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After housing backlash, Prairie Village will vote on petition to adopt a new form of government

A black yard sign with a red stop sign in the center reads, "Stop PV Rezoning." In the background is a curved road and a neat row of houses.
Josh Merchant
The Beacon
Signs in support of PV United line some streets in Prairie Village. The group formed in response to City Council recommendations to explore zoning changes in single-family neighborhoods

Fueled by outrage over efforts to expand affordable housing in Prairie Village, the activist group PV United gathered signatures for three petitions to ditch the city’s current mayor-council form of government and limit construction of multi-family housing. A judge rejected two of those petitions Wednesday afternoon — only to appear to reverse that decision later in the day.

Updated: September 6, 2023 at 10:32 PM CDT
This story was updated after Johnson County District Court Judge Rhonda Mason issued a written decision that contradicted the decision she announced in court Wednesday morning.

A Johnson County judge says two of three resident-led petitions in Prairie Village cannot go on November’s ballot but ruled a third petition did meet legal muster to appear before voters.

However, hours afterJudge Rhonda Mason declared her ruling, she appears to have reversed course on two of them.

That led to confusion Wednesday afternoon among both city officials and petition supporters and threw fresh uncertainty on top of an already simmering political issue in the Johnson County suburb.

As it stood Wednesday night, the judge’s latest order says a petition seeking to adopt a new form of city government is valid to be put on the ballot, while a rezoning petition and another petition seeking to abandon the city’s current form of government do not meet muster to go before voters.

The decision came after Mason heard oral arguments for the three separate petitions over two days last week.

What happened?

Johnson County District Court Judge Rhonda Mason heard arguments last week about the three petitions: one that seeks to define “rezoning” in order to limit multi-family developments in most of the city, and two other petitions that aim to make major changes to city governance.

In an oral summary of her ruling in court Wednesday morning, Mason validated the governance petition that seeks to “abandon” the city’s current mayor-council form of government, and tossed out both the “rezoning” petition and the governance petition that seeks “adoption” of a new form of city government.

But later Wednesday afternoon, Judge Mason’s written ruling was published to the online court docket, amending her previous oral ruling and reversing course on the two governance petitions.

According to Mason’s written ruling, the “adoption” petition is now legally valid to appear on a ballot before Prairie Village voters. In turn, she determined the “abandon” petition does not meet legal requirements.

The “rezoning” petition remained ineligible to be put on the ballot, according to Mason’s written ruling, same as in her oral ruling.

The city says attorneys are scheduled for a call with Mason on Thursday morning to clarify the situation.

What does the “adoption” petition want?

The “adoption” petition seeks to replace the city’s current “mayor-council” form of government with a “mayor-council-manager” form of government.

The petition includes language that would cut the city council in half from 12 councilmembers down to six, effectively ending the terms of six current councilmembers two years early.

Under the language of the petitions, the six councilmembers elected in the upcoming November election would be the only ones to serve on the new city council.

In her written ruling published after 4 p.m. Wednesday, Judge Mason wrote, “After further review, the Court amends its oral order and finds that the Adoption Petition substantially complies with relevant law in both procedure and substance.”

She added: “The Adoption Petition can be submitted to a vote before the electors of Prairie Village, Kansas.”

What about the “abandon” petition?

This was the petition Mason initially cleared for the ballot in her oral ruling from the bench Wednesday morning.

But as she did with the “adoption” petition, Mason reversed her earlier order on the separate “abandon” petition to say it did “not substantially comply with relevant law” and that it was “legally insufficient” to appear on the ballot.

The “abandon” petition aims to do away with the city’s current mayor-council form of government. The petition’s organizers — PV United, also called Stop Rezoning Prairie Village — have called the current form of government a “strong mayor” form and indicated an interest in paring back mayoral power.

Judge’s comments in court led to confusion

During the oral ruling Wednesday morning, Judge Mason did briefly appear to mix up the “abandon” and “adoption” petitions when speaking.

Attorney Joe Hatley of Spencer Fane LLP, representing the city, asked for clarification during Mason’s oral ruling, after Mason initially said the “abandon” petition was insufficient and discussed the lack of term limits outlined for all offices, though the “abandon” petition does not contain language about term limits.

Hatley asked Mason if instead she meant the “adoption” petition, which does include language about term limits.

Mason responded that she was talking about the “adoption” petition being insufficient, and that the “abandon” petition complied with state law.

That was later reversed in Mason’s written ruling.

Responses from the city and PV United

Late Wednesday afternoon, the city issued the following two-sentence statement:

“Judge Mason’s written ruling contradicts the oral ruling given this morning. The judge will meet with attorneys tomorrow morning and more information will be posted at that time.”

The Post reached out to PV United spokesperson Dan Schoepf, who said he has “nothing to share at this point due to the confusion.”

Response from city officials

Attorney Joe Hatley of Spencer Fane LLP, representing the city, told the Post following Wednesday morning’s proceeding that he does not believe the city council needs to take further action to place the “abandon” petition as written on the general election ballot.

However, late Wednesday afternoon following the publication of the written decision, the city issued the following two-sentence statement:

“Judge Mason’s written ruling contradicts the oral ruling given this morning. The judge will meet with attorneys tomorrow morning and more information will be posted at that time.”

PV United says it will appeal

In an emailed statement early Wednesday afternoon, PV United spokesperson Dan Schoepf said:

“Our state has a citizen petition process so everyday people can make their voices heard when government refuses to listen. It is terribly disappointing to see the City Council throw up technical roadblocks in court to thwart these petitions and silence the thousands of citizens who have participated in the process at the grassroots level.

“We remain PV United and will appeal today’s decision in the hopes of giving the people of Prairie Village the vote they deserve on these important issues.

“Regardless of the outcome of the two remaining petitions, voters will at least have the chance to elect six City Council members in November who share their vision for preserving what makes Prairie Village unique.” 

Following the change of decision, The Post reached out to Schoepf again, who said he has “nothing to share at this point due to the confusion.”

How we got here

Stop Rezoning Prairie Village, a group of residents opposed to the city’s housing recommendations, circulated all three petitions — the “rezoning,” “abandon” and “adoption” petitions — for signatures earlier this summer.

Prairie Village’s housing recommendations aimed to address the city’s lack of attainable, “missing middle” housing stock.

The group submitted the petitions and the signatures they had gathered to the Johnson County Election Office and to the city of Prairie Village on Aug. 1.

Ultimately,the county election office certified thousands of signatures for each petition but stopped short of ruling on the legality of the petitions themselves, leaving it up to the city to put the measures on the ballot or not.

That’s when Prairie Village — after a special city council meeting — filed its lawsuit on Aug. 17 seeking a declaratory judgment from a judge to keep the petitions off the ballot.

Judge Mason heard two days of testimony on the petitions last week, one day focused mainly on the two government-related petitions and a second day centered primarily around the rezoning petition.

County election officials have said items for the Nov. 7 ballot need to be finalized soon without giving an exact date for a deadline.

After last week’s hearings, Mason said she planned to rule quickly.

This story was originally published on the Shawnee Mission Post.

Juliana Garcia is a reporter with the Shawnee Mission Post.
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