At Roeland Park forum, candidates tackle future of aquatics center, parks and aging infrastructure

Candidates for public office (from left) Roger Cooper, Mike Kelly, Tom Madigan, Jen Hill, Leonardo Tocco and Jim Kelly participated in a forum at the Roeland Park Community Center Monday.
Candidates for public office (from left) Roger Cooper, Mike Kelly, Tom Madigan, Jen Hill, Leonardo Tocco and Jim Kelly participated in a forum at the Roeland Park Community Center Monday.

Roeland Park in the coming years will face a host of challenging decisions on the future of the city’s aquatics center, parks and aging infrastructure. And the governing body tasked with making those decisions in guaranteed to feature a host of new faces.

Given current Mayor Joel Marquardt’s and four current councilmembers’ decisions not to seek reelection, the next Roeland Park governing body will be made up of a majority of newcomers.

On Monday, candidates seeking to fill those seats discussed the most pressing issues facing the city at a forum hosted by the Northeast Johnson County of Chamber and the Shawnee Mission Post. Candidates in two contested races — for mayor and for the Ward 2 seat on the council — were among the participants. Ward 1 candidate Tom Madigan and Ward 4 candidate Jim Kelly, who are running unopposed, took part as well. (Neither candidate running for the Ward 3 seat, Linda Mau and Claudia McCormack, was able to attend).

Over the course of the evening, Cooper and Kelly characterized themselves as different types of leaders.

Cooper, a former city councilman, emphasized that his experience in city government and as a professional in finance and accounting made him the sensible choice to lead the city. He said the city needed to do a better job managing its ongoing costs, and pointed to the future of the city’s aquatic center as among the the kinds of “hard choices” he had experience taking on. With the city’s joint operating agreement with the Johnson County Park and Recreation District set to expire in two years, Cooper said, Roeland Park will need to seriously consider whether it can afford to keep the facility operating as currently configured. He equated the pool facility to “a golf course that everyone pays for, but only a few people use.”

Mike Kelly, who dominated the four-person mayoral primary with 70 percent of the vote, said it was imperative that the city continue to invest in community assets that fostered social capital, and stressed that he wanted to take community input into consideration as Roleand Park moved forward. He said the civic facilities around the community center, including the aquatic center and community garden, represented the heart of the Roeland Park since it does not have a traditional downtown. He believes the city should look for new partners to help it maintain operations of its pool facilities during the year.

Mike Kelly also said he was in favor of continued investment in city parks, and wanted to see some of the amenities added recently to parks on the west side of the city added to the parks on the east as well. He said the fundraising initiatives led by citizens had been crucial to parks improvement in recent years, but indicated he believed the city needed to plan for parks improvements in its own budget as well.

Cooper said he was in favor of the city budgeting for some of the bigger projects suggested by the parks master plan.

Ward 2 candidates Jen Hill and Leonard Tocco did not show wide differences on the majority of the issues. Hill said that improving walkability in the city was one of her top priorities, noting that it was “scary” to try to walk or bike to businesses along Roe Boulevard. Tocco stressed that as a third-generation Roeland Parker, he was committed to ensuring the city remained a great place to live and raise families.

Jim Kelly, the husband of current Ward 4 councilwoman Teresa Kelly, told the audience he believed it was imperative that the city consider the maintenance costs of any projects it undertakes. Madigan said that after years of work on committees and attending city meetings, he wanted to have a voice on the council.