By Sam Jack
GODDARD – The Goddard City Council’s Jan. 17 meeting drew both local and national attention. That meeting saw the removal, and then resignation, of Mayor Larry Zimmerman; the reappointment of council member Hunter Larkin to the mayor’s seat; the appointment of two new council members, Aubrey Collins and Keaton Fish; and the firing of Brian Silcott, Goddard’s city administrator since 2008.
Local residents, including Zimmerman and former council member Mike Proctor, cried foul. They quickly started organizing on a Facebook page called “For Goddard’s Sake,” advocating for a recall of Larkin, and perhaps of other council members, too.
Many of those residents held a meeting in the Linear Park pavilion prior to the Monday, Feb. 6, council meeting, then walked over to City Hall together, filling the council chamber and lining the hallway outside.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, several bluntly called on Larkin to resign.
“I think you ought to resign – specifically you,” Jonathan Borofsky said, addressing Larkin. “Because you did resign, in disgrace, just like the previous mayor of this city. This is a pivotal time in Goddard’s history. I’ve only been here for eight years… but this is a huge moment in this city’s history. And we’ve got your stink all over it.”
Larkin first became mayor in August 2020, after former mayor Jamey Blubaugh resigned and was charged with counterfeiting tickets to a Sedgwick County Zoo fundraiser.
In May 2022, a Dion Lefler column in the Wichita Eagle raised ethical questions about developers who contributed to Larkin’s campaigns. Larkin was also dealing with a DUI charge at the time; he eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months of probation. Larkin resigned as mayor in May, but remained a member of the city council.
On Monday, several residents expressed concern that developers might have an excessive amount of influence over the current council.
“I want to know that, of everybody on this council, you don’t have any ties in with contractors, developers,” Bill Woods said. “That your decisions are made for Goddard and not for your bill code. What has changed since you resigned last time? What has changed with Hunter Larkin?”
Silcott’s dismissal was another bone of contention. Former mayor Zimmerman praised Silcott for creating an atmosphere of transparency and a good work environment at the city during his 15 years as administrator.
“Our city had grown from 1,800 population to 5,000 in those 15 years, and is set to reach 10,000 within three more years if all of the present developments build out,” Zimmerman said. “All of this was done with our former staff, with no perks or special deals to developers.”
Zimmerman said that, during his time as mayor, Silcott brought such “special deals” to his attention – deals that could have cost Goddard substantially over the next decade.
“I was able to convince a majority on the council that every developer had to pay their own way,” Zimmerman said.
William Smith, who identified himself as a business owner, said that based on his past dealings with Silcott, he was not surprised by the termination.
“I was more surprised that the city council finally acted on it,” he said. “Our hope is that, as a community, we can all put what happened at the last meeting regarding the termination of the city administrator in the past, and move forward to continue to grow and make Goddard a better place to live, work, worship and serve.”
Responding to a complaint that the public has no real idea why Silcott was dismissed, council member Sarah Leland said, and city attorney Ryan Peck reiterated, that Kansas’s open meetings law allows sensitive information about non-elected employees to stay private.
“If any one of you fired an employee or were fired, would that be business here? No it would not,” Leland said. “It’s still not an air-able thing. We do not come out here and trash somebody.”
After members of the public were done having their say, Larkin stepped down from the council table and strode back and forth as he spoke to the somewhat-hostile crowd. He opened by quoting, from memory, a 1997 speech by Apple founder Steve Jobs.
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in square holes,” Larkin recited. “The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things.”
Larkin said he and the other council members would “work harder than ever before.”
“I know what happened last meeting was tough, and I’ve said this before. But it was done out of love, OK? And I know that this governing body is going to impress you,” Larkin said. “I know the things that are to come, I know the things that we need to fix.”
Filling the city administrator gap
Later in the meeting, the council worked to deal with the aftermath of Silcott’s firing and assistant city administrator Thatcher Moddie’s subsequent resignation.
The council voted 4-0 to approve severance agreements for Silcott and Moddie; council member Brent Traylor was absent.
Silcott’s agreement states that he was terminated “without cause.” His contract entitled him to three months’ severance pay and benefits, but the council agreed to four months, amounting to $53,580.80 of salary, plus four months of benefits, as well as payouts of unused vacation and sick leave.
Moddie’s agreement includes three months of severance pay. The total cost of severance, insurance and payroll taxes for the two adds up to $69,893.30, according to a memorandum from city attorney Ryan Peck. In exchange for the severance, Silcott and Moddie each agreed to give up any further potential claims against the city.
There was a consensus among the council members present about hiring a professional headhunter to coordinate the search for a new city administrator, and Peck said that he would prepare a request for proposals (RFP) to start the process of selecting one.
Peck also said that the full hiring process could take six months.
That led to a discussion of how Goddard will get by for the next half year without someone filling Silcott and Moddie’s shoes. Under Goddard’s form of government, the city council sets policy, while the city administrator is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city.
Larkin expressed confidence in the city’s department heads and said that he has been trying to assume some of the “facilitator” role that he’d like a future city administrator to fill.
“I’m not in here micromanaging. I’m letting our staff do what it is they do best. I feel confident that we can hire somebody that can do that same thing,” he said.
Larkin asked the other council members whether they would like to try and find someone to serve as interim city administrator during the search for a permanent replacement. There was a consensus in favor of at least exploring that possibility.
Peck said that an interim administrator could be a current city employee who would take on additional duties, or it could be someone with outside experience who is looking for a limited-duration gig.
Peck said that the council could go into executive session at a future meeting in order to hold discussions with city staff about their needs and potential interest in serving as interim administrator.
Leland asked the city staff in the room to let council members know if they are getting overwhelmed.
“If you guys feel like you’re having to take on too much, or that you’re drowning, you guys have to let us know now, so that we can figure out what that step is,” Leland said.
Council hits rewind on condemnation proceedings
Peck told the council that he is in the middle of condemning two tracts of land adjoining Linear Park – a process initiated by Silcott and the previous city council as a preliminary move toward eventually building a new community center on Main Street. Landowner William Smith, who was present, opposes the condemnation.
Larkin said that he is against continuing with the condemnation because the community center plans are nebulous.
“I don’t necessarily agree with the plan, because there was no plan, to my understanding. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want a community center, but there was no direct plan on how to accomplish that,” he said. “And so, I think it’s best, in my opinion, that we turn the ship around, and we are honest with the people of Goddard that that undertaking for the new community center is very, very expensive.”
Council member Fish said that, “Stealing somebody’s land is not going to happen,” which prompted Peck to interject with an explanation that a condemnation is not stealing, because Kansas law requires “just compensation.”
“To suggest that there’s any stealing of land, that’s just a loaded term,” Peck said.
The council voted 4-0 to instruct Peck to halt the condemnations.
In other business:
• Community development director Micah Scoggan came to the council with a proposal for the city to hire a building inspector who would report to him.
The position would initially be paid with money previously allocated to the assistant to the city administrator position. Scoggan said that eventually the salary could be covered by additional permit fee income that the position would generate for the city.
Council members approved of the idea and told Scoggan to go ahead.
• The council approved a temp note bond sale for improvements in the Goddard Trails End development. This is a routine procedure for new developments. The costs of improvements will ultimately be borne by homeowners via special assessments.
The council hired Mies Construction to perform sewer and water improvements in Trails End, totaling $2.3 million. Mies was the low bidder.
• The council approved an annexation petition from developer Ben Healy, for land located on the southeast corner of US 54 and 183rd, across from the Murphy Express station. Healy eventually wants to rezone the land as “C-2” General Business District.
• The council approved an agreement that will allow them to receive a $6,000 county grant for services to seniors.
• The council approved spending $28,502 to repair a blower at the sewer plant.
• The council approved spending $25,505 to replace the police department’s computer server and cabling. Imagine IT will perform the work.
• The council approved disbursing $47,000 to the Goddard Chamber of Commerce, including $17,000 in membership dues and $30,000 in payments for planning National Night Out, Goddard Fall Festival and Christmas on Main Street.