Pittsburg city leaders talk out personal conflicts at ‘study session’

Jonathan Riley
Morning Sun

PITTSBURG, Kan. — City officials met last Saturday for what was billed as a study session to plan for the 2021 Pittsburg City Commission Work Day. At times, however, what transpired seemed more like a group therapy session. 

“I really didn’t realize what I was getting myself into running for a city commission post,” Commissioner Cheryl Brooks said near the start of the meeting. 

“I thought I could really make a difference, mainly because of being in business for as many years as I had been, I thought my husband and I have done really well as far as making decisions and treating people the way we would want to be treated, but the drama of being a political figure is just unbelievable in my opinion.” 

But while Brooks said she doesn’t like drama or want it in her life, there nonetheless seemed to be plenty to go around at the two-hour Saturday morning meeting. 

“I feel like there’s been a double standard in the last year,” Mayor Chuck Munsell said. He mentioned issues he has had with getting items placed on the commission agenda in the past, and also discussed his more recent approach to handling public input during commission meetings since becoming mayor. 

“I think we should be able to ask questions in public input for clarification, and there is a point of contention there,” Munsell said. 

The commissioners and City Manager Daron Hall went on to discuss procedures for public input at some length.  

“People have a right to come up and say what’s on their mind,” Brooks said. “You’d be surprised. They do. It might be something simple, it might be something complicated, it might be something that we don’t have all the information for, but we should afford them, you know, an answer, or try our best to help them.” 

Commissioner Patrick O’Bryan, however, said the commissioners should limit their interaction with people speaking during public input. 

“I think when you start engaging in a conversation with the people who are up here in public input, then it’s to the detriment of the meeting,” he said. “I think that has a tendency to get carried away, and that is the reason that I don’t think it’s a legitimate way to operate.” 

Commissioner Dawn McNay took a similar position. 

“It’s a slippery slope,” she said. 

Hall said the city “came up with a pretty good procedure a year or two ago” where he would answer any questions brought up in public input at the end of the meeting if possible or address them at the next meeting if he can’t immediately answer the person’s question. 

“But when you start the back and forth, depending on where that person at the podium stands, it looks like it’s a lobbying effort with the commission," Hall said. “That’s honestly how I look at it. I think that’s why the best practice from the League [of Kansas Municipalities] is you don’t do it.” 

Ultimately the commissioners seemed to agree that questions for clarification should be allowed, but the commission should otherwise follow the procedure Hall suggested and not engage in discussions with people speaking during public input. 

Despite her stated dislike of drama, Brooks herself brought up several issues that seemed likely to increase the amount of it at the meeting, such as personal attacks she said she has faced for not paying her taxes. On that particular issue, she explained her reasons why not. 

“My dad was sick; I didn’t care about anything else,” Brooks said. “I left town on a whim and went to KU to spend three weeks there. No, I didn’t pay my taxes. But nobody called and asked me, you know, about that. And as soon as I realized in sitting in that meeting where you guys were throwing the innuendos out right and left, I did get it taken care of." 

Brooks then pivoted to problems with city projects that she suggested should be getting more attention. 

“Nobody talks about Block22 and how they’re behind on their taxes,” she said. “Nobody talks about anything else like that.” 

A few minutes later, though, when Commissioner Larry Fields returned to the topic of the city’s partnership with Pittsburg State University to revitalize Block22 in downtown Pittsburg, he said it was easier to complain about problems with the mixed-use commercial-residential development than to find solutions to them. 

“We need the university, and it’s easy to complain about them and Block22 and the old Hotel Besse and other buildings that are bad,” Fields said. “It’s easy to complain. It really, really is. It’s easier to complain than it is to do things right.” 

While Brooks may have done some complaining at the Feb. 27 study session, though, she wasn’t the only one. Subjects of other grumblings at the meeting included the Freedom of Information Act. 

“For a commissioner to do a Freedom of Information request is the biggest slap in the face I could have,” Hall told Brooks, “because you can ask me for anything and I will get it for you.” 

Brooks said she thought the city’s preferred procedure was to put requests for information from city staff in writing so they would know exactly what she was asking for and added that she hadn’t used FOIA legal terminology in her requests. But Hall said they were still perceived as formal public records requests. 

“Think about how the city works. If you ask me for it and I disseminate it, everybody’s like ‘Daron wants it.’ If you ask [City Clerk] Tammy [Nagel] for it, then she sends it out and it looks like a Freedom of Information request and it feels like a Freedom of Information request, and whether you understand that or not, that is the reality,” Hall said. 

“Oh OK, that’s my bad,” Brooks said. “I didn’t know that.” 

Hall said Brooks’s requests would be “a higher priority than just Joe Blow Six Pack, because I’m assuming you’re asking stuff for some citizen somewhere and you need the answer.” He also denied Brooks’s allegation during the study session that city employees had been told not to talk to her, a directive that “came from top office down,” she said.

“I’ve never told anybody they can’t talk to you,” Hall said. “I don’t even know who you know.” 

Another topic that came up was the commissioners’ abilities, or lack thereof, to politely disagree with each other. 

“I vote how I feel how the community feels,” Munsell said. “That’s why they put me in office, to be their voice.” 

He said the commission seems to think it’s a problem if there’s a vote that’s not unanimous, but it shouldn’t be. 

“A 3-2 vote passes, and to me, you know, that’s why you have five commissioners. It won’t look good if you always have a 5-0 vote, you know, it’s just like you’re rubber stamping it,” Munsell said. He added, however, that even if commissioners disagree there doesn’t have to be so much contention at meetings, which Hall and the other commissioners seemed to agree with.   

“We have a very diverse board; it’s a strength and a weakness probably,” Hall said. “But is there a better way to disagree, at least publicly, that we can all kind of keep in our pocket for the next couple of years?” 

McNay told Munsell that he was probably misunderstanding where she was coming from with some of her past disagreements with him. 

“I’m sensing that sometimes when we’re in a discussion or disagreement that you are feeling it as an attack, but it’s a disagreement discussion,” McNay said. “I mean I think, you know, we have to look at it a little differently.” 

McNay similarly told Brooks she didn’t mean to attack her when she asks her questions based on something she’s said in a meeting. 

"I do that because I think the constituents out there have that question, so in my opinion I’m asking on behalf of the citizens that they may have the same question that I do,” McNay said. “It certainly is never meant to be an attack on you or toward you.” 

Near the end of the Feb. 27 study session, O’Bryan said he hoped the commission can avoid bringing so much drama to the table at future meetings. 

“One thing that I would like to get out of this gathering today is that we all come away from it with the same opinion that we don’t turn these meetings into mud fights,” he said. 

The 2021 Pittsburg City Commission Work Day is scheduled for Saturday, May 22.