Bid to make county commission elections partisan fails by a single vote

Commissioner Mike Brown put forth the proposal to change the elections from non-partisan in the county charter. File photo.

Johnson County Commissioner Mike Brown lost his bid Thursday to tie commission elections to party politics. But don’t expect the issue to go away any time soon. Brown and other commission members promised they’d keep the discussion going when the 10-year review of the county’s charter happens in 2021.

The commission narrowly voted down Brown’s motion to put Ds and Rs on the ballot for what has for 20 years been a non-partisan election. Five of the seven commissioners voted in favor, but since it was an amendment to the charter a supermajority of six votes was needed. Had that happened, the question would have been on the ballot in November.

Commission Chairman Ed Eilert and Commissioner Jim Allen were the “no” votes.

Party involvement in county races has been ‘open secret’

County Chair Ed Eilert said he had been disappointed in party involvement the past election cycle, but that he opposed efforts to change the charter. File photo.

Although county and municipal elections are not supposed to be partisan, the involvement of Democratic and Republican groups has been an open secret for years. Parties regularly invite (or don’t invite) candidates to forums and Republican elephant symbols have been featured on yard signs in years past in supposedly non-partisan races.

But the alarm bells went off this year when two candidates who had the support of Democrats – Janeé Hanzlick and Becky Fast – won against incumbents Jason Osterhaus and Ron Shaffer. Both accepted contributions from the Democrats. (Commissioner Michael Ashcraft, who defeated challenger LeEtta Felter, also had a Republican group on his contributor list).

The Democrats’ involvement lit a fire under Brown, who began pushing a month ago for the commission to put the charter amendment on its agenda.

“The Kansas Democrat party weighed in to a non-partisan election,” Brown said at the commission meeting Thursday. “They crossed a line. They stepped on it and they kicked it and they jumped over it and thumbed their nose at us. It is unacceptable. It is not okay. It is 100 percent wrong and it is 100 percent not in the spirit of exactly what the people of Johnson County set forward saying we were going to be a non-partisan body.”

But Nancy Leiker, chair of the Johnson County Democrats, sees it differently.

“He’s off base,” she said. County political parties regularly endorse candidates on their web sites, she pointed out, and the GOP has been known to support its candidates through political action committees of various names. “We’re not the only ones that are guilty, if in fact it was a crime, which it’s not.”

A non-partisan election basically means candidates run without party affiliation on the ballot. There are no provisions in the charter barring political parties from contributing, however.

Hanzlick said in a recent interview with the Post that she did ask the election commission for guidance on what non-partisan elections mean, but was told that it just boiled down to the party ID on the ballot.

No one involved Thursday – even Brown – said they really wanted the race to become partisan. Brown said he asked Republicans to stay out of his own race, but believes a discussion needs to take place about party involvement.

Commission Chairman Ed Eilert agreed the Democratic participation was disappointing, but said the approach Brown was taking lacked transparency. The public did not know about the vote ahead of time because it was added to the agenda the same day. And had it succeeded, the referendum would have been in a lower-turnout year. The charter requires the vote to be held at a county-wide election. This November is the month for municipal elections, but the Johnson County Community College trustees are elected at-large.

“I believe quite strongly in the due process,” Eilert said. “The motion that’s before us does not allow for a full public hearing and public notice.”

Commissioner Steve Klika said he voted for Brown’s proposal because the non-partisan requirement needs some teeth. He said he felt partisanship in his own election to the commission six years ago.

Steve Klika said that he believed the county’s non-partisan race provision needed some teeth to it. “It’s getting so toxic,” Klika said of the climate surrounding elections.

“Personally I prefer non-partisan elections when dealing with local politics. I really do,” he said.

“It’s kind of our culture here. But at this point I think we have crossed the line and it’s only getting worse,” Klika said. “I’m not talking about anyone individually. It’s just the climate that we have been in here. It’s getting so toxic.”

Thursday was the last day for Shaffer and Osterhaus on the commission. Fast and Hanzlick will be sworn in Monday.

Both have said they’d prefer discussion of partisan elections take place at the charter review committee, which will decide in 2021. But the charter review committee is appointed by various elected officials, and Brown said he had some concerns.

“How hard will they come at us? Is it $100,000. Is it $200? Is it a million? How valuable is it, this commission? How valuable is it to control a $1.1 billion budget? How important is it to them?”

Leiker said the Democrats were no more involved this year than they have been previously. “We have given money to candidates for commission in the past. We did so this year,” she said.

Leiker said she, too, would prefer to keep party identity out of the local elections. “I do not think it’s a good idea,” she said. “Once that happens, then all these little cities will start going. I think that was (former Kansas Gov. Sam) Brownback’s plan and it just would end up being a partisan war. It’s not in the interest of the Democratic Party. I think it’s not in the interest of the Republican Party either.”