Voters to select general election candidates for 3rd District Douglas County Commission in Tuesday’s primary

photo by: John Young

From left, Jim Denney (R), Jim Weaver (D), Bassem Chahine (D) and Michelle Derusseau (R) answer questions during a question and answer session sponsored by the Voter Education Coalition on Sunday afternoon, July 10, 2016, at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

Democratic and Republican voters in the Douglas County Commission 3rd District will choose candidates Tuesday to advance to the November general election.

Democrats vying to succeed retiring 3rd District County Commissioner Jim Flory, a Republican, are Lawrence businessman Bassem Chahine and rural Lecompton resident Jim Weaver, a retired career firefighter and former manager with the Douglas County Conservation District.

The two Republicans on the ballot are former Kansas University Public Safety Director Jim Denney and Michelle Derusseau, who is active in a number of law enforcement support organizations.

The 3rd District represents precincts in west Lawrence and western Douglas County. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Bassem Chahine

Bassem Chahine started his first business in Lawrence while an undergraduate at Kansas University with a loan that his father gave him with some skepticism.

“My father said, ‘We brought you all the way here from the Middle East to start a hookah lounge?'” he said. “I told him Lawrence was a university town and one was needed.”

It turned out Chahine’s instincts were right. The Hookah House, which opened in 2006, prospered, and he has opened other lounges since then. He also started a spin-off business that imports, packages and manufactures tobacco and tobacco products. Chahine now has 30 employees.

Chahine developed his business acumen in Lawrence after moving to the community when he was 16. After retiring as a petroleum engineer in the United Arab Emirates, his father had planned to resettle his family in California.

photo by: John Young

Bassem Chahine

“We visited my older brother, who was in law school at KU,” Chahine said. “We fell in love with Lawrence.”

Chahine went on to graduate from Free State High School in 2003 and earn a degree in business administration from KU in 2008. He has since added a master’s and doctorate in business administration from the University of Phoenix. He is married to his “high school sweetheart,” Elizabeth, with whom he has two children.

Chahine is proud of his small business success, but as the Democrat campaigns for the 3rd District Douglas County Commission seat, he is advocating for a different model of economic development.

With the exception of KU, Lawrence and Douglas County have only a handful of “primary businesses,” Chahine said. Although he welcomes the new businesses opening in west Lawrence, he said they were not the economic game changers the county requires. What’s needed are companies in the technology, bioscience or manufacturing spheres, he said.

The higher salaries those types of businesses offer would provide enough for employees to afford the $250,000 homes that are being built in the county and would help retain talented KU graduates in the community, he said.

The issue raised most often by residents in the 3rd District during his campaign is that of the expansion of the Douglas County Jail and the construction of a mental health crisis intervention center, Chahine said. He is alone among the candidates seeking the County Commission seat in opposing the current County Commission’s position to couple those two projects in a bond referendum to finance their construction.

“It is my belief that the ballot questions should be presented to the public separately. I am in full support of the mental health crisis intervention center and would like to see that brought to the ballot as soon as possible. However, myself and members of the public who I have interacted with are curious about potential other solutions to the jail problem beyond expansion. This is not to say that I am opposed to the jail expansion, and I fully recognize the problems of overcrowding that are present,” he wrote in response to a Journal-World question on the linking of the jail expansion and crisis center in a referendum.

Jim Denney

Jim Denney is pointing to his record of accomplishment and leadership as the centerpiece of his campaign for the 3rd District Douglas County Commission seat, but there’s one thing he admits to having failed.

“I’ve flunked retirement three times,” he said.

photo by: John Young

Jim Denney

Denney grew up in western Kansas, spending years in Hays, La Crosse and Great Bend. He joined the Air Force after graduating from high school, flying reconnaissance missions over Vietnam and other places he said he’s not at liberty to reveal. He left the service after more than seven years and enrolled in Kansas University in 1972 to finish the degree he started in the Air Force.

Douglas County has been home to him and his wife, Sandra, ever since, Denney said.

Finding himself bored with undergraduate college life, he took a job as a KU police officer, and became interested in a law enforcement career, Denney said. Three years later, he was promoted to the director of security at KU Medical Center. After another two years, he was named director of security at KU, a position he held from 1978 to 1997. He is a past president of the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police and a graduate of the FBI National Academy.

His departure from KU proved to be his first failed retirement. In 1998, he was named the director of Douglas County Emergency Communications. That position gave him the opportunity to drive all the roads in the county checking on radio signals, and it also provided him with direct experience with county government and its budget process.

After retiring from that position in 2008, he hung out his shingle as a public safety communications consultant before agreeing in 2013 to serve on the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the Metropolitan Planning Organization in 2014. He left both of those bodies to run for the commission.

Should he succeed in winning the seat, he will again fail at retirement. Current 3rd District County Commissioner Jim Flory would share some of the blame for that failure because he encouraged Denney to run for the seat and has endorsed him in the race.

As that endorsement might suggest, Denney is supportive of the current County Commission and said he knew he could work with incumbent commissioners Nancy Thellman and Mike Gaughan.

Denney agrees with the County Commission’s position to advance a bond referendum to finance the expansion of the Douglas County Jail with the construction of a mental health crisis intervention center.

“The problem of an overcrowded jail cannot be denied. We are spending $1 million per year to farm out the overflow. That there are people in jail who would be better handled by other means cannot be denied. Expansion of the jail facility and construction of a mental health crisis center are not two separate projects, but rather, are two aspects of the same problem that both the community and the Commission have a duty and an obligation to address. A new Crisis Intervention Center will not by itself, solve the crisis especially for the female population,” he wrote in response to a Journal-World question on the coupling of the jail and crisis center.

Michelle Derusseau

As she has gone door to door campaigning for the 3rd District County Commission seat, Michelle Derusseau has found the public largely uninformed about the role of county government and the commission.

photo by: John Young

Michelle Derusseau

“I’ve had people tell me they couldn’t vote for me because they lived in Lawrence,” she said. “I actually have a video — ‘County Commission 101’ — on my website to explain what the commission does.”

The race is Derusseau’s first run for political office, but she said she been active in civic groups and politics since she her childhood in Shawnee.

Derusseau has been a resident of Lawrence since 1982, her freshman year at Kansas University, where she studied politics and history before getting a certificate in human resources from the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Her first full-time job in Lawrence was with the Kansas University Endowment Association, and she returned to the foundation three years ago after a long stint as a business director with a Lawrence beer distributor.

She started getting “very active” in the community in 1989, said Derusseau, who is married to Lawrence architect Ron Derusseau. Since that time, she has been secretary of the Lawrence St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a member of the Douglas County American Red Cross Disaster Action Team and active in Junior Achievement for Women, the Lawrence Business/Education Partnership and Kids Voting USA.

Another area of community involvement has focused on support for local law enforcement. Derusseau is president of the Lawrence Police Foundation, chair of the Douglas County Valor First Responder Awards and served as campaign coordinator of the Friends of the Lawrence Police.

Her position with the Lawrence Police Foundation has provided insight on an important issue in the election, Derusseau said. The foundation is funding the crisis intervention training that Lawrence Police Department officers, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office deputies and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Inc. staff are receiving on how to approach those experiencing mental health problems so that incidents don’t escalate to requiring incarceration.

She has attended County Commission meetings and work sessions on proposals to expand the Douglas County Jail, construct a mental health crisis intervention center and create a mental health court, but Derusseau said she doesn’t have all the information county commissioners have gathered in their three-year review of the county’s criminal justice system. Therefore, she supports the County Commission’s linking of the jail and crisis intervention center on any bond referendum put before county voters.

“The current county commissioners have been studying this for three years and therefore are much more informed on the background information. So at this time, I am not in a position to question their decision. There is overlap with mental health and the jail. If our community wants to address the mental health incarceration issue, the jail should be part of the discussion because there is and will be a jail population with mental health issues, and there currently is not a safe and effective way to provide for their needs,” she wrote in response to a Journal-World question on linking the jail and crisis center for voter approval.

Jim Weaver

Jim Weaver says he likes to keep busy and has a rebuilt 100-year-old home to prove it.

A Realtor friend showed him and his wife, Colleen, the house in western Douglas County, knowing they were looking for a rural setting but thinking they wouldn’t want the neglected house, Weaver said. Because of the beauty of the surrounding countryside, Weaver was up for to the challenge of what would become a complete rebuild of the house.

photo by: John Young

Jim Weaver

That same stay-active attitude contributed to the rural Lecompton Democrat’s decision to run for the 3rd District Douglas County Commission seat, Weaver said. There were also a number of issues that motivated that decision, including the Douglas County Commission’s efforts to re-establish public confidence in the county’s planning and zoning department after its controversial handling of a high-profile case last year involving Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Weaver said the County Commission had taken the right steps in hiring a new director for the department and implementing changes recommended in a study by an outside consultant. But Weaver said commissioners now needed to follow up by staying engaged in the reform process.

“The report should not be placed on a shelf and forgotten. The director should make monthly progress reports to the Commission, and a final report should be produced when all of the appropriate recommendations have been implemented. The county should then host a public meeting to explain how the department intends to function moving forward,” he wrote in a response to a Journal-World question.

Weaver goes further and advocates periodic reviews of all departments.

“There should be no sacred cows,” he said. “Systematic reviews of all departments and services are necessary.”

Public scrutiny can play a positive role in addressing problems, Weaver said, citing efforts he led as a deputy chief of the Topeka Fire Department to correct headline-grabbing design flaws in a new fire station.

“It was my responsibility to get it rebuilt,” he said. “We brought it in as a functioning modern station under budget.”

Weaver served in the Topeka Fire Department for 32 years, rising through the ranks to deputy chief. In that job, he was responsible for developing and managing the fire department’s $20 million annual operational budget, Weaver said. He was also chosen as a union representative for the department, which, coupled with his later position as legislative representative for the American Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, gave him experience in such things as arbitration, collective bargaining, negotiations, grievance hearings and the interactions and responsibilities of different levels of government.

Weaver retired from the Topeka Fire Department in 2005. Wanting to stay busy, he went to work for the Douglas County Conservation District in 2007 as a program coordinator. He was named the district’s program manager in 2014 before retiring last year.

“I worked with landowners all over the county on terraces, waterways, seeding and other conservation projects,” he said.

From that experience, Weaver brings to his campaign a dedication to preserving Douglas County’s soils, water quality and other natural resources. As commissioner, he would work to identify projects and secure outside funding to ensure the county’s water quality was protected, he said.