Q & A: Johnson County Commission Chair Candidates
The three candidates running for Johnson County Commission Chair in Tuesday's primary election appeared on Up To Date Friday. In a forum led by guest host Brian Ellison and covering taxes, growth, and the county’s purchase of the King Louie Bowling Alley, candidates Ed Eilert, Ed Peterson and Patricia Lightner fielded questions from listeners. At the forefront of the conversation were the divergences among the candidates' political philosophies which have elevated this year's election past the usual county politics.
Mike in Overland Park: "I'm interested in how much each candidate is committed to the beautification and pedestrian bike lane of Metcalf . . . to extending that all the way out north or continuing upward on Metcalf as opposed to stopping where it is presently."
Ed Peterson: "That’s a great question because it really raises the viewpoint that we have of how we’re going to develop and redevelop our interior part of the county. I am committed to the continuation of those kinds of development whether Metcalf is the next line for extension, I can't say. We've also abandoned the development of our streamway park system. We used to have funds in place to continually expand and maintain that. Those funds are now being used for other purposes. I think all of these modes of transportation: pedestrian, bike, bus service, and of course the automobile is going to continue to be prevalent, all of those have to be mixed. We have to look toward intermodal combinations of service and they need to be the type of development that will support redevelopment and mixed used development within the community."
Ed Eilert: "Those kind of decisions are really up to the city, and it's their responsibility to design and build the walkways, the streets that are within their corporate limits. The county really does not determine that kind of decision. The CARS (County Assistance Road System) program I mentioned does support that kind of activity, and the current pathways and bus kiosks on Metcalf were paid for by federal funds, I think about $10 million. So yes, I would encourage the cities to continue to move in that direction, but the final decision is theirs and not the county."
Patricia Lightner: "The easiest thing again here would be to say, again, it comes down to an audit, what are we currently spending money on? And the big thing always with the budget is to prioritize needs versus wants. And that would be one of my founding principles with planning the budget and that would certainly be a factor."
Cindy from Shawnee "I'd like to ask each of the candidates to explain how they might increase transparency in county government. It seems in the last four years things have become less transparent."
Ed Eilert: "I don’t agree that there’s been less transparency in county government. We have worked very, very hard and revamped our public information office and we have new publications that are excellent explaining what is going on at the county level. Every one of our business sessions is broadcast by one of the cable providers as well as streamed on computer, the internet. We make a major, major effort to publicize whenever we meet and, in fact, this past year we held budget hearings, or budget forums, in every district, commission district, in the county. So, no, I don’t agree with the lack of transparency. We continue to examine all efforts in that area. You continue to evaluate, look at the technology that’s available and make sure that every opportunity is taken advantage of."
Patricia Lightner: "Well, as far as actual meetings I’m sure those are fine. My big question on this is the budget. When you read the county budget its very difficult to read and you can’t find everything that I think should be there for the average person to be able to pick it up and know where the county is spending our monies. And so, that would be one of my first goals too would be to make it a clearer, more defined, more open and transparent budget that actually shows where those monies are going. And, of course, to make sure that the outreach services that Chair Eilert just spoke about are there and in place for people when they do have questions about different things that the county is doing."
Ed Peterson: "I think that we have become too casual in the way we're making our decisions and that is lapsing into a lack of transparency. I do think our community outreach efforts such as the new publication and the public hearings that we’ve had on the budget are a great step toward reac hing out to the community, but in terms of our own internal decision-making, we have begun to make too many decisions in our meetings in the basement. What started out as study sessions have kind of lapsed into informal decision making.
Yesterday we made a decision on appointment of a doctor for our public health. That initially started off, it was on a consent agenda, noncontroversial, it was tabled indefinitely. During the period that it was tabled five commissioners managed to reach a conclusion that this doctor was not appropriate and yesterday we voted against appointing that doctor. None of those conversations occurred in public and I think we need to take some steps to solidify the fact that our decisions are being made in public and the public's views are being heard."
Theresa in Shawnee: "Initially when that vote came up about that very qualified person, there was some pressure from Mary Kay Culp and then the final decision, which obviously I'm concerned about the stance that the individual candidates on this, someone who is very qualified, a KU physician who serves in that role for Wyandotte County that we need in Johnson County. So, I would like to hear everyone's stance on that and it should have been public information, how they voted."
(Note: Dr. Allen Greiner is a physician and researcher at KU Medical Center. He was proposed for appointment by county staff as the Public Health Officer. His appointment received opposition from the Kansans for Life PAC among others. It was defeated by a 5-2 vote by the Commission.)
Ed Eilert: " Several weeks ago when the motion was tabled, it was tabled on a five-two vote. That was a public vote taken at the county commission meeting. That vote did not change and yesterday it was five to two to not recommend the appointment. In the case of Dr. Greiner my position was this: I have no questions about his medical ability. I think he’s an excellent doctor and that was not the issue. But it was his actions away from delivering medical services in regards to a hearing in Topeka and I felt that the possibility that those actions would continue to divert attention, had he been hired, divert attention away from the important mission of the public health department, and that was where my decision came from, plus that fact that I think we have a very qualified alternative . . . Well, the distraction was as a result of his actions away from delivering medical services, yes."
Ed Peterson: "First of all it was apparent that he was an outstanding selection for this position. I was very moved by the public testimony, that is the most powerful public testimony I have seen in my years of public service. As well as his qualifications are concerned, he was excellent. I’m very concerned about the process that was used here. It creates the appearance that an outside group can influence our personell decisions and the fear of that outside group will continue to influence our decision-making going forward and I think that’s dangerous I think what we should do is select the right person and stand up for them . . . my understanding is it's Kansans for Life that have intervened in this case."
Patricia Lightner: "If this doctor created this public outcry, then the public got involved and isn’t that what our county is about? It’s about the citizens. And they should have a say in the selection and if there was a group, and I would say it would be a pretty nice-sized group, that was upset with this particular selection then it was proper to turn this doctor down. There are lots of fine doctors in Johnson County that we can choose that wouldn't have this kind of opposition. So if there was a question about his credentials and anything going forward it was proper that he, it, was a no vote and was turned down."
Brian Ellison: Do you feel like issues relating to abortion, pro-life issues, Ms. Lightner on your website you say "culture of life" is a core commitment of yours. Do you think that's relevant to the office of County Chair?
Patricia Lightner: "This whole situation became what it became because of the selection of this particular doctor. And lets be clear, this doctor was involved with an abortion clinic and had some decision-making on the side of that. So, and it all came into question in Topeka as well, so why would you want to nominate a controversial figure?"
Ed Eilert: "There are various interests, and I would categorize them from A to Z, on issues that come before the county commission. And so we hear from a variety of groups who have specific interest on a specific item. And you receive that information, I think you have a responsibility to receive that information, to evaluate the information, and then reach your own conclusion based upon that evaluation."
Ed Peterson: "I certainly agree that those groups have the right and we have the obligation to consider the input that they provide. I think in this case it was a personnel decision and that’s where I would draw the line. I don’t think any one particular interest group should be in a position of being able to influence this strongly a personnel decision and that’s my objection to the process that was followed here; it allowed one particular group to have that kind of influence."