Shawnee City Council spars over Mayor Michelle Distler’s planning commission appointments

Shawnee State of the City

Mayor Michelle Distler (pictured above, in a file photo) ultimately broke a 4-4 tie on the council that allowed her two appointees to the planning commission to go through. Several councilmembers alleged the appointees were too partisan for the commission role. File photo.

The Shawnee City Council again showed signs of division Monday when councilmembers confirmed Mayor Michelle Distler’s two appointments to the city planning commission but only after Distler herself took the rare step of breaking a 4-4 tie on both.

The planning commission is a body of 11 members who consider future development, land use and zoning guidelines, among other things.

Three planning commissioners have resigned in recent months, Brian Roth being the most recent. Les Smith stepped down in December and Randy Braley quit in November.

Distler recommended Genise Luecke and Joe Van Walleghem to fill the vacancies of Roth and Smith, respectively.

A new commissioner, Carol Norman, had already filled Braley’s vacancy.

Councilmembers Jill Chalfie, Lindsey Constance, Lisa Larson-Bunnell and Matt Zimmerman supported the appointments. Councilmembers Eric Jenkins, Mike Kemmling, Kurt Knappen and Tammy Thomas voted against the appointments.

The mayor chose to break the tie, a rare move for her. Distler has routinely voiced a reluctance to break 4-4 ties on the council since the 2019 election, which resulted in a situation where two factions on the council are often evenly split.

Some councilmembers say appointees are too partisan

Councilmember Eric Jenkins was the most vocal about his opposition to Mayor Michelle Distler’s appointments to the planning commission. He said her appointees are too partisan. File photo.

Jenkins and Knappen shared their misgivings about Distler’s chosen appointees, saying Luecke and Van Walleghem are too partisan to serve in an impartial manner when considering development applications on the planning commission.

“I think these people are both competent; this is not a slam against their competence,” Jenkins said. “But I feel that they are both too strongly ideological to serve in this position. There are many other volunteer positions in this community where the ideology issue would not be too big a deal, but when it comes to the planning commission, I think it is a big deal.”

Distler said she was unaware of her appointees carrying any strong ideology — liberal, conservative or otherwise.

“Neither of these people have said anything like this to me,” Distler said. “I’m not sure where this information is coming from, and I can’t base decisions on something somebody said.”

Knappen called the mayor’s judgment into question.

“Frankly, based on some of the actions that I’ve kind of witnessed, I don’t have the same level of confidence in the mayor’s judgment,” Knappen said. “And so, while I don’t have any specific concerns that I want to share publicly about either of these nominees — I think they’re good citizens, I’m sure they are, I appreciate their willingness to serve — however, I have heard some potential concerns brought in the last day, and so I would like to look into it further before I’m a yes on this.”

Jenkins said one of the appointees showed support for the city’s community center proposal and expressed disappointment that 72% of voters shot it down (something the Shawnee Mission Post has not independently confirmed.)

Outside of that comment, those who voted against the appointments provided no specific examples of partisan behavior exhibited by the appointees.

Councilmember Lisa Larson-Bunnell took issue with her peers’ use of the “partisan” label, noting that “partisan can go in two different directions.”

“One of the things we all need to keep in mind is that the planning commission has a very specific lane that they do stay in,” Larson-Bunnell said. “They are in fact here to help with development. They are here to determine what kinds of development are appropriate for our city, not based on their own personal whims but based on the things that the council have previously approved, such as a strategic plan, such as land use guidelines.”

Differing views show split over vision for Shawnee’s future

The councilmembers’ pushback comes after planning commissioners in a November meeting made comments suggesting that certain councilmembers should be voted out of office. That discussion followed Braley’s announcement to his fellow commissioners that he was resigning, starting the string of three resignations.

Braley resigned a week after the city council rejected an apartment project planned for the downtown area that was largely opposed by neighboring single-family homeowners.

Jenkins said he wants the planning commission to scrutinize developers’ proposals, especially when they request public dollars to help finance their projects. He also said none of the residents he encouraged to apply for the planning commission have been considered, apparently because they were too conservative.

“I’m getting kind of tired of the double standard that we’re discussing here tonight,” Jenkins said.

The mayor rebutted his comments, saying that the planning commission is tasked with holding projects to the standards set by city codes and Shawnee’s comprehensive plan for development.

Some councilmembers also called into question the process to review applicants for the planning commission. That process, which was in part put in place by Distler, includes a questionnaire. City staff said the council can discuss and make changes to the process in the future.

Distler has been under pressure in recent months for a felony perjury charge she faces in district court. She has reached a diversion agreement on the case, which could wipe the charge from her record if she meets the terms of the agreement, including 150 hours of community service.

The charge stems from an open meetings complaint Distler has admitted to making under someone else’s name. The complaint centered on an email chain involving several city councilmembers and also included critical comments about Distler made by a former Shawnee resident who was also included on the chain.

Distler has yet to speak publicly about the charge or her diversion agreement, except in a statement through her attorney, Robin Fowler:

“She looks forward to moving on with her life in a constructive way and plans to continue to do her part to try and make her community a better place to live. She also wishes to express her heartfelt apology to anyone impacted by these events,” Fowler said.

Below is a video recording of Monday’s meeting. Discussion begins at 32:40.