Former lawmaker, Brownback appointee square off in tax dispute
Changes to language on Olathe sales tax ballot issue may result in KOMA complaint
Former legislator Benjamin Hodge says he is contemplating a Kansas Open Meetings Act complaint against the Olathe City Council and Mayor Michael Copeland, who also works for the Department of Commerce and Department of Labor.
Hodge says the Olathe council changed the language of a recent sales tax ballot measure without properly informing the public.
“They only just oh-so-barely actually voted on the final language,” Hodge said. “They made those changes the night before.”
Hodge, whose Kansans for State & Local Reform PAC opposed the ballot measure, said council members added three words that broaden the possible uses for the new sales tax revenue during a work session that Hodge called “a quasi-legal public meeting nobody attended.”
Tim Dannenberg, a spokesman for Copeland, says the changes were minimal and everything was done on the up-and-up. He also released a statement from Copeland emphasizing that citizens will be able to track the new tax revenues and ensure that they are all going to their stated purpose of road improvements.
“I regret that anyone would believe the revenue generated by the street maintenance tax will go to anything other than street maintenance projects,” Copeland said. “That is absolutely not the case, and this has been made abundantly clear by the Olathe City Council. This process will be transparent. All sales tax revenue and projects where it is used will be easy for our residents to track, and an outside committee (is) being formed for additional review and reporting. We strongly encourage anyone interested in this issue to closely track where street maintenance tax revenue is being spent throughout the life of the tax.”
Gov. Sam Brownback last year appointed Copeland, who is a part-time mayor, to be deputy secretary of the Department of Labor after ousting secretary Karin Brownlee.
Cassie Sparks, a spokeswoman for the department, said via email that Copeland is now a full-time deputy secretary of work force services with the Department of Commerce but the labor department “is continuing to share some of Mr. Copeland’s services.”
Hodge is a conservative firebrand who served in the House in 2007 and 2008. He also spent four years as a trustee for Johnson County Community College from 2005 to 2009, during which time he asked the district attorney to investigate the board of trustees for possible KOMA violations when discussing budget issues behind closed doors.
Hodge’s latest KOMA beef involves the Olathe council changing one of the last lines of the road work ballot measure from “and such other work as necessary to maintain, repair and renew city streets” to “and such other work as necessary to maintain, repair, renew, upgrade and improve city streets.”
“The council just wanted it to be clearer, and it was a minor change,” Dannenberg said. “Certainly, in talking to legal, the interpretations had the same meaning.”
Dannenberg said some of the predictions that the money will be used for purposes other than road maintenance stem from fears of United Nations’ Agenda 21.
Ken Dunwoody, a blogger in Olathe, posted council member emails obtained through an open records request that he says showed the words “upgrade and improve” were added in order to appease the bicycling lobby by allowing tax revenue to be used to add bike paths to the road.
Dunwoody linked that effort to Agenda 21, a 20-year-old nonbinding sustainability resolution that, in some conservative circles, has sparked fears of private property usurpation.
“Agenda 21 (United Nations) is alive and well in your back yard,” Dunwoody posted online.
Hodge said his complaint has nothing to do with Agenda 21, but rather with the way the council changed the ballot language and its subsequent failure to inform the public of the change. He noted that the city’s website wasn’t updated with the new language until shortly before the election.
“In reality, almost nobody knew the correct language until they got a ballot in the mail,” Hodge said. “I honestly don’t think it was intentional immediately, but it’s hard to believe the city never knew the website was incorrect.”
Dannenberg said city officials “deeply regret the original language error.”
“Fortunately, only 88 unique viewers actually visited the page,” Dannenberg said via email. “There is not a way to tell if those viewers were Olathe voters, but I’m aware of at least one who is not. There were some 23,000 ballots cast, and the issue passed with 57 percent of the vote.”
Hodge said he doesn’t believe Dannenberg’s assertion that the city’s legal department deemed the ballot language changes insignificant. He said the passage of the ballot measure barely passes legal muster, given the changes, and the process in which the changes were made doesn’t follow the law.
“There still may be a KOMA case coming down the pike,” Hodge said.