© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Prairie Village council dismisses ethics complaints against mayor and 5 council members

The Prairie Village City Council on Nov. 20 during public participation.
Juliana Garcia
Shawnee Mission Post
The Prairie Village City Council on Nov. 20 during public participation.

The complaints were filed nearly two months ago by resident Mike Sullinger, who has been a frequent critic of the council amid the ongoing debate over affordable housing and zoning changes. Sullinger claimed that the mayor and half the council had conflicts of interest, but members unanimously voted to dismiss the complaints.

Members of the Prairie Village City Council on Monday unanimously dismissed a series of ethics complaints filed against the mayor and five councilmembers.

The complaints were filed nearly two months ago by resident Mike Sullinger, who has been a frequent critic of the council both in person and on social media as the debate about the city’s controversial housing policy raged in the lead up to this fall’s city council elections.

At the same time, the council on Monday decided to table a separate discussion about updating the city’s code of ethics, which hasn’t been revised since 2008.

Councilmembers said they had heard from multiple residents who thought it would be more proper for four newly elected councilmembers to be seated before the body took up changes to the code of ethics, including a provision that would make it easier to dismiss “frivolous” complaints in the future.

City attorney recommended that council dismiss complaints

In his complaint, Sullinger contended that the mayor and five of the governing body’s 10 councilmembers had various conflicts of interest when it came to housing either because of their connections to United Community Services of Johnson County, a nonprofit that has a focus on attainable housing, or due to opinions they expressed about housing and other matters online.

But, as city attorney David Waters told the council Monday, none of the issues Sullinger honed in on in the eight-page memorandum filed with the city on Sept. 20, represented clear violations of the city’s current ethics policy.

“Many [of Sullinger’s] complaints 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 under the code of ethics,” Waters said in his explanation of his recommendation that the complaints be dismissed.

More than 30 Prairie Village residents told the city council they oppose ad hoc housing recommendations, which aim to diversify the city’s housing stock.
Juliana Garcia
Shawnee Mission Post
A group of Prairie Village residents have organized in response to the city's ad hoc housing recommendations, which aim to diversify the housing stock.

In six separate motions Monday night, the council committee of the whole dismissed each of Sullinger’s complaints, which were lodged against Mikkelson, as well as Councilmembers Ian Graves, Bonnie Limbird, Ron Nelson, Cole Robinson and Inga Selders.

Each individual governing body member was allowed to recuse themselves from the vote pertaining to the allegations brought against them.

Each of the councilmembers named in Sullinger’s complaint spoke Monday night, some in personal terms.

Councilmembers Cole Robinson and Inga Selders shared how upsetting Sullinger’s actions over the past year had been for them personally.

Robinson said he has made a concerted effort to avoid any sort of altercation with Sullinger because their children go to the same school.

He said he had tried to keep a measure respect for Sullinger since their lives overlap daily, but he thinks the complaint itself was disrespectful.

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

Selders said that because of the comments Sullinger has made on her social media pages and various “I’m watching you”-type hand gestures he has made towards her during city council meetings, she feels physically threatened by him.

Graves said the complaint against him is about an opinion he expressed online that Sullinger disliked and is not an ethics violation.

Limbird, who lost her bid for reelection on Nov. 7, said this complaint “was a shotgun approach … to hit something, and it failed.”

“It’s been a complete waste of city time and resources, which I’m sure people will bring back about how much money was spent on this, and you can thank yourself,” Limbird said toward Sullinger.

During the discussion prior to the unanimous vote to throw out the complaint against Mikkelson, Councilmember Ron Nelson noted that UCS of Johnson County is geared toward the well-being and best interest of the county.

“There are some people who apparently don’t care about the best interest of the populace of Johnson County, or much of anybody else other than themselves,” Nelson said. “But that’s not a matter of ethics, that is a matter of a narrow political focus. It’s not an ethical violation.”

No code of ethics policy changes made yet

Though present Monday night, Sullinger himself did not speak during the city council meeting, either during the discussion about the complaint or during the meeting’s regularly scheduled public comment period.

Sullinger told the Post following the meeting that the city should have given him the opportunity to respond and said he had intended to speak during the public comment period but didn’t because the code of ethics discussion had been tabled.

He did not put his name on the sign-up sheet to give comments during the regularly scheduled public comment time earlier in the meeting Monday, nor did he raise his hand when Mikkelson asked at that time if there were any additional public commenters wanting to speak.

Sullinger’s ethics complaints raised specific allegations of conflict of interest against Mikkelson for his role as a United Community Services of Johnson County board member.

That was a similar allegation at the heart of seven separatee recall attempts made against Mikkleson earlier this year — all of which Sullinger was a part of — that were each dismissed by the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office.

Mirroring the Johnson County DA’s decision in the recall petitions, Waters said in order for a conflict of interest allegation to be substantiated, there needs to be proof of “financial or personal interest” gained from that conflict.

According to a memo Waters wrote about Sullinger’s complaint, there is no evidence Mikkelson has benefited financially or personally from his involvement with UCS of Johnson County in a way that would violate the city’s code of ethics.

Originally, the city council in addition to discussion Sullinger’s complaints was set to hold a separate discussion about proposed changes to the city’s code of ethics policy, which has sat untouched since 2008.

But at the beginning of Monday’s meeting, the city council unanimously agreed to table that discussion to a future date, presumably until after the newly elected councilmembers are seated at the Dec. 4 meeting.

Among the proposed changes to the code of ethics policy are a more detailed definition of possible conflicts of interests for elected city officials, as well as a clearer outlining of how complaints can be submitted in the first place.

So far, Prairie Village has spent nearly $17,000 so far in 2023 in reviewing Sullinger’s recall attempts against Mikkelson, his ethics complaint and work on a new ethics ordinance combined, City Administrator Wes Jordan told the Post via email.

This amount is excluding the legal work completed during the month of November, which Jordan said will be invoiced in the next couple of weeks.

This story was originally published by the Shawnee Mission Post.

Juliana Garcia is a reporter with the Shawnee Mission Post.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.