1-on-1 meetings at heart of election
About the special election¢ Tonganoxie voters go to the polls Tuesday for a special election that will decide whether City Council members can meet privately on a one-on-one basis. ¢ The ballot question will ask whether voters support a charter ordinance approved by the city. A "yes" vote means voters support the change to allow council members to meet privately; a "no" vote opposes the change. ¢ Voters will cast ballots at one of two polling places in the city: Sacred Heart Catholic Church Parish Center, 1100 West St., for the South Precinct; and Veterans of Foreign Wars Building, 901 E. First St., for the North Precinct. ¢ Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. ¢ For results, go online at tonganoxiemirror.com after polls close.
Next week's special election in Tonganoxie won't be as prolific in turnout and media coverage as the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary.
But the vote Tuesday will have a major impact because it will determine whether City Council members can gather legally outside of a public meeting to discuss city business.
"It doesn't just affect the people in office now; it is going to change the way our city government functions and it affects all future councils," said Velda Roberts. Last fall, she, along with Roger and Phylis Shilling, got the petition signatures to put the issue to a vote after the City Council approved the quorum change by adopting a charter ordinance.
Turnout could play a major roll in the outcome of Tuesday's election.
Linda Scheer, Leavenworth County clerk, said special elections usually have a lower turnout and she doesn't believe this instance will be any different.
"Advance voting is going right now, and we haven't had much interest in it," Scheer said. "There hasn't been much advertisement other than my notices. I'll bet there will be very low voter turnout.
"(But) the city is going to pay the same for an election whether one person or 900 people show up," she said.
Roberts is worried about low voter turnout but said she was more worried that the question on the ballot does not fully get to the heart of the issue, which is about council members meeting outside of public meetings.
The ballot question reads, "Shall Charter Ordinance No. 17 entitled 'A charter exempting the City of Tonganoxie from provisions of K.S.A. 15-106 and providing substitute provisions on the same subject,' take effect?"
An explanatory note on the bottom of the ballot reads, "A 'YES' vote on the question will change the quorum size for city council meetings from three (3) to four (4)."
Kathy Bard, assistant city administrator, wrote the explanatory note. She said her hands were tied when it came to further explaining what the ballot meant because the city had to maintain its neutrality.
"We can't have any statement that may push a person to vote one way or another; that's why it's so vague," Bard said.
One of her earlier explanatory statements included wording that talked about how a 'yes' vote would mean two council members could meet without violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but she was advised by Mike Kelly, the city attorney, that the statement didn't seem neutral.
While Scheer and the other county officials prepare the paperwork and equipment for the election, Roberts and Council member Tom Putthoff, who pushed for the charter ordinance, have been trying to get people out to vote and explain to them their differing views on the issue.
Whenever somebody calls him or when he meets people on the street, Putthoff tells residents what he was trying to accomplish and how the ordinance will help increase communication between council members.
"Anytime we can have open meeting and work sessions is great, but I feel that there are times that I would like to pick up the phone and call a council person and get their thoughts on something," Putthoff said.
He doesn't believe private meetings will lead to collusion between council members.
"That's an integrity and character issue," Putthoff said about possible abuse by council members. "We are morally bound to do what is right. It's an integrity and character trait. It doesn't matter what ordinance we have. If somebody wanted to do something illegal, they are going to do it."
Roberts isn't convinced.
As a former council member, Roberts said there are many ways council members can get more information before making decisions, such as work session before council meetings, without having to pass an ordinance bypassing the state's Constitution.
"If that is such a bad thing and so difficult for council member to work with, then let's change the constitutional provision; then it would affect all cities," Roberts said. "If 99 percent of cities our size are able to work under that, then our city should be able to also."
The two polling sites in town, Sacred Heart Catholic Church and the VFW, will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The last day to mail in advanced ballots is Friday. Advanced ballots will be received by the Leavenworth County Clerk's office until noon Monday. Call the clerk's office, (913) 684-0421, for more information on obtaining an advanced ballot.