Shawnee City Council blamed for ongoing staffing ‘crisis’

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For months, the Post has been digging into what was behind a series of high-level departures from Shawnee City Hall. In order to do so, our reporters talked to nearly a dozen current and former city officials, reached out to every city councilmember and requested a number of public records.

While staff turnover happens in every city, nearly every person our reporters talked to for this story said what was happening in Shawnee was different and was starting to have a negative impact on city operations. City councilmembers themselves have voiced concerns about staff vacancies in public meetings. We felt it was important for readers and Shawnee taxpayers to better understand what was going on and why this is happening.

In a closed meeting with the Shawnee City Council in May 2022, City Manager Nolan Sunderman painted a grim picture of the staffing situation at city hall — employees were leaving in droves, he told councilmembers, and the unprecedented number of vacancies was piling up.

And Sunderman’s message was clear: the city council was to blame.

According to slides from that executive session obtained by the Post, Sunderman called it a “recruitment and retention crisis.” Something needed to change, he told them, or else the city would be unable to keep up with current and approved staffing levels.

Four months later, Sunderman announced his own resignation, citing the city council’s “separate vision” for Shawnee.

A trend of departures: The data breakdown

Sunderman is one of dozens of city employees who have walked out the door in recent months, leaving behind an already barebones staff.

The Post spoke with nearly a dozen current and former city officials, the vast majority of whom agreed conflicts between the city council and staff have played a major role in the recent mass resignations from Shawnee city government.

Last year, 29 people resigned — the most recorded in any year in the past five years — including some from public-facing, high-ranking positions. That’s nearly equal to the number of resignations recorded from 2017 and 2018 combined, according to data obtained by the Post through open records requests.

Between 2021 and April 2023, full-time staffing levels regularly operated well below the amount budgeted for. And from 2021 to 2022, the number of staff vacancies doubled, reaching 22 last year.

Shawnee's vacancy rate was calculated by taking each year's average number of vacancies and dividing it by the total number of budgeted positions. The number went up significantly between 2020 and 2022.
The vacancy rate was calculated by taking each year’s average number of vacancies and dividing it by the total number of budgeted positions.

Turnover in any workplace comes at a cost — public administration is no different.

Other staff members have to step in to pick up the duties of those who have left. Managers have to spend time finding and reviewing candidates to fill vacancies. And when new staffers do come on board, managers and co-workers need to spend time and effort to train them.

When long-tenured employees leave, expertise goes with them, Mayor Michelle Distler stressed.

“We are losing top-quality, award-winning individuals to other cities; we are losing a ton of institutional knowledge, a ton of experience,” she said. “We’re getting so many new people in that don’t have that Shawnee history and that understanding of Shawnee culture.”

And, Distler added, she worries city staff who remain and are stepping up to cover holes made by unfilled positions are headed toward burnout.

“I think it’s going to be a few years from now before we really feel the impact that this has had,” Distler said.

The city council was warned a year ago about low employee morale

During that May 2022 closed-door session, Sunderman presented the findings to the city council from an employee survey in November 2021, as well as a recap of themes from a Virtual Town Hall a few months later that contained anonymous feedback from city staff.

Sunderman identified the following points of concern, as presented in slides obtained by the Post:

  • “People in management positions are leaving and identifying the Council as one of the main reasons”
  • “People are identifying the Council as a reason for not applying – even frontline positions”
  • “Applicants have turned down offers because they have listened to the Council meetings”

A month later, concerns about low employee morale and challenges with recruitment and retention were cited during a public city council discussion about giving staff a one-time retention bonus.

Councilmember Eric Jenkins. File photo.

“If you stack us up against the other communities in Johnson County, we are on the lower end of that scale as far as staffing levels that we keep,” said Councilmember Eric Jenkins during that meeting on June 27, 2022. “It’s starting to impact us honestly pretty negatively, and there are people that are heading for the exits because it’s just a little more than they’re willing to absorb at this point.”

Bickering, accusations, personal attacks: How did we get here?

These departures come as the tenor in Shawnee City Council meetings has become increasingly strained and conflicts frequently bear out between staff and councilmembers in public and in private.

Over the past few years, councilmembers have resorted to name calling and personal attacks on city staff in public meetings. Some overtly interrupt or speak over staff and their colleagues.

One stark example is when Jenkins — who would bemoan the impacts of staffing vacancies a year later — called Sunderman and other high-level city employees liars during a council committee meeting on June 21, 2021. That came after a lengthy back-and-forth over certain items Jenkins wanted in the city’s 2022 budget.

When asked recently about that incident by the Post, Jenkins stood by his comments, saying Sunderman “knew damn good and well” he wasn’t being “factual.” Regardless, he said his relationship with Sunderman was good while they worked together, and that Jenkins had “mentored him [Sunderman] a great deal.”

Later on, some councilmembers lambasted the Shawnee Police Department for attending the KC PrideFest in June 2022. One councilmember said in an email that the “optics are bad” that police officers had a recruiting table at the event.

At the time, Sunderman suggested that councilmembers’ stances on LGBTQ issues had already driven out some city staffers and could make it harder to recruit future employees. Findings from the virtual staff town hall containing anonymous employee feedback supported that assertion.

“In the current council climate, does anyone want to make a presentation to council?” a city employee wrote anonymously during the town hall. “I am concerned that recent resignations are very telling. Current and expected future lack of support, continuing lack of sufficient resources, and the current divisive political climate make it hard to have a positive outlook.”

Yet another example of hostility toward staff occurred this January, nine months into a discussion about the new city logo. Multiple councilmembers railed against the design, levied attacks at Mayor Distler, and accused city staff of having ulterior motives and excluding them from the process.

“Some of that input could have been given had you had the right people in that echo chamber you’ve been sitting in,” Councilmember Tammy Thomas said at a Jan. 9, 2023, meeting on the branding effort.

Thomas later suggested people in the “echo chamber” had shoehorned the process and added hearts to both the proposed logo and the new, hot pink crosswalks downtown long before the city council got involved. The hearts were ultimately dropped from the new logo.

What ultimately came out of Shawnee’s rebranding process. Image via city of Shawnee.

Councilmember Tony Gillette, too, was concerned but had more worries about the look of the design and called the whole process a failure. He also thought the recommended final product looked like “Hidden Valley Ranch meets My Little Pony.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Work with what we have and come up with something good.”

Additionally, the council has taken more aggressive stances against staff’s expertise, often outright ignoring their recommendations and their warnings of consequences that could come from council actions.

For instance, the city council waved aside staff’s recommendation on July 25, 2022, for a half-mill property tax rate reduction, instead approving a two-mill cut.

City staff warned that the heftier property tax cut could prevent the city from:

  • paying off $4 million in debt with cash,
  • funding additional capital improvements projects
  • supporting unfunded needs such as hiring more staff and addressing infrastructure and facilities needs
  • and keeping the city’s AAA bond rating if the city’s general fund starts to dwindle.

Though it’s yet to fully play out, another recent instance of disregarding professional staff’s guidance is the ongoing debate over the “parks and pipes” sales tax. City staff have strongly advised against making any changes to the function of the tax.

Deputy City Manager Caitlin Gard later voiced concerns about how it could impact the city’s bond rating, but councilmembers were skeptical if that was true. The sales tax approval was ultimately tabled earlier this month, and further discussions aren’t expected until June.

Councilmember Tony Gillette. File photo.

Sunderman’s slides from the May 2022 executive session flagged two other concerns: that councilmembers’ questioning of staff had grown more accusatory and that some on the city council had started to micromanage day-to-day city business.

“Is there any chance to get Council to get back to being policy makers and not get into the nuts and bolts of city workings?” a city employee wrote anonymously in the virtual town hall.

An instance of this playing out in public occurred on April 11, 2022, when some councilmembers were upset to learn the city staff lit up the Clear Creek Parkway bridge over K-7 Highway in blue and yellow colors to show solidarity to Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion without the city council’s direct approval.

One instance of attempts to micromanage and accuse city staff of deception happened this year as well, in a council committee meeting on March 27 — the same day Doug Gerber took over as the new city manager.

Some councilmembers that day entertained the idea of further restricting the city manager’s spending authority, which is already capped under $50,000. This means the city manager cannot unilaterally approve any purchases above $50,000 without council approval.

“I would like to see it before it’s spent,” Thomas said. “We’re asked to approve something, it’s almost backwards because the money is gone. The activity has already occurred.”

Thomas also implied that solar-powered signs actually cost more than what was reported in the check ledger — she said it came in just under the city manager’s spending limit of $50,000 — and that city staff actually pulled from other funds to circumvent the limit.

“I would like to see something that’s genuine. When I see something that costs this much, I’d like to know if that’s how much it cost,” Thomas said. “Especially the most recent thing with these towers costing a dollar under, I just found almost entertaining.”

Who is leaving?

According to data obtained by the Post through open records requests, 72 city employees resigned between 2020 and 2022. An additional nine have resigned this year as of mid-May, though it’s unclear from which divisions and departments.

All former staff members who talked to the Post declined to speak on the record for fear of impacting their new careers. They collectively agreed that city employees don’t want to stand up before the council and get attacked or berated, as if they’re on trial.

Some notable staff members over the past 18 months have left to work for neighboring cities, in some cases leaving high-ranking positions in Shawnee for lower-level roles and less pay.

They take with them decades of experience in city government, expertise in their specific fields and institutional knowledge about Shawnee.

Don Cawby joined Shawnee in 2019 to serve as the finance director, bringing with him years of experience working in upper-level city management, including his own stint as city manager in Osawatomie in Miami County. He resigned in May, taking a job as the finance director in Leawood.

Doug Gerber is the new city manager in Shawnee. He's pictured in front of Shawnee City Hall on a sunny day in March 2023.
City Manager Doug Gerber. Photo credit Kaylie McLaughlin.

In a recent interview with the Post, newly hired City Manager Doug Gerber acknowledged that departures create difficulties for city operations, such as Cawby’s departure on the eve of the 2024 municipal budget season. In years past, Cawby would have led the city’s budget building process for the next fiscal year, taking the city council’s requests before presenting a draft over several weeks.

“The finance director’s departure during the budget process is challenging,” Gerber said, noting other city finance staff and individuals from other departments have stepped up to fill in the gaps.

Looking ahead, Gerber said he plans to propose a 2024 budget that allows more hires, both to cover vacancies and fill new positions, though he provided no specifics about staffing levels in each department.

“There appears to maybe be some areas where we could use some additional personnel, but I am still trying to decipher what all that means,” he said.

Sunderman, who was promoted from within to serve as Shawnee’s city manager, resigned late last year after four years in the top spot. At the time of his departure, he was listed as Certified Public Manager on the city’s website. He soon after took a job in the city of Olathe as their chief strategy officer at a salary $20,000 below what Shawnee paid him.

Stephen Powell worked for the city of Shawnee for nearly a decade beginning as a municipal court administrator in 2012. He won an award as Shawnee’s city clerk in 2018. By the time he resigned sometime around March 2022, he was the deputy city manager. Now, he’s the city clerk for the city of Leawood.

Stephanie Kisler came to the city of Shawnee in 2019 to serve as deputy community development director. She resigned three years later, taking a job as planning manager in neighboring Lenexa.

Julie Breithaupt served as the city’s communications manager from 2016 until earlier this year. Now, she works in the nonprofit sector.

Councilmember Jill Chalfie. File photo.

Disagreements as to why staff are leaving

Jill Chalfie, Gillette and Jenkins were the only sitting councilmembers who agreed to speak to the Post for this story. Gillette and Jenkins questioned the existence of any division between city council and city staff.

Jenkins, as evidence of his support for city staff, pointed out a move in June 2022 to apply budgeted personnel expenses — unused because of staff vacancies — toward retention bonuses to most of the city’s employees.

Councilmembers debated it just a few weeks after Sunderman alerted the city council to the growing number of staff departures behind closed doors. A staff memo corroborates the closed-session discussion: at least 25 reported vacancies, primarily affecting public safety divisions.

“If we didn’t love them and care for them, do you think we’d do that?” Jenkins said, referring to the bonuses.

But the decision to offer the one-time bonuses proved contentious among councilmembers. Jenkins fought hard for the staff bonuses at the time, citing concerns about vacancies and their impact on city services.

On the other hand, Gillette, Thomas and Mike Kemmling voted against it. Councilmember Jacklynn Walters initially didn’t cast a vote either way, but when pressed by the mayor, voted “yes” for the bonus packages.

In a recent interview with the Post, Gerber also denied the existence of an “underlying conflict between the governing body and staff.” He said “the city council and city staff want what is best for Shawnee.”

Mayor Michelle Distler. File photo.

Some elected officials say there’s a problem

Councilmember Chalfie and the mayor, on the other hand, have been adamant that there is conflict, and it’s causing problems for the city.

“I felt like we really had the cream of the crop,” Distler said. “Now other cities are benefiting from these individuals that pledged their allegiance to Shawnee for decades. And most of our staff, they didn’t just work in Shawnee, they lived here, too. So I think that speaks a lot about how much they loved this community, and so it’s absolutely heartbreaking.”

More recently, Chalfie told the Post she believes “the recent resignations have a lot to do with the relationship between the council and staff” and that the city’s workplace “culture has taken a hit, and staff do not feel valued for the work they are doing.”

Mayor Distler, during the March 27 city council meeting, said she found the council’s behavior toward staff “insulting” in reference to recent council committee meetings, particularly in discussion about parks and pipes as well as traffic improvements.

Councilmember Jenkins hedged some too, not necessarily acknowledging a larger problem, but alluding to potential individual conflicts that might have flared between staff and councilmembers.

Some staff members, he said, might feel like councilmembers don’t like them because they “misspoke” on certain occasions, but he thinks the onus is on staff to resolve those issues by asking for more clarification from councilmembers in the moment.

“If staff’s got a problem with us asking a reasonable question, then that is a problem, they need to grow up a little bit on that,” he said.

Councilmembers Kurt Knappen, Angela Stiens, Walters, Kemmling and Thomas either did not return requests for comment or said they did not wish to speak to the Post on the matter.

A mural in downtown Shawnee. File photo.

What happens now?

Today, more than 300 city of Shawnee employees across different departments, divisions and specialties remain. Some have been hired to fill positions, while others have been promoted from within to fill in gaps or remain in long-held positions.

No current employees returned the Post’s request for comment or agreed to speak to the Post on the record, though members of the council and Shawnee’s current city manager spoke highly of the city staff.

“In Shawnee, people are willing to just step in and do what they need to do,” Gerber said. “Anytime someone departs, there’s potentially a hole, but I think good organizations find a way to fill that hole, and good people do that.”

In her resignation letter, former communications manager Julie Breithaupt commended her fellow employees for being top notch, smart and respectful, “even when they are put in situations where it is not always easy to maintain that level of professionalism.”

“The City is going through some changes and challenges,” Breithaupt wrote. “I truly hope the spirit of staff is able to stay intact because that is exactly what makes this community as awesome as it is.”

Despite staffing challenges throughout the organization, Shawnee boasts accreditations in its public works, police and parks departments. Plus, the Shawnee Fire Department retains an ISO-1 rating — the highest possible commendation — which also improves local homeowners’ insurance rates. Shawnee still has its AAA bond rating, an indicator of fiscal responsibility and good stewardship of tax dollars.

Shortly after Sunderman’s plans to resign became public, Chalfie said she felt the city was at a “tipping point,” warning all of these accomplishments could go away if changes weren’t made.

“We are kidding ourselves,” she said during a city council meeting last October, “to think that all of this is out of our control and out of our hands.”

Kaylie McLaughlin joined the Shawnee Mission Post team in February 2023. She’s a Shawnee native and a fourth generation Johnson County resident. She graduated from Mill Valley and earned a journalism degree from Kansas State University. In her free-time, Kaylie likes trying out local cafes, visiting Farmers’ Markets and spending time with her cat Georgie.

Deputy Editor Leah Wankum joined the Shawnee Mission Post’s editorial team in the summer of 2018 as a reporter. A mid-Missouri native, Leah attended high school in Jefferson City before going on to the University of Central Missouri, where she earned a master’s degree in mass communication. Leah got her start in local news as the editor of the Richmond News in Ray County, Missouri. She has written for several publications, including the Sedalia Democrat and KC Magazine. A lover of dad jokes, road trips and good music, Leah is usually found curled up with a good book and a cuppa Joe or playing fetch with her cats, 50 Cent and Ludacris.

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