Three incoming JoCo Commissioners pledge renewed civility following rancor over pandemic debates

Three new members are joining the Johnson County Commission this month, pledging a renewed tone of civility. The board has been riven by intense debates in recent months over the county's pandemic response. File photo.

For much of 2020, the Johnson County Commission has been the local center of the pandemic storm, with meetings that mirror the political friction playing out nationally.

But with three new members joining the seven-member commission this month, that has a chance of changing. The three elected in November have promised a renewed respect toward each other, the public and county staff even when they don’t agree.

Shirley Allenbrand, Charlotte O’Hara and Jeff Meyers will be sworn in Monday, Jan. 11, ready to assume duties at their first meeting the following Thursday. Allenbrand defeated Commissioner Mike Brown to represent the southwest part of the county, O’Hara replaces Commissioner Steve Klika for the southeast and Meyers replaces Commissioner Jim Allen for the northwest. Klika and Allen did not run for re-election.

The Board of County Commissioners plans to hold a formal farewell ceremony for Allen, Brown and Klika on Thursday afternoon.

Pledging a change in tone

The three incoming members all pledge to maintain respect and decorum. “I think the language will change,” O’Hara said.

Replacing three out of seven members will be a major change on the commission, which oversees a budget of $1.25 billion covering everything from sewers to mental health and ambulance service.

In years past, the star issues before the commission were property taxes and building projects for wastewater, parks and the library. Public health was a department that usually didn’t get a lot of public attention. The coronavirus changed all that.

By the end of 2020, the commission meetings occasionally resembled political rallies, with hours of emotional public comments on health restrictions punctuated by whoops and applause. At some meetings, a thousand or so people watched remotely on Facebook, blasting each other in the comments. And at one point, commissioners reprimanded Brown for a social media post referencing political upheaval and the “drums of war.”

Incoming commissioners are hoping for calmer days ahead. All three say they want to have a better spirit of collaboration with each other and will try to gain the public’s trust by listening respectfully.

“I’m going to be really working hard to increase the number of points of agreement because we have got to figure out how to come together as a community and start talking about where we do agree,” O’Hara said.

Allenbrand and Meyers also emphasized mutual respect. Health care staff, in particular, are deserving of more respect, Allenbrand said. “I think the commission now, the majority are respectful and are trying to work to relieve that stress,” she said.

With the addition of O’Hara and Allenbrand, women on the commission will now outnumber men 4-3. According to Johnson County historical archives, that is the highest number of women ever serving together on the commission. Three women served during the 1990s, and there were no women on the commission from 2007 through 2019.

Pandemic aside, the newcomers will also have other looming issues to consider, such as whether commission races should be partisan and what to do if the county loses its court battle on “dark store” valuation of commercial property.

Here’s a look at the three new members on some issues coming up:

Shirley Allenbrand, 6th District

Shirley Allenbrand, of Olathe, a businesswoman with a focus on senior care facilities, said she was inundated during the campaign with people supporting mask requirements in businesses.

Shirley Allenbrand

“That’s something I’ve stood by because I want to maintain our businesses open. You can only go so far with giving people the tools and telling them to wear a mask,” she said. The businesses support a mask rule because it allows them to stay open, but she added that more restrictive lockdowns go too far.

Public health employees providing information every week to the commission also deserve more respect, she said.

With social distancing and mask wearing often ignored by the people who gather to speak outside the board hearing room, the public commenting period has also become an issue. Most people commenting in the late-year meetings were against pandemic-related business restrictions and mask orders.

Allenbrand said she is looking for a way to include all points of view. Sometimes people who support restrictions or who have things on the agenda have been afraid to come to a meeting because of the lack of masks and occasional unruliness of the crowd, she said.

This year a committee of appointed volunteers will review the county’s home rule charter – an event that happens once a decade. Commissioners get to make one appointment each to that group. Allenbrand said she wants to keep the county charter the same, continuing non-partisan elections. That’s a departure from her predecessor, who had planned to push for party identification on the ballot next to commission candidates’ names.

Dark store valuation is a trickier question that Allenbrand said she doesn’t have all the answers to. She disagrees with the method that allows commercial property to be valued for tax purposes without regard to the business inside. The county should continue to fight it in court, she said.

Jeff Meyers, 2nd District

Jeff Meyers, a former mayor of Shawnee, said he was surprised that the Shawnee City Council did not agree to let the county enforce its non-mask-related business restrictions through its county codes department, as other municipalities have done.

“To me it’s a win-win situation,” he said. “I think it would take the stress off of city services to have the county be involved.”

Former Shawnee Mayor Jeff Meyers is seeking to succeed Jim Allen on the County Commission. Photo credit JCPRD.

County officials have promised that code officers will take more of an educational than a ticket-writing approach, Meyers said. “I just don’t understand why there would be any mistrust. I don’t know that the county has ever done other things that have caused cities or city councils to mistrust their involvement.”

Meyers promised to try and bridge the trust gap with the public by being a good listener, but he said he won’t be shy about supporting mask wearing, because science supports it. “I will be a good listener but also am going to be a person who’s going to be honest and up front. So I will definitely give an opinion,” he said.

Meyers also believes the elections should remain non-partisan. “I’ a very strong proponent of keeping things the way they are,” and not making major changes to the county charter, he said. “I’ve always believed local governments should be non-partisan.”

Meyers, like the others, is grappling with the county’s response to court cases on dark store valuation. If the county loses, the budget could be hit with millions in lost tax revenue. County leaders should prepare for different scenarios as they plan future budgets, he said. But officials have always been cautious about spending, and the budget has a solid reserve fund, he added. “You have to plan for the possibility of some future cuts, but at this time I don’t see that it’s something you need to act on. We still have to see some more of the outcomes.”

Charlotte O’Hara, 3rd District

Charlotte O’Hara, an Overland Park real estate investor, said she is for “education, not subjugation” when it comes to pandemic health measures. “I do not support mandates,” she said, adding that leaders should educate residents on what they need to do, “and then trust people of Johnson County to make the correct decisions for themselves.”

Charlotte O’Hara

She said she wants to spread a more positive message of health awareness, and has been urging better health habits that prevent some of the diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure that can make COVID-19 more deadly. “Hopefully we’ll start honing that message and getting it out to the public to put the junk food away and get out there and more, because it’s your health,” she said.

O’Hara said elections should be partisan. “As you go door-to-door (campaigning), it’s the first question people ask you,” she said. Most politics followers already know who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican, she added. “We just need to be up-front about it.”

She also said she’ll focus on keeping property taxes from increasing to homeowners because of dark store valuation. Potential loss from commercial property could be “huge” she said, so the county should start decreasing its spending now. “We can’t transfer it to residential and small businesses. They can’t afford it.”

O’Hara also wants the commission to take a closer look at various tax incentive packages offered by cities to developers. The commission has the power to object to these incentives, but has not normally discussed their merit in the past. O’Hara said it’s one of her priorities to change that and examine them when they come up.