In a letter to the editor received by the Cherokee County News-Advocate Tuesday, Baxter Springs Mayor Jenifer Bingham takes aim directly at several Baxter Springs City Council members with whom she has had a fractious relationship.
In the letter Bingham accuses Councilmen Don Underwood, Robert St. Clair and Councilwoman Lori Wren of multiple violations of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
“The said council (members have) repeatedly been in violation of KOMA (Kansas Open Meetings Act) holding illegal, private meetings, congregating before/after council meetings in violation of quorum regulations and has been reminded/reprimanded on numerous occasions resulting in the city attorney being forced to submitting information to the Cherokee County Attorney’s office for investigation,” Bingham said in the letter.
The CCNA has been able to confirm information on alleged KOMA violations has been forwarded to Cherokee County Attorney John Bullard.
The CCNA contacted Bullard for comment who said he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
According to Kansas Press Assocation Attorney Mike Merriam the process for KOMA violations is fairly simple.
He said any citizen can make a complaint of KOMA violations to the county prosecutor who then is required by law to investigate. If the prosecutor, in this case Bullard, determines there has been a KOMA violation there are several possible outcomes.
“It’s theoretically possible for there to be a civil penalty of up to $500 each which they would personally have to pay,” Merriam said. “In my 35 years of doing this I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone fined.
“What typically happens is if the prosecutor finds there is a violation, he counsels with the agency and they agree to get training ... and it ends there.
“Most times these investigations come up dry.”
Bingham also accused the three council members of deliberately trying to shelter certain appointed city employees whom she did not name.
“I feel it to be of grave importance that the community be aware as to the fact that certain members of council are trying to protect certain individuals whom are currently in appointed positions in the city,” Bingham wrote. “Council members St. Clair, Underwood and Wren have been very vocal in voicing their thoughts regarding their desire to strip the mayor of the most important rights the office holds. They have requested that the mayor’s appointment powers be revoked, the mayor’s veto powers be revoked, and the title of “Superintendent” be removed from the mayor’s title and job duty descriptions as issued by the state.”
The CCNA contacted St. Clair and Wren for comment.
St. Clair denied there had been any KOMA violations.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about,” he said.
St. Clair did say there had been discussion of removing many of the Mayor’s powers.
“It was brought up to the council,” he said, but refused to comment on why.
St. Clair insisted he is simply interested in doing the best he can for the city.
“I have the best interests of the city involved,” he said. “We need to move on and do a lot of work that hasn’t been getting done this year.”
Wren likewise denied the violations.
“This is the first I’ve heard about it,” she said. “We talk at council meetings but that’s what they’re for.
“I have not met them anywhere but there.
Attempts to reach Underwood for comment were unsuccesful.
Bingham insisted in a telephone interview Tuesday, her reason for writing the letter was to “make the people aware of what these people are trying to get away with.
“I’m tired of certain people thinking they own Baxter Springs and own city hall,” she said. “The people own Baxter Springs.
“People within the system ... have no regard for the people of Baxter Springs. The people have to be made aware of this.”
Bingham insisted she does not believe the problem is the entire council.
“We have some great people in the council and some great employees,” she said. “This is not uniform, it’s a handfull.
“There’s a lot of double standard going on and I’m tired of it.”
(Editors Note: The full text of Bingham’s letter is available here.)