The county’s handling of COVID-19, rising property values and increased spending in the county’s budget were all among the topics at the Post’s 2022 primary election forum for the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners chair race.
The candidates also gave their reactions to Wednesday’s announcement that Panasonic will build a $4 billion electric vehicle battery factory in De Soto, which came just a few hours before the live event at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art on the campus of Johnson County Community College.
Four candidates are vying to take over the chair position, which is being vacated by Chair Ed Eilert after 11 years. Eilert announced in January he would not seek re-election, ending a decades-long career in local governance.
The candidates in the race to replace Eilert are as follows, in alphabetical order:
- Current 6th District Commissioner Shirley Allenbrand, a lifelong Olathe resident who owns design company Allenbrand & Associates.
- Roeland Park Mayor Mike Kelly, a lifelong Johnson County resident who works in real estate, design and construction litigation law at Kansas City-based Husch Blackwell.
- Current 3rd District Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara, a former local chair of the state Republican Party and one-time Kansas state representative, who has also worked in education and manufacturing.
- Ken Selzer, the former Kansas Insurance Commissioner and one-time Fairway City Councilmember, who is a Certified Public Accountant and an executive managing director at Aon.
The Post livestreamed the candidate forum on our Facebook page, and the entire event can be viewed in the embedded link below. Timestamps for specific questions can be found below the video.
- Let’s start with the news of the day, and this is not a question from a reader because we just learned about it today. We want to talk about the news that Panasonic is going to be building a $4 billion factory in De Soto in the northwest part of Johnson County, the old Sunflower Army Ammunition plant to make e-batteries for Tesla vehicles. This is what we know so far – state officials announced today that nearly $900 million in incentives and subsidies, state incentives and subsidies, will be going toward this project. It’s projected to bring 4,000 jobs, potentially a wider impact on the local economy, and I should also say many of the details about this deal remain publicly undisclosed, but that’s what we do know. Clearly a very big project that will affect the future of Johnson County and certainly your term as county chair if you were to win. How dop you think this project will change Johnson County? How will you approach it as Johnson County chair? [11:25]
- The role of county commission chair is a unique one on the board. There are six other board members, representing their given geographic regions and then there is the chair, which is tasked with representing the entire county. Some readers have voiced concerns about the increasingly divisive, polarizing nature of politics and government, even at the local level, saying that campaign rhetoric is often cast in an “us versus them” framing. Can you point to experiences in your public life of collaborating with others with whom you don’t always agree? And as county chair, how would you work with all of Johnson County’s various local governments, departments and municipalities? [17:54]
- The rising cost of housing remains a sore spot for many readers. According to the county appraiser’s office, home values in Johnson County went up by an average of 11% this year. The average selling price for a new home last year in the county topped $550,000. This isn’t just a problem for homeowners. Take this reader’s comment. She writes, “Most of us don’t want to be renters forever, but we’re getting priced out of the local market. One home in my area was purchased by Zillow for a price we could have afforded, but Zillow is now renting it out for 3 times what our mortgage would have been. Our apartment rent is [now] getting higher than we can afford, and no one will negotiate because demand is so high that they can charge just about whatever they want. ” So, what if anything can the county commission do to alleviate the problem this reader identifies? [27:11]
- One of the big tasks the county commission has is approving the county budget each year. The proposed 2023 county budget outlines $1.64 billion for all county services. That represents a nearly 14% increase over the current year’s budget. The proposed budget for next year includes $1.15 billion in expenditures and $488 million in reserves. Much of the proposed increase for the next budget is due to proposals to add staffing and raise county worker salaries. County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson says in the wake of the pandemic, it has been hard to recruit and retain workers. This new budget proposes adding 37 full time employees, including seven for the Sheriff’s Office, three staffers at the County Mental Health Center and a victim advocate for the District Attorney’s Office. Do you support the addition of these positions? Why or why not? [37:14]
- What what will be your budget priorities if you are elected to Johnson County chair? Are there any specific areas of county government you think should be cut? [46:50]
- The county commission oversees the county health department and plays a lead role in the management of public health here. And the county and the board of county commissioners has been challenged like never before in this regard with the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, county data shows nearly 150,000 Johnson Countians have been infected with the disease and more than 1,200 have died. What is your assessment of Johnson County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic? What, if anything, would you have done differently? [51:39]
- Both the Johnson County Election Commissioner and the Republican Secretary of State of Kansas have repeatedly asserted that the 2020 presidential election in Johnson County was free and fair and that the results here were legitimate and valid. Yet, the issue of election integrity and fears of widespread voter fraud continue coming up, driven primarily by the baseless claims of former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 election was stolen from him. As county chair, you will also be part of the Board of County Canvassers — the body that conducts the official canvass and certifies election results in Johnson County. That will include results for the 2024 presidential election which will occur during your next term, if you win. Many of our readers have voiced disbelief and anger over former President Trump’s claims of a rigged election in the face of no shred of valid evidence that such a thing occurred. Reader Ann Lintecum wants all of the county chair candidates to answer the following: “Who won the 2020 presidential election? Your answer will tell me everything I need to know.” So, do you recognize Joe Biden as the legitimately elected president of the United States? If not, knowing you will eventually have a say in certifying election results in Johnson County — that’s where this is relevant — our readers deserve to hear what sources of information you go to and trust when considering the integrity and security of elections in general and our county election system in particular. [59:05]