Missing councilman forces this Johnson County town to confront an election controversy

·6 min read
Shelly Yang/syang@kcstar.com

A missing Spring Hill city councilman is forcing the small Johnson County town to confront its controversial mayoral election without saying a word.

Councilman Steve Owen walked out of the city’s Jan. 10 meeting to protest the appointment of new Mayor Joe Berkey and he hasn’t returned to the dais since — avoiding three special meetings and single-handedly halting the council’s ability to appoint new members to its two vacant seats.

Berkey was appointed to fill the mayor’s seat left empty by the abrupt resignation of Tyler Graves, a sitting councilman who won the race for mayor in November, but shocked the town by announcing days later that he would vacate both his council seat and the mayor’s job as his family moved out of state.

The major shakeup has left some residents feeling cheated out of their votes and their protest came to a head last week when Owen cast the lone dissenting vote against Berkey’s appointment and left the council chambers. He has not reemerged publicly since then.

“The first thing we need to do is build trust, but to do that we have to be able to have a meeting and we have to have all the members willing to show up to be able to have the meeting,” Berkey told critics gathered in council chambers Tuesday night.

Now Owen’s apparently intentional absences are preventing the council from reaching a quorum, meaning they do not have enough members to consider official city business, and city leaders are left scratching their heads about how to proceed.

Mayoral controversy

Spring Hill’s election snafu has sharply divided the town of 8,000 on the southern edge of Johnson County and led some residents to propose that Graves’ resignation exposed a group of political insiders attempting to consolidate power and quash dissent from council members like Owen.

The owner of the popular The Bean coffee shop in downtown Spring Hill, Graves won the mayoral election but then surprised residents by announcing his resignation soon after due to “unforeseen circumstances” and has moved to Florida with his family.

After the resignation, The Star reported Graves and his wife had sold their business and began the process to sell the family’s home long before Election Day, prompting sharp questions from residents stung by the revelations after ballots had been cast and counted.

The Graves announced on Aug. 22 they were selling the business to enjoy more family time together and a post on Facebook referenced Tyler Graves’ responsibilities on the council and his mayoral race. The coffee shop also made mention of a new Florida shop in a comment on an Aug. 31 Instagram post about selling the Spring Hill business.

Had Graves taken office as planned, he would have appointed a successor to fulfill the term for his empty council seat. Instead, the city was left with no mayor-elect to swear in on Jan. 10 and an empty council seat.

Owen, who previously served as council president, believed he should have been in line to ascend to the mayor’s post but the new council instead named Berkey the new council president. With the mayor’s seat vacant, Berkey as new council president became mayor by default.

Owen cast the lone dissenting vote against Berkey’s appointment and left the meeting during the mayor’s oath of office in protest. He left a written statement that was read aloud by city attorney Charles Dunlay to the council and audience, accusing the council of violating the city’s charter and demanding that unspecified legal opinions be released publicly.

“I will not be a party to any more of this tonight,” Owen wrote in the statement. “The public has been shut out and kept in the dark on purpose. There should be full disclosure of all information shared with City Council, to include city attorney’s written opinions. Stop hiding everything right behind attorney client privilege, the public has a right to know. It is their tax dollars that will pay for all the legal fees. My departure is not a resignation.”

Owen has not returned to a council meeting since.

Council critics and Owen’s supporters have suggested he would return if the city released the legal opinions he referenced in leaving the Jan. 10 meeting, but no one knows for sure because no one has communicated with him substantively since that night.

Dunlay has called Owen seven times, sent him text messages and emails, and even knocked on Owen’s front door — all without answer. Berkey also has tried unsuccessfully to reach Owen, city staff have not heard from him and multiple attempts by The Star to reach Owen over the past week also have gone unanswered.

Dunlay also noted the primary legal opinion that has guided the appointment process was published on the city’s website on Nov. 18, the same night Graves resigned, and it remains online this week.

What’s next

Now the new mayor and council — composed of members Diana Roth and Brian Peel, who was sworn into office alongside Berkey last week — find themselves in a stalemate with Owen as they try to fill their two remaining vacancies and move past the controversy.

City leaders intended to resume regular council business at a special meeting Tuesday night, but Owen did not arrive and the council again failed to reach a quorum for the third time over the past week.

Instead of hosting no meeting at all, however, Berkey agreed to an impromptu community discussion with more than a dozen critics gathered in the audience for the would-be meeting about their concerns with the process. Residents complained that the new appointments felt preordained and designed to benefit the politically connected, instead of honoring the effort of losing candidates by elevating them to the council in light of the vacancies.

“We haven’t even had a chance to know you, to know what you’re going to do. I don’t like that at all,” longtime Spring Hill resident Julie Belcher told Berkey. “It’s the situation, it isn’t about you. I hope you understand that, it is about us not getting a voice.”

But residents pushed back and several argued the council should appoint Roy Riffel and Arevalo Rodolfo, who both ran unsuccessful campaigns last year, to fill the vacant council seats over other applicants who did not even run in the election.

The council is “exploring its options” about how to compel Owen to attend meetings or whether there is any other way around his current procedural blockade, Dunlay said, but he declined to discuss what those options might entail.

Berkey has scheduled another special meeting of the council for 7 p.m. Thursday, but it remains unclear whether Owen will attend or what the council would or could do in his absence.

“I want to talk to all you guys, I want you guys to get to know me,” Berkey concluded with the group assembled for Tuesday night’s would-be meeting. “I think Spring Hill’s future is bright, I really do. I think we have a good city staff, I think we’re headed in the right direction.

“This was a mess for all of us, myself included,” he continued. “We got left in a terrible situation and we’re trying to right the ship and do the best thing for Spring Hill.”