Commissioner Mike Brown says JoCo should end non-partisan commission races

Roxie Hammill - December 14, 2018 8:00 am
Commissioner Mike Brown said political parties were so active around the county commission races this fall that the seats should no longer be non-partisan.

Political parties were so active in this year’s county commission election that Commissioner Mike Brown says the county should drop the pretense of non-partisanship. To that end, Brown is trying to get the county commission to amend the charter and end the non-partisan aspect of elections that have been in place since the county charter was crafted in 1999.

Brown said he expects to get a discussion going at next Thursday’s commission meeting, though he doesn’t know if he’ll have enough votes to get anything done. The commission can amend the charter with a supermajority of four-fifths, or 6 votes. But voters would still get the final say in a referendum if the commission approved.

Up until this year, Brown said, the political parties had not weighed in in any way to the county non-partisan elections. That changed this year, when Democrats and the Mainstream Coalition weighed in for Janeé Hanzlick, he said. Hanzlick defeated incumbent Jason Osterhaus.

“It’s one thing to have an elephant on your sign or car window or on a mailer. It is another to have a party pay for and help underwrite and fund a mailers on a campaign to a non-partisan election,” he said.

When Brown, who was not up for re-election this year, saw that parties were involved in commission races this year, he said, “it was clear to me that non-partisanship had left the building and we were moving into a new era.”

Democratic groups supported two candidates who beat incumbents

Janeé Hanzlick defeated incumbent Jason Osterhaus in the fall election.

Incoming commissioners Hanzlick and Becky Fast both received contributions from some Democratic groups, including the Johnson County Democratic Women and Young Democrats. Hanzlick also received $2,000 from the county Democratic Central Committee.

The Republican Party was not as active in those two races, although Commissioner Michael Ashcraft received a contribution from the Northwest Johnson County Republicans.

Putting a D or R on the county commission races would mean a change to the county charter, a document that sets up how the county is run. The county charter is up for review every 10 years. The last review was in 2011. But Brown said he’d prefer not to wait for the next review because another election cycle would have happened for commission races by then. Brown’s seat will be one of three up for the 2020 election, along with Steve Klika and Jim Allen.

“On a partisan basis I’m a lot less worried about mine than some of the others,” he said.

Hanzlick and Fast have both said they support keeping the elections non-partisan, and that the charter review commission and voter referendum were the appropriate ways to do that.

Time is ticking on any sort of change that could be made at the commission level. There’s only one commission meeting left this year and one in January before the new commissioners are sworn in.

Brown raises questions about United Community Services ties to candidates

On another election-related matter Thursday, Brown questioned whether staff of United Community Services had helped certain commission candidates in violation of UCS policy. Brown said he’d heard one or more UCS employees had supported a candidate in the most recent commission race, but did not have first-hand knowledge.

His questions came as the commission was considering allocating human service and alcohol tax funds as recommended by the organization. UCS provides data analysis and other resources to human services providers.

“I really struggle with that on one side, if UCS is helping people get elected and then they show up here wanting money,” Brown said. “It becomes in my opinion self serving and a conflict of interest. It’s going to put me in a position of now wanting to support them and that is not where I want to be.”

Marya Schott, director of resource allocation for UCS, responded to Brown. She said the non-profit does have a policy against political engagement by its staff. Although it does some advocacy work, she said it stays within the guidelines barring work on behalf of individual candidates.

Klika said the county manager’s office should check into the matter, though Commission Chairman Ed Eilert warned that commissioners should not infringe on people’s rights to express themselves.

Former UCS director Karen Wulfkuhle contributed $100 to Hanzlick’s campaign. Wulfkuhle stepped down from UCS two years ago.

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