Mayor, city council, school board: Races to watch in Johnson County’s primary Tuesday

·11 min read

During a recent forum at City Hall, two candidates were asked about their top priorities if elected mayor of Edgerton.

“Well, I’d like to continue what we’ve been doing,” said longtime incumbent Donald Roberts, who espoused the benefits of the giant Logistics Park Kansas City that has come to define the southwest Johnson County community.

Roberts said the facility operated by the BNSF railroad and the accompanying warehouses and logistics operations have brought new revenue to town, making it a better place to live and work.

His primary challenger, Brent Carroll, is employed at the logistics park. Yet he worries that it hasn’t fully delivered on its promises to the community of 1,700.

Though the park has been built out with new roads, lighting and other infrastructure, neighborhoods in the heart of town haven’t seen those kinds of improvements, he said. And like others, he has questions about the rich tax incentives routinely granted to developers there and the pledge that those will soon pay off for residents.

“It looks good on paper. I guess I’m just impatient,” he said.

In Edgerton, four candidates are competing in the mayoral primary on Tuesday, although only Carroll and Roberts attended the recent forum. While his name remains on the ballot, Tyler Winkleman has bowed out and is supporting Carroll. The fourth candidate, Jeremy Seifert, texted with a Star reporter but did not return calls for an interview.

It’s one of two mayoral primaries in Johnson County, along with the contest for Overland Park mayor, which has drawn four candidates hoping to replace retiring Carl Gerlach. And across the county, there are several other notable races for city council and school board.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

In Edgerton, the massive logistics park is a defining issue. Roberts, the 12-year incumbent, has been a champion of the park and its developers. But many in the community have grown outraged at the pace and nature of industrial development. Some neighbors just outside of town are so frustrated they are attempting to create their own city to keep out the kinds of warehouses that Edgerton has welcomed.

Edgerton’s primary will winnow the four candidates down to two, so it’s possible Carroll and Roberts will compete again in November, when city council candidates will also be on the ballot.

The job of mayor is a lucrative one. Though Edgerton is among the smallest Johnson County communities, the top elected official earns well above peers in much bigger cities. In 2018, the council approved raising Roberts’ salary from $1,000 per year to $90,000.

He says the job is full-time, particularly because of all that is happening at the logistics park. But Carroll has pledged to return the role to part-time and cut the salary drastically if he’s elected.

Advance mail-in and in-person voting has already begun. There also are eight ballot drop-off boxes available throughout the county. For more information, visit jocoelection.org.

Here are the other races to watch:

Olathe school board

Johnson County school board races have drawn a slate of newcomers, including some who said they felt inspired to run after watching districts make difficult, and often unpopular, decisions during the past pandemic year.

Only one contest, though, has enough candidates to put it on the primary ballot. Five are contending for an open seat on the Olathe school board, hoping to replace the retiring Brent McCune.

McCune supports Julie Steele, a former special education and early childhood teacher in Olathe schools. Steele, 50, has four children, including three who have so far graduated from the district.

She said her priorities include student safety, addressing staffing shortages exacerbated by the pandemic and increasing the diversity of a district leadership that “does not match what our community looks like.”

Olathe officials are determining how to begin the school year safely next month, as the delta variant causes COVID-19 cases to resurge. So far, the district has said masks will be optional. Johnson County health officials, though, have urged schools to at least require masks for the unvaccinated, such as students under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for the shots.

Steele said that leaving such decisions up to school boards, rather than public health officials, has divided the community. But she sides with the science.

“I believe in data-driven decisions. That’s where I land. And I also believe in talking to constituents,” she said. “I think as a leader, we have a responsibility to keep kids safe, keep them all in person this school year and not have to go through what we did last year with shut downs.”

Ryan Campbell, 39, said he felt frustrated as a parent last year because district officials did not communicate enough as classes switched from in person to remote or hybrid. The school board waited too long to announce decisions on learning modes and safety protocols, leaving parents scrambling, he said.

“All of the districts seemed to wait as long as they could to see if someone else would take the first step. If another district takes that step, then they would say we’ll go along with them. We need to be brave enough to make a decision,” Campbell said. “Use all of the information that we have, and if you make a wrong decision, own it and correct it.”

He also advocated for families to have a choice on masks. Campbell, who works in the banking industry, is the father of two elementary-aged boys. He said his other priorities include improving academic achievement and fostering an environment for teachers to comfortably voice their opinions with administrators.

Jennifer Gilmore, 40, is a former planning commissioner for the city of Gardner. She has worked in several school districts as a substitute teacher, payroll and compliance coordinator and high school bookkeeper. She has two daughters in the district.

She said “parents should make the decision if their child is masked but in general we should advocate for hand washing, sanitizer and the overall reduction in spreading germs.”

“I think the district is making the right decision with it being individual freedom of choice,” Gilmore said. “There is a level here of where we are kind of overstepping a government role.”

She is also advocating for the district to be more transparent with parents about curriculum, to improve communication with families and reduce class sizes.

Tiffany Seaman, 40, who taught for 10 years in Olathe, has also been an educator in the Blue Valley and Turner systems. She now teaches at Baker University and has three children in the Olathe district.

Seaman said she felt the frustration of parents who had to navigate fast-changing policies during the pandemic. She said the district should be more consistent with the guidance it follows. And with the delta variant surge, she supports a mask mandate for unvaccianted students.

“Our board of education does not have backgrounds in public health. We need to rely on experts,” Seaman said. “I hope to see they put mask mandates back in place, at least for those younger students who can’t be vaccinated yet, like my own kiddos. We really need to stick to our guidelines.”

As a longtime teacher, Seaman said she would bring an informed perspective to the school board, and advocate for district employees to be more involved in decisions that affect the classrooms. She also has literacy and dyslexia initiatives as a main focus, as well as ideas on strengthening relationships within the community.

Stephen Todd, also running for the seat, did not respond to The Star’s request for interview.

Olathe City Council

Two Olathe City Council seats are on Tuesday’s ballot. The contests have largely been focused on the city’s role in development, and whether it should continue to create special districts that impose additional taxes on property owners to fund road improvements.

It’s a major topic for the three at-large candidates, after residents this past year protested the creation of benefit districts, particularly within the Cedar Creek development off of K-10. Some said they were never informed of the additional taxes before buying their homes.

Councilman Kevin Gilmore is seeking a full term in an at-large seat, after being appointed to fill a vacancy in the 3rd Ward last year. He also serves as the director of pensions and benefits for the Church of the Nazarene.

Gilmore said benefit districts can be useful because developers don’t have to pay infrastructure costs up front and sellers get better prices for their homes. But he said he would not support a district to levy taxes on existing homeowners for new road construction, like the original proposal for Cedar Creek that was withdrawn following opposition.

“I rejected that and said that’s not right. It’s not going to happen with my vote going forward, and I think the majority of the council feels the same way,” Gilmore said. “So I think that practice is over. I don’t think benefit districts are done in our city, but I don’t think there will be nearly as many as there have been in the past.”

Dean Vakas wants to see the city move away from benefit districts and find other ways to pay for infrastructure. Such districts should be a last resort, he said, and at the very least, city officials should be more transparent when such a taxing district is proposed.

Vakas, chairman of the Olathe Planning Commission, has 30 years of military experience. He retired last year as chief operating officer of the Kansas State University Olathe Campus.

David Laughter is a first-time candidate who is retired from Emerson Electric. He said benefit districts have been overused, and that they are not a good strategy for funding road improvements.

“I’m not sure there are going to be many that I think are appropriate. I’m in the camp that says it’s not a good strategy for the most part. The city needs to think very hard about how they’re doing it,” Laughter said.

Voters in Olathe’s 3rd Ward will narrow a slate of six candidates on Tuesday. The ward sits east of Interstate 35 and south of Santa Fe Street.

Benjamin Nogueras Lleras Jr., a senior engineer at T-Mobile in Overland Park, said he is “running to serve, to add diversity, to be a voice for those that have never had a voice in politics, to offer a grounded and balanced view that may help improve our community.” His other priorities include improving infrastructure, growing the city’s job base and improving transparency at City Hall.

Dustin Fuller, owner of an Olathe concrete company, said he can bring fresh eyes to the City Council. He wants more city support for small businesses as they recover from the pandemic, and money to add police officers and first responders.

Larry Brown is running after he sued the city, claiming he was unfairly fired for belonging to a motorcycle club. He said he was hired to work for the Information Technology department, but later terminated without being given a legitimate reason.

The experience inspired him to run for council, he said, and he wants to ensure that city employees avoid such treatment in the future. He also believes the that the current council makes decisions without enough public communication, and he’d like to improve that, as well as curb tax incentives going to developers.

LeEtta Felter serves on the Olathe school board, and she said she’d like to serve in both positions if elected to council. Vice president of AAG Investments, she said the city suffered a great loss with the death of Mayor Michael Copeland last year, and that he inspired her to run.

Felter wants to implement the city’s strategic plan guiding growth and development over the next 20 years, tackle the city budget and other issues with transparency, and use data to manage the city’s finances.

Wayne Janner did not agree to an interview with The Star. He serves on the Olathe Planning Commission and founded a local Keller Williams Realty franchise.

Luciana Ortega-Garcia is no longer campaigning for the seat.

Overland Park races

Overland Park residents will vote for a new mayor and four City Council members on Tuesday.

Four candidates are running for mayor: Councilmen Curt Skoog and Faris Farassati, and newcomers Clay Norkey and Mike Czinege. Read The Star’s coverage of the mayor’s race here.

In the 1st Ward, voters will choose between incumbent Councilman Logan Heley and challengers Carol Merritt, Michael Czerniewski and Ryan Spencer.

Three candidates are running for an open seat in the 2nd Ward: Melissa Cheatham, Roger Tarbutton and Tony Medina.

In the 4th Ward, incumbent Stacie Gram faces newcomers Ty Gardner and Scott Mosher.

Three candidates are competing for a vacant seat in the 5th Ward: Sam Passer, Sheila Rodriguez and Amy Goodman-Long.

Read The Star’s coverage of the Overland Park council races here.

Lenexa City Council

Two City Council seats are on the primary ballot.

Incumbent Corey Hunt, seeking reelection in the 3rd Ward, is facing challengers Gael Wheeler, Laura Hill and Melanie Arroyo.

Three newcomers are running for the 4th Ward seat: Craig Denny, Hophine Bwosinde and Scott Callaway.

Merriam City Council

Three candidates are running for the 2nd Ward council seat held by Councilman Brian Knaff, who is not seeing reelection.

They are Amy Rider, Nancy Hammond and Richard Gendvil.

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