A mayoral race in Shawnee, Kansas, is between two 'very different' kinds of Republicans
Reports of a sexting video featuring the city manager are the latest upheaval in Shawnee, where dozens of city employees have left their jobs in the past two years. “I think it’s directly tied to partisan agendas,” said one city council candidate.
Shawnee, Kansas, has been turbulent lately, especially for a tidy Johnson County suburb. But the latest development was a doozy, even by recent standards: An anonymous email with a sexting video featuring City Manager Doug Gerber.
The email bounced around city hall a month ago and upset employees, but city council members say they never heard about it until The Kansas City Star made open records requests this week — just days before the Nov. 7 municipal election.
Mayor Michell Distler, who is not seeking re-election, said she and council members had been alerted about accusations against Gerber at his previous city job in Topeka, but that those concerns were dismissed by Gerber’s backers.
In February, Gerber replaced a city manager who resigned after run-ins with the council over the direction of the city.
Laurel Burchfield, who’s running for an open seat on the council, said the latest scandal was teed up by the council majority looking for ideological purity in a city manager.
“I think it’s directly tied to partisan agendas,” said Burchfield. “And I think it’s because they wanted someone who would align with their priorities more so than our former city manager.”
At an emergency meeting on Wednesday afternoon, council members placed Gerber on paid administrative leave. When the council chooses an interim city manager next week, it will make the fifth person to hold the job in as many years.
The city’s lost dozens of employees just in the last couple of years, including deputy city managers as well as directors of finance, communications, and parks and recreation. Soon its directors of public works, information technology and human resources will retire.
Former City Council member Lisa Larson-Bunnell sees a crisis, and blames the turnover on harsh treatment and public humiliation she said top city planners have endured from some members of the council.
“This is certainly a council that is not interested in being educated and being provided facts that might counter what their opinions are,” Larson-Bunnell said.
But conservatives on the council such as Mike Kemmling, who’s running for mayor, don’t think it’s the council’s job to validate city employees.
“I have a critical mind and a critical eye towards every project that comes before us. I think when the people of Shawnee send us to represent them, they don't want someone to just rubber stamp and say yes to everything,” said Kemmling.
Kemmling said the attrition rate at city hall hovers around 10%, which he said is normal.
“So staff turnover, that's a myth that there's more than usual,” he said.
Kemmling is running for mayor against a former city council member, Mickey Sandifer, who is in many ways Kemmling’s opposite.
“I guarantee you that it's not just splitting hairs, it's not just one Republican or another. We would, we would, we would be very different,” said Kemmling.
For one thing, Sandifer says he’s alarmed and saddened by the number and quality of city employees quitting. He worked with a lot of them during his 16 years on the council.
Sandifer sees a hostility toward planning and professionalism on the current council.
He supports what he characterizes as targeted investments, tax breaks for businesses like McLain’s Market, a busy, upscale bakery in what was an old gas station downtown.
“It was a very, very, very rough building. And we asked the people with McLain's if they would be interested in trying to save the building to keep the downtown hometown atmosphere. And they did that,” said Sandifer.
He says that’s multiplied the value of the building, brought customers and foot traffic to downtown Shawnee and boosted tax revenue. He says other businesses, like the Aztec Theater downtown, are similar success stories.
Kemmling voted against downtown development incentives. He calls them handouts, and says they weren’t necessary, that a lot of the good things happening downtown would have happened without public involvement.
“I tend to favor the free market in lesser government when possible — lower taxes, less regulations,” said Kemmling.
For a decade, Kemmling has been a consistent no vote on development projects involving condos or apartment complexes. He supported an ordinance forbidding more than three unrelated people from living in the same residence.
Sandifer has tended to support multi-family development as a way to broaden the tax base, grow the city, and provide affordable housing.
And Sandifer backed small property tax increases when he was on the council. He opposes more recent tax cuts. He fears they may lead to budget shortfalls, even cuts to basic services like police and firefighters.
Kemmling backed the recent tax cuts and says more of the same are probably called for.
And Kemmling was among the conservatives on the council who took a symbolic vote to ban transgender girls from playing sports in Shawnee, expressing the city’s support of similar legislation state lawmakers were considering.
Despite the stark differences between the two candidates for mayor, they share a political party. Sandifer is a long-time, and locally well-known Republican, same as Kemmling, though campaign mailings from a group called the Northwest Johnson County Republicans paint Sandifer as a Democrat.
Sandifer said he doesn’t care what party people associate him with, because as far as he’s concerned party politics don’t have a whole lot to do with on day-to-day decisions affecting the quality of life in a place like Shawnee.
“That's why city government is non-partisan, is because we don't have parties running our cities,” said Sandifer. “And we need to get away from that.”
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