Shawnee city leaders propose new solution for electing council president, giving mayor power to chair and vote in council committee

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After nearly three hours of deliberations Tuesday, the Shawnee city council has come up with a plan for self-electing its president.

The main outcome of last night’s council committee meeting: The city councilmembers unanimously agreed that they want the mayor to be a participating and voting member at future council committee meetings. They would also like to see her chair those meetings as well.

If the city council officially adopts this change, then the council president would no longer chair council committee meetings. However, the council president would still serve as acting mayor in the absence or disability of the mayor.

After comparing pros and cons of the policies and ordinances governing committees and council presidents of neighboring cities, the Shawnee city council also ultimately agreed to make some changes to its internal election process of the council president.

The new process favored by most of the city council is a runoff election. With that process, councilmembers who are nominated for council president would be put on a single ballot; if one nominee wins a simple majority (5 votes), then s/he wins the role. If not, then the nominee with the fewest votes is removed from the list, and the voting process begins again. until there are two candidates left. This continues until there is either a simple majority or a tie. The city council agreed to break a tie with a coin toss.

Lisa Larson-Bunnell and her fellow councilmembers weighed the pros and cons of different ways to elect a new council president.

The current election process allows councilmembers to self-nominate, or nominate one of their own, to be council president. All nominations end up on a single ballot, and councilmembers select one person.

However, with that process in place, the Shawnee council ran into a deadlock with electing a new president in January because each of three nominated councilmembers had gained only four votes from his/her colleagues. There was no system in place to address 4-4 splits on nominations.

Mayor Michelle Distler declined to break the 4-4 tie each time a councilmember was nominated, and she indicated that she has no plans to change her mind in the future.

“As a matter of principle, I will not vote for or against any of my councilmembers as that causes strife and division,” Distler said in an interview.

Discussions on Tuesday centered around the role of a council president and vice chair, inclusion of the mayor in council committee meetings going forward, the process of electing a council president and the terms of office for elected city officials.

“I think that part of the impasse that we’ve been having lately with this council president is because of the input on the agenda and the line of succession,” said Councilmember Mike Kemmling, who is serving as council president for the time being because of his seniority on the council. “I think if we take that away from the council president, now it’s not that coveted spot anymore, and it’s not going to maybe have quite the animosity or the fighting, if this is really just someone who is going to chair in the absence of the mayor. It takes some of the shine off of it.”

Some councilmembers said they think tenure as an elected official should hold more weight when considering the council president, and that in the event of a tie, then the senior councilmember should be considered for the role first. However, no motions or suggestions relating to seniority gained enough traction.

Mayor Michelle Distler may become the chair of council committee meetings if the city council agrees to it March 23.

The council also agreed to permanently cancel the last meeting of the year, citing conflicts with Christmas, a major holiday.

Having the current mayor chair council committee meetings has its own issues as well. City staff said Mayor Distler has a standing conflict with Tuesday meetings, so future council committee meetings would have to change to a different day of the week.

Furthermore, Distler said she always listens to the audio livestream of council committee meetings, but the mayor never attends because she thought she was prohibited from attending.

“I was told when I became mayor that I was not allowed in the room let alone up on the dais,” Distler said. “It’s not that I didn’t choose to be there. I was told not to be there.”

The recommendations from the city council committee meeting may require changes to Charter Ordinance 45, Policy Statement 7 or the city’s regular ordinances. Charter ordinances take about 80 days and notice must be published before going into effect, while policy revisions become effective immediately upon approval.

Here are the seven decisions made by the city council during the committee meeting, as well as vote count and the impact to the ordinances and policies governing city affairs:

  • Allowing the mayor to become a full voting member of the council committee: Unanimous approval. Requires change to charter ordinance and policy revision.
  • Having the mayor chair council committee meetings: 6-2, with Lisa Larson-Bunnell and Jill Chalfie against (citing concerns the mayor will be over-obligated). Requires policy revision.
  • Confirming that council president will still become the acting mayor in the absence or disability of the mayor: 5-3, with Mike Kemmling, Eric Jenkins and Tammy Thomas against. No changes.
  • Electing the council president through a runoff voting system until one candidate gets a majority vote: Unanimous approval. Requires policy revision.
  • Using a coin toss to break a tie from the runoff voting system: 5-3, with Mike Kemmling, Eric Jenkins and Tammy Thomas voting against. Requires policy revision.
  • Changing the date that terms of office for elected officials begin, from the first meeting in January to the first meeting of December: Unanimous approval. Requires change to charter ordinance.
  • Permanently cancel the second meeting in December (because of conflicts with Christmas), and only allow for a special meeting the third week of December for emergencies: Unanimous approval. Requires change to regular ordinance.All of these decisions must be adopted by the city council at its next meeting March 23 before becoming official.

About the author

Leah Wankum
Leah Wankum

Hi there! I’m Leah Wankum, and I’m the Post’s Deputy Editor. I’m thrilled to call Johnson County home, and I’m deeply committed to the Post’s philosophy that an informed community is a strong community.

I’m a native of mid-Missouri, and attended high school in Jefferson City before going on to the University of Central Missouri, where I earned a master’s degree in mass communication.

Prior to joining the Post as a reporter in 2018, I was the editor of the Richmond News in Ray County, Missouri. I’ve also written for several publications, including the Sedalia Democrat and KC Magazine.