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Johnson County group fought to get contentious issue on ballot. Too late, official says

When Prairie Village considered changing zoning laws to allow for more affordable housing, neighbors formed an opposition group, which circulated petitions to remake the City Council and limit the mayor’s powers.

A contentious battle over whether Prairie Village residents will vote this fall on restructuring the city government reached a screeching halt Friday afternoon.

As the city and a group of homeowners awaited clarification on a judge’s ruling over proposed ballot initiatives, the Johnson County election office said the fight is essentially over for now. Election Commissioner Fred Sherman said the deadline has passed for his office to have time to place new questions on the Nov. 7 ballot.

But the group of homeowners behind the initiatives, PV United, hasn’t given up. In a letter to the election office shared with The Star, the group urged Sherman to place the issue on the ballot.

It’s been a confusing week in Johnson County, as Prairie Village has waited for answers on whether residents in November will vote on limiting the mayor’s powers and cutting the city council in half. PV United, which formed to oppose the city’s affordable housing initiatives, submitted three ballot initiatives last month to make sweeping changes to how the city is run.

On Wednesday, Johnson County District Court Judge Rhonda Mason issued an oral ruling throwing out two of those petitions. One would have restricted rezoning, while the other would have adopted a new form of government with weaker mayoral powers and only six council members, as opposed to the current 12. Half of the council would have been ejected midterm, which some called unconstitutional.

But the judge ruled that one petition, which would abandon the city’s mayor-council form of government, met the legal requirements to be placed on the ballot. City Attorney David Waters said if that proposal were to pass, nothing would change: State law requires a city’s form of government to remain in place until a new one is adopted.

Residents, the city said, would need to bring forward another petition for the next election to actually restructure the city government. PV United said it planned to appeal the judge’s decision.

But then there was a twist. Later on Wednesday, the judge submitted a written ruling amending her oral order. Going against what she had said in court that morning, the judge wrote that the abandonment petition was not valid. Instead, she said the petition that would adopt a new form of government and halve the council could be placed on the ballot.

Confusion over the contradictory rulings led the city and PV United to file a deluge of motions in court. The city asked the judge to reverse the written ruling and instead find that the adoption petition was not legal. PV United, though, argued that the written order should remain in place, allowing residents to vote on changing the form of government.

The city also filed a motion asking the court to certify the judge’s written decision so it can appeal. And it requested a stay on the order pending a decision from the court of appeals.

The judge held a hearing over Zoom on Thursday with both parties, where they made their case. Mason said she would take the arguments under advisement and issue a more detailed, final ruling in the coming days.

Attorneys blamed the expedited process for the confusion. Under state law, the judge said she had 20 days to issue a ruling. And she said the election office gave her a deadline on Wednesday to have time to place any initiative on the ballot.

Before the issue made its way to court, Sherman told The Star that his office needed ballot language by Sept. 1.

With the ruling still up in the air, the election office said it’s now too late.

“We are one week past our stated ballot deadline, and, due to logistics required to prepare ballots and the need to meet legally mandated deadlines, the Election Office is now past the point at which it can accept additional items for the November ballot,” Sherman said in a statement.

“These timelines exist to ensure we are able to conduct elections with the necessary diligence. The Election Office must have time for proofing ballots, programming and conducting logic and accuracy testing on voting machines, printing advance mail ballots and meeting requirements for providing overseas military ballots, as well as other legal and logistical considerations.”

Sherman said that, “additional ballot questions may be placed on the ballot for future elections, depending on the relevant law.”

Attorney Rex Sharp, representing PV United, argued in a letter to the election office on Friday that the judge’s written ruling still stands.

“By statute, the Court had 20 days to rule on the issues before it, and did so. That written Judgment still stands, and is the last ruling of the Court,” Sharp wrote. “I realize that the City filed a flurry of motions to have that judgment reconsidered, but that is outside the 20 day statutory window, and the Court has not even indicated that her judgment was or should be different. Thus, the Adopt Petition should be placed on the November 7 ballot, and we would urge you to do so promptly.”

City Administrator Wes Jordan said Friday evening in an email to The Star that, “It is apparent that from Mr. Sherman’s statements that any petition decision by Judge Mason would not be considered for placement on the ballot this November.”

Regardless, the court’s decision will offer clarity on whether homeowners stand a chance at placing such an initiative on the ballot in the future.

During Thursday’s hearing, Joseph Hatley, attorney representing the city, took a jab at PV United for submitting the petitions so late, when many signatures were gathered by June. Hatley in court documents called it “a crisis of defendants’ making.”

“This fact should weigh heavily on the Court’s decision. … The timing crunch the Court is facing was avoidable, and is one of Defendants’ own strategic creation. Neither the Court nor the City should be responsible for the problem Defendants created,” Hatley wrote.

Sharp, who is the husband of council candidate Lori Sharp, responded on Thursday that the group had not collected enough signatures on the rezoning petition, which is why they submitted all three in early August.

PV United, made up of residents, former council members and candidates, organized over the past year to oppose the city’s efforts to amend zoning laws to allow for more duplexes, apartments and other affordable housing options. Another faction of residents, Prairie Village for All, formed to support the city’s plans and push for more affordable housing in the city where average home prices topped $536,000 last year.

But the opposition group has now turned its sights on removing council members and limiting the mayor’s powers.

Even though the initiatives will not be on the November ballot, Prairie Village residents will still vote to elect six council members. And PV United has been promoting candidates that oppose the city’s affordable housing efforts, arguing that Prairie Village is too dense to allow more apartments or other multi-family housing.