Leading a town thrust into the national spotlight for a widely condemned police raid of the local newspaper is a “daunting” task, says Michael F. Powers, the presumptive next mayor of Marion, Kansas.
Powers is running unopposed in the south-central Kansas town’s election this fall.
Earlier this year when the attorney and former 8th Judicial District judge decided to file for mayor, he wanted to better market the small town and “change the momentum.”
Momentum did pick up — but not in the way Powers had envisioned. Now, he has to rebrand it from what it’s become known for: a city where the First Amendment was allegedly breached.
Leaving office is Mayor David Mayfield, who was elected in 2019 and often clashed with the Marion County Record’s publisher Eric Meyer as well as the paper’s reporters.
Many see recent grudges — some personal and others professional — among the mayor, the paper, the police and other figures as contributing to the Aug. 11 raid itself and the fallout the community is facing.
Since then, local leaders and residents have seemingly dug in on their sides as disputes new and old continue to divide the town.
But Mayfield has remained largely absent from the public eye. He did not return multiple phone calls or emails sent by The Star in the weeks following the raid, and was not at the first city council meeting since the raid took place.
“I’m not going to talk about any issues we’ve had in the past with the newspaper or anyone else,” Mayfield said at a special city council session last week. “It is what it is.”
Mayfield said he ran for mayor to improve the city’s infrastructure and has no interest in another term.
“I got accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,” Mayfield said.
‘Hit a crescendo’
Powers said he was aware of long-standing issues in the community, which has less than 2,000 people, when he decided to run — including rifts the mayor has with the newspaper and City Council members, and critiques among residents of the paper’s coverage.
Powers said there is a “sizable number of people in the community who feel like the paper is unfair in its coverage.” Meyer said that the paper is often accused of being too negative if it publishes something that someone doesn’t like.
Over the years, Meyer and Mayfield have traded barbs about the newspaper’s stories. In several posts dating back to May 2021, Mayfield writes about setting “the Record straight.”
When pressed for specifics, Mayfield said, “Just go back and read some of his articles, some of his editorials.”
“Look at Facebook where our citizens have challenged some of the things that he wrote editorial opinions on.”
Meyer described Mayfield’s tenure as having been “marked by controversy,” including drama last year about a capital improvement plan and an ethics violation accusation over the transfer of a police dog to the sheriff’s office.
“(Mayfield) has basically accused us at the newspaper of doing fake news,” Meyer said.
The animosity is apparent to many in the community.
“I don’t think there’s a question that there are folks that have been crosswise with each other over the last couple of years, and it seems to have hit a crescendo recently,” Powers said.
It’s unclear how much — if at all — personal disagreements played into the newspaper raid.
Adding to the mix is Councilwoman Ruth Herbel, whose home was also searched the same day police raided the Record. She recently disagreed with Mayfield on city spending and had been “skeptical” of Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody.
Mayfield supported Cody’s appointment as chief, a position he himself held from 1999 to 2002. He continued as an officer with the department until 2013 and later joined the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
Cleaning up after the raid
When Powers likely takes office, he’ll need to handle more than just the personalities of the town, which is already facing a lawsuit from the Aug. 11 raid and has critics across the country questioning the decisions of its police force.
He said he has not yet read the affidavits that Cody submitted to the court, but will eventually.
When it comes to Cody’s future with the city, Powers said he does not want to make a “knee jerk reaction,” but “there needs to be a very detailed look at the whole situation.” Then the City Council would have to make a decision.
He and other leaders will likely also have to deal with the strain that lawsuits could have on the city’s budget.
“Obviously I’m concerned about that, but there’s not much you can do about it right now,” he said.
Last week, a Record reporter filed a federal lawsuit against Cody, claiming her First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated when police seized her cellphone and computer.
Marion’s insurance company, EMC Insurance, hired McDonald Tinker, a Wichita-based law firm, as “litigation counsel” in anticipation of lawsuits. The insurance company hired the law firm without going through the City Council for approval.
Mayfield said he’s confident the city’s insurance company is taking the necessary steps to protect the city from a lawsuit.
Looking to the future
While Powers did not anticipate the drama that has caught the attention of free speech advocates across the world, he said the situation also presents an opportunity for the town.
“At this point you can’t ignore some of the bad blood and animosity and maybe this would be a good time to try to really address it head-on and talk,” he said.
“We have to find a way to communicate with each other, to disagree with each other without making it personal. … My goal, my intent, is to try to reach out to those who are willing to talk and talk.”
As mayor, Powers said he plans to use executive sessions only when necessary and that he expects meetings to run longer because there will be more open discussions.
Meyer said he has not interviewed Powers as a candidate, but thinks he is “a reasonable man.” Meyer said he took it as “an excellent sign” that Powers has indicated he will present an issue at a City Council meeting and act upon it at the next meeting.
One of Meyer’s complaints about Mayfield is he believes the mayor has pushed through changes without enough discussion or time to review proposals.
Marion Presbyterian Church Pastor Jeremiah Lange said he thinks Powers is “level-headed.”
“I know he’s had conversations with Eric (Meyer) over the years and they might not see eye to eye, but they can talk with each other,” Lange said. “So I think that’s a helpful step and I think it will put a different atmosphere on those city meetings and the relationship between the city and the paper.”
Two City Council seats, including the spot held by Herbel who is seeking reelection, are also on the ballot.
“You’ll have some new eyeballs on things and we’ll see how that goes,” Powers said.
The election will take place Nov. 7.
The Wichita Eagle’s Chance Swaim and The Star’s Eric Adler contributed reporting.