In Merriam, a town that was well known for a time for feuds and white-hot political infighting, the city council race for an open Ward 2 seat has reopened old wounds.
Online supporters of candidates Dan Leap and Whitney Yadrich have erupted into a flaming war of words over a decade-old and settled legal battle. There have been accusations of lying, smears, intimidation and bullying. Names have been called, with accusations of partisan agendas bubbling not far below the surface.
Leap, who was a magnet for controversy during his previous eight years on the council, has said he is running to correct what he considers unwise use of tax dollars on such things as public art and the community center.
But his opponents wonder if Leap and two of his friends running in other wards will return the city council to the early 2000’s era of bitter infighting, lawsuits, recall petitions and 4-4 ties. There is a concern, voiced by a Yadrich supporter, that Leap and two of his band mates are running quietly as a slate. John Canterbury, who bass guitarist with Leap’s band Pompous Jack, is running in Ward 1 and Amy Carey, drummer in another band with Leap called Intimate Domain, is running in Ward 3.
Leap and Yadrich insist they want to stick with city issues. Even so, the supposedly non-partisan city council campaign being carried on by their supporters sometimes recalls the cultural battles at the national level. Leap supporters call out Yadrich for being a registered Democrat, a “leftist nut job,” and “liberal agenda plant.” Prominent on Leap’s campaign website and on a pro-Leap Facebook page called Merriam First, is a video of Yadrich talking about climate change to the city council. His supporters have also questioned her stance on gun control.
Yadrich’s online commenters have not been as pointed. But Councilmember Al Frisby, the outgoing incumbent who has endorsed Yadrich, said he wants residents to remember how things used to be on the council. He brings up the time Leap provided his home address to a commenter on Leap’s Facebook page who – jokingly or not – had offered to burn Frisby’s house down. (Both comments were accompanied by winking emoticons, according to the police report.) That was in 2011, shortly after Frisby ousted Leap from his city council spot. Leap later apologized, Frisby said.
Meanwhile partisans of both candidates have spent countless posts re-fighting a legal battle that dates back over a decade between Leap and the city over a mis-surveyed strip of land.
Canterbury and Carey did not respond to questions emailed to them by the Post for this story. Leap also declined comment, beyond a brief couple of sentences.
“I like to stick to issues that directly affect our residents,” he said. He provided links to the video of Yadrich and to comments she made to the council about a gun safety panel sponsored by U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids. He said he is not involved in the Merriam First Facebook page.
Leap is well known even beyond Merriam for his shop repurposing guitar bodies into arty home furnishings and his sometimes bombastic style. He’s gotten admiring press over the years for his gigs with famous rockers (his website says he was trained by Harvey Jett, former lead guitarist of Black Oak Arkansas), his DeLorean and his above-the-shop apartment that made it onto HGTV.
He was first elected to the city council in 2003, during a period of upheaval over the city’s use of eminent domain to get some of the development now seen along Interstate 35. Objections over that led to the ouster of incumbent council members, an ideological split on the council and a series of recall petitions of council members. Attempts to recall Leap failed, however, because of problems with signatures and reasons given on the petitions.
Before that, he attracted attention for his battles over a plan to narrow the town’s main street and over inflatable figures he said were Halloween decorations but opponents said were there to attract attention to his business. Besides the claims and counter claims over the disputed land, Leap also tried suing a former council member who accused him of violating the open meetings act by meeting with two other council members to discuss development, according to published reports. That suit, in small claims court, failed but the judge warned him and the other council members not to do such a thing again.
Concerns about return to divisiveness
Frisby said he is concerned that if Leap and his friends get elected, the city will be in for more divisiveness. “It’s basically a bully movement on his part.” Frisby said Canterbury is a “nice guy” and made some good decisions when he was on the council. But, “with Dan coming back in right now, he will in my humble opinion tell the others how to vote. I don’t know if they’ll follow through, but that’s my assumption. He will try to influence them.”
Neither Canterbury nor Carey replied to questions from the Post about whether they would vote independently of Leap or whether the three had discussed running together as a team.
Leap’s 2019 campaign website says he’s running again after eight years to give voice to people in Merriam, especially those dissatisfied with how the city spends its money on public art and the new community center. His commenters have been especially outraged at the city spending on a caterpillar and butterfly sculpture in Waterfall Park and with wind chimes at a busy intersection.
Meanwhile Yadrich, a project manager at a marketing agency and former web producer for local television stations, has been fielding harsh criticism from Leap supporters, who seek out her Facebook page and comment on her posts. The tamest have questioned whether she’s lived in Merriam long enough to be a good representative. Others accuse her of lying in posts about the long and convoluted legal fight over his downtown business property boundary, suggesting she should recant and withdraw from the race. (Most of that debate has been over who sued whom. Both the city and Leap sought redress at different times during the dispute.)
There are posts critiquing her speaking style when she spoke to the council on climate change. There’s also a fair amount of hate towards Democrats, with Leap even chiming in at one point to provide her attendance at a Democratic event as proof that she’s a member of the “democrat party,” agreeing with a commenter that it is “pretty low.”
Leap supporters extrapolate from her brief comments to the council that she would be for gun control. However Yadrich said that isn’t the right conclusion. She said she attended the panel after a mass shooting, and that she’s aware that it’s more of a federal issue. She made comments about local flooding and the climate after Frisby asked her to.
Yadrich also got a lot of pushback about passing along concerns of a couple of residents who felt harassed by a Leap supporter putting flyers in doors. Although she said the residents may have overreacted, at the time she urged anyone who felt unsafe to call police.
While Leap’s supporters say Yadrich is trying to put party politics into the local race, Yadrich said Leap is the real culprit. “Unfortunately, (Dan Leap) is spending a lot of energy trying to divide our city with partisan politics,” she wrote in a post. People who received the flyers were registered Republicans but had a Yadrich yard sign, she said.
Yadrich said she is a registered Democrat but, “I’m trying to run the race as non-partisan as possible. You don’t have to be divisive. You don’t bring that agenda to the table when governing on the council. You get to find common ground with everybody.”
However she said she’s never felt intimidated or bullied herself. “I personally think this is kind of par for the course when you run for office and someone doesn’t support you,” she said.
Yadrich said she believes some voters are leery about Leap because they remember his previous time on the council. “There’s a lot of emotion associated with Dan’s history in the city and so I think that he can be very polarizing,” she said.
She grew up in Lenexa but has lived in Merriam for two years and wants to stay there another forty, she said. She has said she wants to work for better transparency and communications about the city’s workings on such things as the community center.
“I want to help bring people together instead of trying to identify with a historical faction or group,” she said. “Everybody’s opinion is valuable.”