The controversy surrounding city government in Baxter Springs has been on a low simmer of late.
That may change soon.
Cherokee County Clerk Crystal Gatewood on Wednesday approved petitions filed by supporters of Baxter Springs Mayor Jenifer Bingham for a recall election involving Councilmen Gary Allen, Ron Costlow and Ed McAfee. The recall election will be on the ballot in the Nov. 6 general election.
A petition seeking a recall election involving Councilman Robert St. Clair was still being circulated on Thursday.
Those council members are among the five-member majority that has opposed some of Bingham’s recent actions.
The petitions were required to have signatures equal to at least 40 percent of the number of ballots cast in the most recent election in which the council members were elected.
The petition naming Costlow had 71 valid signatures, and 57 were required. The petition naming McAfee had 41 valid signatures and needed 36. For Allen’s petition, 125 valid signatures were collected, and 113 were needed. The Allen recall petition was turned in Aug. 6, while the other two were filed Monday.
The petitions state as their basis that the council members allegedly violated the Kansas Open Meetings Law, an allegation Bingham also has made. There has been no evidence presented to support the claim.
The conflict began at the April 10 council meeting, when Bingham appointed people of her own choosing to replace City Clerk Donna Wixon and police Chief David Edmondson. The council voted 6-2 against the mayor’s appointments and took additional action to ensure that the appointees didn’t later automatically take office.
Bingham responded the next day by placing Wixon on paid suspension and changing the locks at City Hall. The council eventually restored Wixon to her job.
Bingham has contended that Wixon had received free cable television service. It’s a city-owned and city-managed utility. Wixon and Allen have said the council had authorized the arrangement so Wixon could monitor the system and notify technicians of problems.
Bingham had incorrectly alleged that Wixon was being investigated by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation over the matter.
Cathy Bolek, organizer of the petition group, said she was pleased that the recall questions will be on the ballot.
“I’m pretty pumped,” she said. “We accomplished what we set out to do. The truth is, the city’s not happy with the City Council’s decisions since April.”
Bolek said her group plans to gather the signatures for the recall election naming St. Clair, then try to persuade voters to vote to recall the council members.
“We’re continuing now to educate the public,” she said. “The citizens are not very informed and don’t care, or don’t want to be involved. A lot of them aren’t really educated about what is going on.”
McAfee said the recall organizers’ efforts are undermining democracy. He said they are seeking to remove a group of knowledgeable and experienced public servants.
“It’s just nonsense,” he said. “It’s a crying shame.”
McAfee said it’s wrong for council members to risk losing their positions simply because they disagree with the mayor.
“The only reason they’re doing things like this is the mayor didn’t get her way,” he said. “It’s upset her and made her mad.”
Bingham didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. Bolek has said the mayor isn’t involved in the recall petition drive.
Cherokee County Attorney John Bullard didn’t approve a recall petition naming Bingham to be circulated by her opponents in the community, though he had given his approval for the petitions seeking to recall the council members.
Costlow said the situation is discouraging.
“It’s kind of sad that people can spend their lives serving the public and people can make false accusations about them,” Costlow said. “They’ve defamed some good people in the community to get this done. To maliciously and falsely accuse people is just wrong.”
State law allows the challenged council members to file a statement with the county clerk that would be maintained for public inspection before the election.
The question to be on the ballot is: “Shall Ed McAfee (or Ron Costlow or Gary Allen) be recalled from the office of Baxter Springs City Council?” A simple majority of ballots cast in each ward is required for a recall.
If the council members are recalled, Bingham would appoint people to fill the terms until city elections in April, with the approval of a majority of the remaining council members. Bolek said that is why her group wanted to remove four of the seven council members.
Costlow said he’s confident that he and his colleagues can withstand the recall vote, if voters in their wards can be made aware of what he says is the injustice taking place.
“People just need to pay attention,” he said.
Also on ballot
GARY ALLEN, a Baxter Springs city councilman, also is seeking election to the Cherokee County Commission on Nov. 6. A Democrat, he is challenging incumbent Republican Richard Hilderbrand. Baxter Springs Mayor Jenifer Bingham has praised Hilderbrand at a City Council meeting.