Divide on Shawnee city council leaves president role unfilled after mayor declines to break tie

Ellis Rainey (right), Shawnee city attorney, explains procedure for electing a council president and vice chair. Mayor Michelle Distler (left) declined to break the tie when the council votes were split on the positions.

The Shawnee city council on Monday couldn’t agree on electing a council president or vice chair for council committee.

The council considered three nominations for the council president, and all three failed on a 4-4 split vote. The same thing happened with the vice chair position — three nominations which all failed on a 4-4 split.

Mayor Michelle Distler declined to break the tie votes and ultimately tabled both items to the next city council meeting on Jan. 27, leaving the positions currently up in the air.

The standstill on these internal elections came just a few minutes after newly seated councilmembers and incumbents were sworn into office.

Councilmembers Tammy Thomas (newly seated), Eric Jenkins, Mike Kemmling and Kurt Knappen (newly seated and participating remotely) stuck together on their votes for the two positions, while councilmembers Matt Zimmerman, Lisa Larson-Bunnell, Lindsey Constance and Jill Chalfie (newly seated) stuck together on their votes.

Those votes appeared to have largely fallen on philosophical lines on how the council should run city affairs, based on how members have previously conducted council business or campaigned for their seats.

“My personal opinion is this is a very difficult thing to do right after (gaining) four new councilmembers,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t have a fix to that, other than pushing it off a month or two. I’m not advocating that we do that, but maybe the timing of this should be re-thought.”

Like many of her fellow councilmembers, Lindsey Constance said she hopes the council can come together on issues facing the city of Shawnee moving forward.

Despite frustration with the situation, city councilmembers insist they plan to work together to agree on the two positions and future business for the good of Shawnee.

“Up until this year, I have been really hopeful that those of [us] who sometimes see differently have been able to come together on some things, compliment one another, see the good ideas other people have,” Constance said. “We’ve done that in the last year, so I’m hopeful we can continue doing that.”

Laron-Bunnell, Jenkins, Zimmerman considered for president role

The council president presides over council committee meetings and serves as acting mayor in the absence or disability of the city mayor. Likewise, the vice chair presides over city council committee meetings in the absence of the council president.

Larson-Bunnell and Jenkins both threw their hats in for council president, while Constance and Kemmling threw their hats in for vice chair.

Zimmerman was nominated as a third option for council president, but the council split on his nomination as well. The council declined to offer a third nomination for vice chair.

“I feel like there is a very stark contrast between how the two nominees for both positions would take the city,” Kemmling said, noting his belief that “all possibilities” for solutions are worth discussing.

Councilmembers raised concerns during the meeting and afterward regarding  Distler’s decision against breaking the tie. However, Distler said she believes the council should start off on a positive note by working together to self-elect their own leadership.

“I have respect and appreciation for every single one of my councilmembers, and I do not feel that it is my role to be for or against anyone in this position,” Distler said, noting that the Shawnee city council has struggled with electing the two positions in past years. “It’s one thing to break a tie when it comes to a project or a policy. This is a decision that needs to be made by the council.”

Distler said she hopes the council can work together during its retreat and visioning session in February.

“It does not benefit us as a city to be so divided,” she added.

City Attorney Ellis Rainey noted that the mayor has the power to cast a vote and break a tie, but she is not required to do so.

The next council committee meeting is scheduled for Feb. 4. Rainey said that if the council does not have a council president or vice chair at that time, then the council may need to consider changing the city’s charter ordinance to address the issue.