Judge hears arguments over Prairie Village petitions as election deadline looms

Share this story:

A Johnson County judge appears poised to rule quickly on the legality of three citizen-led petitions in Prairie Village, saying during a hearing Wednesday that a ruling could come as soon as next week.

The closely-watched petitions call for significant changes to city government as well as defining “rezoning” in a way that aims to limit development in single-family neighborhoods.

During the hearing Wednesday, Judge Rhonda Mason of Division 4 at the Johnson County District Court in Olathe heard oral arguments from both the city of Prairie Village and PV United, the nonprofit group advocating for the petitions, on whether the petitions can be lawfully placed on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Mason made no decision Wednesday, only hearing arguments on the two government-related petitions. The sides agreed to reconvene Thursday, Aug. 31, to hear more arguments on the third petition regarding rezoning.

What the petitions would do?

All three petitions at the heart of this court case were circulated this summer by PV United, a nonprofit also regularly referred to as Stop Rezoning PV.

A “rezoning” petition would ask voters whether to prohibit Prairie Village from changing the city’s zoning guidelines to allow accessory dwelling units — sometimes referred to as “granny flats” — and other multi-family developments in single-family neighborhoods, which make up the vast majority of Prairie Village.

An “abandonment of the mayor-council form of government” petition would ask voters to remove the city’s current form of government, which is an attempt to limit mayoral authority and rid Prairie Village of what Stop Rezoning PV calls a “strong mayor” form of government.

An “adoption of a mayor-council-manager” form of government petition would ask voters to green light a different government structure in Prairie Village and, notably, have the effect of removing six sitting councilmembers in the middle of their terms.

Earlier this month, the county election office certified the petitions’ signatures, but explicitly stopped short of ruling on the legality of the petitions themselves, leaving that up to the city.

Prairie Village then filed its lawsuit last week, seeking a judge’s ruling that the petitions were “legally insufficient” to be put on the ballot.

Read here about what the petitions say.

The city argued the governance petitions violate state law

Joe Hatley, a partner at Spencer Fane LLP, the law firm representing the city, argued in court Wednesday that the two government-related petitions violate state law due to issues both with the form of their questions and their substance.

Hatley pointed to a letter written by Johnson County’s legal team on May 1 that pointed out a number of flaws in the petitions’ format and language, including the potentially contradictory results that could come if voters approve one or the other.

For example, if voters approve only the “abandon” petition and not the “adoption” petition, then the city will be left without a form of government, Hatley argued.

If voters approved only the “adoption” petition and not the “abandon” petition, then the city will have two forms of government.

Hatley also argued Wednesday that the “adoption” petition seeking to install a new form of government violates state law by attempting to cut short the terms of six sitting councilmembers, who were all elected to their current terms two years ago.

Voters cannot be asked to approve something if it violates state law, he added.

“It simply has holes galore, your honor,” Hatley said.

PV United attorney argued petitions are legal

Rex Sharp, the attorney representing PV United who is also a defendant named in the city’s lawsuit, argued that the government-related petitions show substantial compliance with state law.

In response to Hatley’s points about the form of question, Sharp referenced a 2022 appeal case: the city of Wichita v. Karl PeterJohn and Celeste Racette.

That case, Sharp said, found that courts need to show “extreme caution” when shutting down citizen-led petitions due to technicalities.

Sharp also argued that the “abandon” and “adoption” petitions are legal, and that the real issue is they contain slight discrepancies that the city “doesn’t like.”

“Prairie Village is trying to use this court to avoid the election,” Sharp said. “I’m here to ask the court to let the people vote.”

Rex Sharp is the husband of Lori Sharp, who is running for city council in Ward 3 seat, challenging Councilmember Bonnie Limbird this November.

A ruling must come soon for the Nov. 7 ballot

The deadline to get petitions on the ballot is Sept. 1.

However, the Johnson County Election Office says it will allow an extension into next week to let the matter be resolved in court.

Mason said the court would take the arguments of both PV United and the city of Prairie Village under advisement and work as quickly as possible toward a decision.

The judge said it’s her understanding that the county election office needs a decision by Sept. 5 or 6, next Tuesday or Wednesday.

She asked all parties to be on standby for a decision to be made between now and then.

Johnson County Election Commissioner Fred Sherman confirmed to the Post on Wednesday that the Sept. 1 deadline is not codified in state law, but anything submitted past next week for the November ballot would be pushing it.

What happens next?

The hearing for the rezoning petition is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 31.

City Administrator Wes Jordan told the Post it is unclear whether the city is legally obligated to put the petitions on the Nov. 7 ballot if any are deemed legally valid.

Go deeper: Prairie Village takes legal action to keep petitions off ballot

About the author

Juliana Garcia
Juliana Garcia

👋 Hi! I’m Juliana Garcia, and I cover Prairie Village and northeast Johnson County for the Johnson County Post.

I grew up in Roeland Park and graduated from Shawnee Mission North before going on to the University of Kansas, where I wrote for the University Daily Kansan and earned my bachelor’s degree in  journalism. Prior to joining the Post in 2019, I worked as an intern at the Kansas City Business Journal.