influence in local government

Gina Burke, center, speaking at a meeting of the Republican Sunflower Club in September. Photo via Facebook.
Gina Burke, center, speaking at a meeting of the Republican Sunflower Club in September. Photo via Facebook.

By Roxie Hammill

The election that will put Gina Burke into the Ward 4 Overland Park City Council seat now held by Terry Goodman was decided more than five weeks ago, but somehow it doesn’t have the feeling of being over.

Goodman, a 16-year council veteran who lost by a mere 110 votes, is not letting it drop. He was stung by implications about his character during the campaign and continues to write and speak to news organizations about the outcome. This week, he launched a blog where he intends to offer commentary on Overland Park politics.

Meanwhile, an anonymously run Facebook page highly critical of Burke is up and running with suggestions she lied about conversations with Goodman during the campaign.

Bubbling beneath it all is the assertion – made by Goodman and disputed by Burke – that ultra-right-wing politics has entered into the normally non-partisan doings of the Overland Park City Council.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire,” Goodman said of the idea. “I can tell you there’s a lot of smoke.”

Burke disagrees, saying her election was the result of hard work going door-to-door. “That is the picture he’s trying to paint, but I don’t consider myself a far-right conservative,” she said.

Goodman points to Burke’s backers for his evidence. Burke received help in the form of an anti-Goodman flyer from Kansans for Conservative Values PAC, a group started by a former staffer of Kris Kobach. The Sentinel, an on-line news site edited by conspiracy author Jack Cashill, also took up Burke’s cause. “Young conservative ejects entrenched bully from OP City Council,” was its post-election headline.

She was also endorsed by the Conservative Republicans of Southern Johnson County, a group that invited Burke but not Goodman to a candidate forum. Yet she declined an invitation to a Chamber of Commerce forum where he would also be present, Goodman said.

But Burke has said she shouldn’t be labeled because of attendance at one forum and the views of supporters she had no control over. She didn’t go to the Chamber forum because she wanted to spend more time in neighborhoods talking with potential voters. “People didn’t care if I was a Republican or Democrat. Most people just wanted to feel like they were being heard on the city council,” she said.

Greg Cromer, chairman of the southern Johnson County group, said the forum was a showcase of candidates that embody the group’s core conservative values. Goodman was not invited because he is not considered conservative, Cromer said.

Burke campaigned on the idea of bringing a fresh outlook to a council that seems clubby in its unanimous votes, she said. “I love Overland Park. I want to see it stay as one of the most livable cities in the nation.” Now she’d like to move on to representing the ward.

But Goodman’s continued frustration over the campaign may prevent that from happening. Burke’s website post asking Goodman to “please stop texting me” and her assertion that Goodman tried to bully her away from the race cast a shadow over his character he isn’t willing to let slide.

Burke has said that Goodman offered to get her a spot on the city planning commission if she withdrew – a statement he vehemently denies. News reports of it cost him the election, he said.

Their versions vary as to motives, but Burke and Goodman agree on how it all started. Goodman did contact Burke, a newcomer to city politics, to suggest that she try serving as a volunteer on other city committees before launching an expensive and time-consuming race for city council.

Most people who run for a council seat have already put in some time learning the ropes on various committees and have a familiarity with how the city runs, Goodman said.

The number and tone of Goodman’s contacts with Burke are in dispute, however. On her campaign website, Burke recounted “a barrage of messages” from Goodman, though he said that is exaggerated.

Eventually she agreed to sit down to breakfast with Goodman and city council member Dan Stock.

Their stories diverge from that point. “It was said Terry has influence over the mayor and could offer me a position on planning commission,” Burke remembers. She told her web page readers it felt like “quid pro quo.”

Goodman said he didn’t make any such promise because city council members don’t have that kind of power. Council members can suggest names to the mayor but have no control over who the mayor appoints or when a vacancy comes up.

Stock backs up Goodman’s version. “I was there and everything Terry said was completely appropriate,” he said. Goodman was merely offering to mentor Burke, he said, allowing that is was possible Burke misunderstood what Goodman meant.

It’s not clear if there will be any further investigation into Burke’s accusation. Mayor Carl Gerlach did not return phone calls about the matter, and Burke said she has no interest in pursuing it further. “I don’t think that it should have been something that was offered,” she said. “I’d rather just say it’s in the past.” Goodman said there’s nothing to investigate since he can back up that nothing improper was said.

Goodman has continued to push his case, despite observations from some that it seems like sour grapes. Even Stock said “I also think Terry needs to move on.”

Burke said she’d rather talk about the issues she ran on – transparency and fiscal responsibility. She said she’d like to see live streaming of meetings and she wants to look into alternatives to chip-seal road maintenance. She also said her constituents have questioned the tax incentives given to developers.

Her campaign website called for limited government, an end to “rubber stamps” and an emptying of the “corporate ATM machine,” of tax incentives.

Whether Burke sways the council in a more conservative direction remains to be seen. Cromer pointed out that Burke is only one member out of 12. “It’s going to be a challenge for her,” he said. “I think she’ll do all she can to foster responsible government spending.” Tax incentives is an issue that’s being questioned by both the Left and Right, he added.

Goodman also predicted a challenge ahead for Burke. “I think she’ll find herself a lonely voice of extremism on the losing end of a lot of 11-1 votes,” he said. He plans to keep an eye on things remotely, though. “I will monitor her service and continue to be critical of it when appropriate,” he said.

Burke said she looks forward to learning the ins and outs of various important issues after being sworn in Jan. 8. She has been criticized for applauding along with opponents of the Brookridge development at one meeting before the election, but she said she was clapping in support for people having the courage to stand up and voice their opinions. Her applause didn’t necessarily mean she was for or against the project, she said. “There’s a lot on Brookridge I need to read up on.”

Council member Stock said Burke will soon have a better understanding of the reasons behind the votes. “I’m sure she’ll be fine.”