The Shawnee Mission Post and Blue Valley Post media companies held a forum Wednesday, July 13 at the Nerman Museum of Art at the Johnson County Community College for candidates running for the county’s non-partisan chair commission seat. Pictures left to right: Shirley Allenbrand, Mike Kelly, Charlotte O’Hara and Ken Selzer. Staff photo by Lynne Hermansen
The Shawnee Mission Post and Blue Valley Post online media outlets held a forum Wednesday, July 13 at the Johnson County Community College for the public to meet the candidates running for the open county year chair position.
Ed Eilert, the current county commission chair, is retiring at the end of the chair.
Shirley Allenbrand and Charlotte O’Hara are current commission members. Mike Kelly is the mayor for Roeland Park and Ken Selzer is the former Kansas Insurance Commissioner.
Candidates had opening and closing statements and in between addressed public questions ranging from the State’s new economic development deal with Panasonic, the rising cost of housing, the county budget and budget priorities, the pandemic and the 2020 Presidential Election.
Charlotte O’Hara said as a resident since the early 1970s she was deeply vested into the county.
“I want the future to be as good for future residents as it has been to us,” she said. “We are setting the pattern.”
O’Hara said the county needs to relieve the tax burden on residents and curb the county’s spending.
Ken Selzer said he had been a resident of Leawood since 1990 and the county since 1974.
“We need to apply reduced costs and improved services to Johnson County,” he said.
Selzer said the county needs someone with his CPA and finance background to balance the budget.
Shirley Allenbrand said she came from a long line of community public servants and had raised her children and grandchildren in the county.
“I look forward to addressing the important issues,” she said.
Mike Kelly said he was a native county resident who planned on retiring in Johnson County.
He said he had innovative leadership and executive experience as the Mayor of Roeland Park and had expanded services while bringing down mill levies twice.
Allenbrand said it is important to work together as the county chair.
“It’s important to be a facilitator and do your homework,” she said. “I like to hear constituents’ concerns. And you have to partner with cities.”
Allenbrand said the roads in the county need worked on too.
“You have to listen to the best possible solutions,”she said. “I feel like I have the tools in place.”
Kelly said the county chair serves as the defacto county mayor and voice of Johnson County.
“Johnson County is 25 percent of the Kansas population,” he said. “The chair’s role is to be that advocate and help rally and work as a non bipartisan to come together.”
O’Hara said she had always been a leader and forward thinker and it would be a joy and honor to serve as the chair.
“Tax incentives erodes tax bases and people who make up that difference is you and me,” she said. “We don’t have to be afraid of the Chamber and let them run the county.”
Selzer said it is a county to county line job.
“It takes a person who knows how to lead and has a proven record,” he said. “I have a record of reducing tax burdens on people. The issue is we do not have enough workers and we have one of the lowest unemployment rates.”
Selzer said the county needs to be able to attract people.
“It takes someone who deals with issues instead of dealing with personalities,”he said.
Kelly said housing in the county is a significant issue and it is becoming increasingly difficult for residents growing up in the county or people working in the county to be able to afford to live here.
“We need to be good stewards of resources,” he said. “We need to protect the existing affordable housing and the missing middle and give opportunities for diverse housing.”
Allenbrand said affordable housing was a passion of hers and there needed to be a cap on property taxes for senior residents.
“The mill levy rollback is important but not enough,” she said. “There are housing needs all over the county ranging from $100,000 to $400,000 homes.”
O’Hara said it is their responsibility to make sure they’re being careful with every tax dollar.
“We have a $1.64 billion dollar budget,”she said. “It is a tremendous strain on people who have lived here a long time,” she said. “Johnson County no longer wants the middle class.”
Selzer said a housing study conducted on the Kansas City metro area had calculated Johnson County as the fourth most affordable county in the country.
“We have to focus on property taxes, especially for retirees,” he said. “We need more efficiency and I will treat your dollar like it’s your dollar. Reducing the mill levy will still not have us at revenue neutral. We need someone who can manage a budget.”
O’Hara said she didn’t support adding positions to the county manager’s office and they were already over staffed while the Sheriff’s department had 51 open positions.
“It is a real issue being able to fill positions,” she said. “It is extremely difficult to find anyone for interviews. We need to go back to zero based budgeting and look at the programs that work and don’t work.”
O’Hara said she felt one of the county’s biggest priority needs is a community health crisis center.
“Right now the jail is acting like it,” she said.
Selzer said he agreed the county needs fiscal accountability and responsibility and a top to bottom review of the county’s budget.
“We have a floundering accounting department,”he said. “I bet we find plenty of money and can reduce costs by combining jobs. It works. I know it works.”
Allenbrand said there is always room for improvements and believes that happens by people coming together and working together.
“90 percent of residents like living here,” she said. “If you start taking services away we won’t have the top rated amenities. We don’t need to have knee jerk reactions.”
Kelly said the county staff has institutional knowledge and is the backbone of the county.
“If we are to be the kind of county that churns and burns versus the kind that dedicates itself to their staff we will sacrifice experience, knowledge and quality,” he said.
Kelly said the county’s advantage is public service.
“We need to make sure we provide a supporting working environment and give opportunities to grow based on providing good service,” he said. “We have a workforce crisis and need to remain competitive.”
Selzer said the general fund had gone up dramatically and they needed to review if the county was getting enough value.
Allenbrand said it was important to look at the whole budget with the Capitol Improvement Plan.
Kelly said they need to go through the entire budget process.
“We need to realize the quality of life is what attracts people and continue to provide that service for quality of life,” he said.
O’Hara said they need to lead the board to be the policy making board they need to be.
“Right now we just have rubber stamps,” she said. “The county manager decides everything.”
When it came to how the county had handled the Covid crisis Allenbrand said she had been highly involved by helping people get vaxxed, pulling in health experts, teaming up with health clinics, assisted living facilities and schools.
“Johnson County was further ahead, but there is always room for improvement and evaluation,” she said.
Kelly said it had been a learning experience as Mayor of Roeland Park and everyone had been affected by the pandemic one way or another. He said they had been the first city to provide PPE, test sites and home testing kits.
“It is unique the board is also the public health board,” he said. “I will always listen to health, science and data experts to keep communities safe and schools and businesses open.”
O’Hara said lockdowns and masking had created immeasurable damages.
“We should have focused on those at risk first,” she said.
O’Hara said personally she hadn’t vaccinated or masked and believed in individual’s personal liberties.
Selzer said he believed their role as the health board shouldn’t have them creating mandates.
“We shouldn’t be imposing our will on the people,” he said. “We should listen to the people and give recommendations and education.”
When asked about election integrity and the 2020 Presidential Election results O’Hara and Selzer said they didn’t think it was a fair question.
“I love loaded questions,” O’Hara said. “Do we have problems with the election process-yes.”
She said she believed ballot drop boxes were a problem and access to drop box videos shouldn’t be denied.
“If we can’t access public info—we need clarity to issues,”she said.
Selzer said there needed to be control over election officials, he too was concerned about drop boxes and he was going to wait for the County Sheriff’s investigation report.
Kelly and Allenbrand said Joe Biden was the fairly elected president.
“If this kind of toxicity has leached its way down effecting us here it casts dispersions on the county level,” he said. “It is a waste of resources and we need to focus on the issues that matter.”
Allenbrand said she takes a lot of stock with the professionalism of the State and puts her trust in them.
“I have more important things to do than waste my time and look at video,” she said.
O’Hara said in closing that tax incentives are ineffective and hurt the county and she would work hard to support small business owners.
Selzer said his budget and financial background would help him lead the budget with fiscal responsibility.
Allenbrand said the county is successful and has a high satisfaction rate.
“Work isn’t done and we have opportunities and challenges of growth,” she said. “We need to be inclusive to support to get things done.”
Kelly said the county is a great place to work, live , play and retire.
“Leaders choose policies to put in place that are critical for our future,”he said. “And I am the only candidate who has publicly supported a women’s right to choose.”
Early voting has begun and the final Primary Voting Day is August 2.