Former Shawnee planning commissioners criticized city council — new policy could remove them

Shawnee masks

The Shawnee City Council last week advanced a proposal to adopt policy language that empowers the council to remove members from city boards, commissions and task forces. The action comes after months of conflicts between the Shawnee Planning Commission and the city council. At the forefront of discussions was concern for violating volunteer members' First Amendment rights. File photo.

In the wake of three city planning commissioners resigning in recent months, the Shawnee City Council is considering a new policy allowing for the removal of appointed members of city boards and commissions.

What the new policy says: Under the proposed revisions, the governing body (comprising the mayor and city council) may remove appointed members to city boards, commissions and/or task forces “for reason of just cause, including but not limited to” the following:

  • Poor attendance (must attend at least 75% of meetings unless given an excused absence)
  • Violation of any confidentiality requirements
  • Personal conduct inconsistent with the expectations of the City of Shawnee

Either the mayor or a city councilmember could recommend removal, and the governing body would then require a simple majority to approve removal. The mayor can also break a tie.

Distler asked that the policy include language to give board/commission/task force members the opportunity to correct the situation before official removal.

Jenkins asked that the policy also consider political activism on the dais as a just cause for removal.

Why it matters: The city council’s discussion over the new policy comes at a polarizing time in Shawnee city politics.

Since late last year, three planning commissioners have resigned before their terms ended.

Two of them specifically mentioned the city council’s opposition toward development projects, such as Sunflower Development’s 5700 King multi-family apartments project downtown, as a reason for leaving.

Four members of the city council also recently sparred with Mayor Michelle Distler over her appointments to fill the planning commission vacancies.

As a result, city staff last week proposed multiple revisions to city policy that will incorporate  removal policies as well as orientation and training resources and attendance expectations for board, commission and task force members.

Learn more: Some councilmembers expressed strong objections after members of the Shawnee Planning Commission made comments in a December 2020 meeting that certain city councilmembers should be “voted out” due, in part, to their opposition to development projects.

City staff said First Amendment protections prevent members’ removal from office on the basis of such speech.

Councilmember Eric Jenkins, who urged city staff to develop the new removal policy, pushed back at that defense.

“Nobody here’s going to argue you have First Amendment rights,” he said, “but there are times when your First Amendment rights are couched by the profession you seek or by the position you hold.”

City staff said members of boards, commissions and task forces are already required to follow the city’s code of conduct, but First Amendment rights protect them from removal. Councilmember Lisa Larson-Bunnell, who holds a legal background, argued for flexible interpretation of the policy.

“I do think that these are some very tricky situations,” Larson-Bunnell said. “And maybe they will just continue to be tricky, and I don’t have an answer for that. We need flexibility to be able to do what is right under the law in that circumstance.”

Below is a video recording of the committee meeting. Discussion of the removal process begins at 1:34:20.