What started out as a quiet, 15-minute Marion City Council meeting turned into a longer shouting match Monday night, so heated that one of a dozen spectators not involved in the discussion interjected, “Stop acting like children!”
Tempers flared after resident Ryan Newell, speaking during a public comment section at the end of the meeting, accused Mayor David Mayfield and council members Zach Collett and Kevin Burkholder of violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act by discussing city business during an election results “watch” party Nov. 7.
Typically, candidates welcome news media coverage of victory celebrations. However, mayor-elect Mike Powers, who organized the party, attended by a majority of council members, ejected a Record reporter, yelling: “Why are you here? You have no right to be here!”
In an interview afterward with the Kansas City Star, Powers denied that he had yelled. He also characterized the party’s setting, Marion Country Club, as being more like a one-room school than an elitist venue.
He said only that he had invited “friends” to watch election results. He did not indicate why he had chosen to invite Mayfield, whom he spent considerable words distancing himself from during a just-ended election campaign.
Texts not turned over
Monday night’s exchange began with Newell criticizing the city for its refusal, in apparent violation of state law, to turn over emails and texts about city business sent to and from city employees’ private accounts.
“Are you going to start sharing your private emails now that it was ‘rules for thee but not for me’ when you were hounding on (vice mayor) Ruth Herbel about using her private email?” Newell asked city administrator Brogan Jones.
Mayfield interceded: “I’m never answering any of your questions.”
His voice raised, Newell shot back: “Oh, guess what. We got your answer right then and there. I guess we’re going to have to include this in the lawsuit under KOMA for the illegal meeting outside of the city limits that you hosted along with the mayor-elect, Mr. Powers.
“Mr. Collett, I know you were there. Mr. Burkholder, I know you were there…. It was an illegal meeting because there was business being discussed. The city election is city business. And guess what: You had a quorum. And you kicked out the media from the quorum.
“I’ve already contacted the attorney general…. That is an open meeting. I don’t care if it was private property or not and a private party. You had a quorum — illegal in the State of Kansas under the KOMA.”
In addition to raising concerns under the Kansas Open Meetings Act, Newell pressed Jones under the Kansas Open Records Act about whether emails and texts from city employees’ private accounts had been turned over to the city’s insurance company lawyer, Jennifer Hill.
Hill is redacting documents requested by citizens and the media related to Aug. 11 police raids on the office of the Marion County Record and the homes of Herbel and the newspaper’s owners.
“Jennifer Hill is the person who decides what emails are released,” Mayfield said.
But Newell countered that Hill had told him some records were not available because Jones, the official custodian of records, had not provided them to her.
“Are we just going to have to get a subpoena?” Newell asked.
Mayfield responded: “File with the attorney general’s office…. If you receive the information, we’ll be glad to give it to you.”
“Awesome,” Newell responded. “OK, can I have your emails, sir?”
“No, you’re not getting nothing from me,” Mayfield shot back.
“You’re not going to give a f***ing—” Newell started to say before attempting to rephrase, without a swear word.
“You watch your mouth,” Mayfield interrupted, “or you’ll be removed from this meeting. We have ladies in here, and they don’t need to hear that kind of stuff from you. You need to stop! You stop. You watch your language.”
“Next time you say something,” Mayfield continued, motioning to interim police chief Zach Hudlin, “I want you to remove him from this meeting. You understand?”
“I said one bad word,” Newell responded. “Way worse is what you’ve done.”
Open meetings violation
As tempers calmed a bit, Herbel noted that the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government had determined that the country club party violated KOMA.
“Absolutely,” Newell said, “and so has the League of Municipalities.”
Mayfield was incredulous that he was being accused of participating in an illegal meeting.
“I didn’t hold anything,” he said. “What are you talking about? I didn’t hold a meeting about anything. I didn’t call a meeting to order. I didn’t call anything.”
Newell responded: “You don’t have to. Under the KOMA law, as soon as one part of city business is discussed, that triggers the KOMA.”
Mayfield objected: “You know everything that was said in that meeting, correct?”
Newell said that as long as city business such as election results was being discussed and a quorum was present, the event was an illegal meeting.
“You know what?” Mayfield responded. “File your complaint. We’re done. File your complaint.”
Why texts are being sought
Newell is the estranged spouse of restaurant owner Kari Newell. Police raids Aug. 11 focused on a document that her former friend, Pam Maag, had sent to the newspaper and to Herbel. The document revealed that Kari Newell had been driving illegally for a dozen years.
Herbel notified Jones of the document, and the newspaper separately notified Police Chief Gideon Cody and Sheriff Jeff Soyez.
For reasons still unclear, Cody regarded as a lie the newspaper’s statement that it had received the document from a source and later verified its authenticity through legal means.
Cody assigned Hudlin to ask state officials who had accessed the document. According to released documents, Hudlin was unable to reach officials in charge and instead contacted a technical support person. The support person reported that a newspaper reporter had viewed the document, albeit two days after Maag already had sent it to Herbel and the newspaper.
According to documents obtained under KORA, Cody immediately launched an investigation of the newspaper’s editor and Herbel.
According to Kari Newell, he sought her out to tell her she had been a victim of a crime in which the newspaper obtained the document illegally, gave it to Herbel, and Herbel posted it on social media. None of those assertions were true.
Documents reveal that he then conferred much more extensively than others have admitted with County Attorney Joel Ensey and agents of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation before obtaining warrants, later withdrawn, to conduct the Aug. 11 raids.
Among the reasons citizens and media have been asking for messages exchanged via personal phones and private email accounts is that the first person to contact Kari Newell about her records having been obtained was council member Zach Collett.
At a time at which only Cody and Soyez would have known that the newspaper had the same record that Herbel did, Collett informed Kari Newell that the newspaper was involved in what he wrongly characterized as an attempt to deny a liquor license for her catering business.
How Collett became aware of this and whether he and Mayfield, who regarded both Herbel and the newspaper as opponents, might have influenced Cody’s investigation is unclear.
Cody reportedly bragged to Newell about how he concealed his investigation using personal phones and private email accounts. He also allegedly told her to delete messages the two had exchanged lest they be misinterpreted as suggesting there was a relationship between them.
Mayfield refused to suspend Cody until that allegation came out. Cody resigned four days later.