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Barrage of ethics complaints against Johnson County council thrown out. Here’s why

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The Prairie Village City Council on Monday dismissed ethics allegations a resident made against the mayor and nearly half of the council, saying they lacked merit and were the result of a personal grudge.

Prairie Village resident Mike Sullinger, a man behind a failed effort to recall the mayor, submitted the complaints in September. He accused Mayor Eric Mikkelson and five council members of violating the city’s ethics code by pushing personal political agendas for their own gain. He asked that the officials be censured or face other disciplinary action.

After reviewing the complaints, City Attorney David Waters on Monday advised that they be rejected, deciding the allegations did not amount to any violation of the ethics code, and instead “appear to be based on more personal, political or policy disagreements.”

“And we do not believe those are the types of disagreements that by themselves can generally support a violation of the code of ethics,” Waters told the council.

The 12-member City Council voted without opposition to dismiss all of the complaints. The council also tabled a discussion on amending the city’s ethics code, which hasn’t been updated since 2008.

Sullinger had accused some of the officials of having conflicts of interest for their outside work or volunteer positions. Many of his other allegations regard council members’ social media posts on their personal or campaign pages that either discuss politics or criticize an effort this past year to restructure the city government and eject council members from their seats mid-term.

Waters said many of the complaints mirror those raised in Sullinger’s unsuccessful attempts to recall Mikkelson. This past year, along with two members of the Northeast Johnson County Conservatives, Sullinger has filed at least six petitions in an effort to recall the mayor.

Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe determined Sullinger’s petitions do not meet the legal standard to recall an elected official. But Sullinger, who describes himself as an independent not associated with the conservative group, previously said he plans to appeal that decision.

Sullinger previously told The Star he filed the ethics complaints after two council members blocked him on social media. The council members say they did so because he had posted harassing comments on their campaign pages on Facebook.

Councilwoman Inga Selders said during Monday’s council meeting that she personally feels threatened by Sullinger, who several members said they’ve had run-ins with.

“Things that you’ve posted on my social media, issues coming in here, gestures that you’ve made to me: I feel physically threatened by you,” Selders said. “I’ve told our police officers I’m scared you could actually do physical harm to me. I come to the meetings and I literally kiss my children goodbye.”

Councilman Ron Nelson said Sullinger’s complaints are “merely a personal and political vendetta.”

Complaints come amid housing battle

Tensions have grown between Sullinger and the city since the council began discussing whether to adjust zoning laws to allow for more affordable housing options, which Sullinger opposes.

Sullinger told The Star he only wants to hold city officials accountable.

“Most people in Prairie Village don’t object to having more affordable housing. But they’re just going about it the wrong way,” Sullinger said in a previous interview. “They’ve completely lost the trust that used to reside between City Hall and the residents.”

The housing debate, which morphed into a protracted political battle, divided the northeast Johnson County city ahead of the Nov. 7 election, where four newcomers backed by residents who oppose changing zoning laws won seats on the council. Two incumbents lost their seats, while incumbents Selders and Ian Graves won reelection.

Much like his recall petition, Sullinger accused Mikkelson of having a conflict of interest because he sits on the board of United Community Services of Johnson County, which promotes solutions to homelessness and the affordable housing shortage.

It’s common for elected officials to serve on the boards of nonprofits while also holding office. Mikkelson has previously recused himself when the council has discussed funding for the nonprofit. And Waters said there is no evidence the mayor is gaining any financial or personal benefit by serving on the board.

“This whole thing has gone so far beyond the pale. This loophole essentially around how easy it is to file ethics complaints is being exploited,” said Councilman Cole Robinson. Sullinger accused him of a conflict because he is the executive director of the Johnson County Democratic Party.

The city found no violation of state law or city code due to Robinson’s employment, and argued there is no conflict of interest since the Democratic Party has no contract or business before the council.

“If you feel like my judgment is impaired, I would appreciate it, first of all, if you can contact me,” Robinson said. “Second of all, you can cite some decisions I’ve made in the past two years where you feel like my judgment is impaired. But you didn’t.”

Officials argued that Sullinger’s complaints misinterpreted or misunderstood state law and city policy.

In once case, Sullinger accused the mayor and three council members of violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which requires that when a majority of a governing body discusses relevant matters, it be done in public.

“Of course, that’s only four people. That is not a quorum or majority under the Kansas Open Meetings Act,” Waters said. “So just on it’s face, that is not a violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.”

Sullinger also argued council members violated city code, which requires them to be independent and impartial, and “that public office not be used for personal gain,” while citing several social media posts.

In one post, Graves wrote on his campaign page that a “radical group has decided that the residents here enjoy too much representation and are attempting to halve the size of the council via a confusing petition initiative. The best way to push back is at the ballot box.”

Graves previously said that section of the ethics code, “is intended to prevent self-dealing, where someone would be advocating for an outcome where they would be making money. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m making my position clear on a political group.”