Voter Guide: Douglas County Commission candidate Q&A
Two of three seats on the Douglas County Commission are being contested this election cycle.
Vying for the 2nd District seat is political newcomer Jesse Brinson Jr., who is running as an independent. His opponent is incumbent Democrat Nancy Thellman, who is seeking her third four-year term on the County Commission. The 2nd District includes east Lawrence precincts and eastern Douglas County, including Baldwin City and Eudora.
The 3rd District seat is open with Jim Flory’s decision not to seek a third term on the County Commission. Contesting for the seat are Democrat Bassem Chahine and Republican Michelle Derusseau, It is the first campaign for public office for both candidates. The winner will represent the district of west Lawrence and the western portion of the county, including Clinton, Lecompton, Stull, Globe and Worden.
The four candidates each answered questions from the Journal-World, The questions were:
• Do you support the current commission’s linking on any ballot question the renovation and expansion of the county jail with the construction of a mental health crisis intervention center?
• County residents, county commissioners and other local jurisdictions have access concerns related to a proposed project to reconfigure the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike and South Lawrence Trafficway northwest of Lawrence. What alignment do you support for the Lecompton interchange project? What steps can the county commission take to ensure future access to the south Lawrence and the southwest section of the county?
• How would you promote growth in Douglas County while preserving its character with the knowledge the County Commission will be asked during the term of the person elected to the position to approve the update of the city of Lawrence’s Horizon 2020 plan?
• What in your background has prepared you for the County Commission seat?
• Name other priorities or interests you would like to address in the next four years as county commissioner?
Jesse Brinson Jr.
Jail and mental health crisis center
I believe that our community needs to find appropriate solutions to help improve mental health in our county. There seems to be a consensus that we would benefit from an intervention center; however, I think there should still be some discussions to determine the extent to which current mental health providers in the community will work together to provide the best courses of treatment. I believe that before we build new structures, the quality of the services those buildings will provide should be proven. Money should be spent on people, not projects.
The difficulty is that the current county commission has linked the building of an intervention center with the expansion of the county jail. The two projects should be treated separately. Most people I visit with have a positive view of creating an intervention center, but are so opposed to expanding the county jail, they plan to vote against the proposal. It seems as though the county commission was simply trying to get voters who care deeply about mental health services to go along with a jail expansion because they knew the jail expansion would not pass on its own.
I believe our community would benefit if we began researching programs that could decrease our jail population. Programs are always preferable to prisons. Even limited time spent in jail for nonviolent offenses has a dramatic, harmful effect on the families of those incarcerated. If we can implement programs to help alleviate overcrowding and defer imprisonment for nonviolent offenders, our resources could be spent to educate at-risk groups in our community. We need to take the time to have necessary conversations and collaborate to find viable, long-term solutions for jail overcrowding in our county.
Programs like Vera Institute and Justice Management Institute have this focus, and I’d like to see our county look into these programs to see how they might be able to help our community as well.
Safety and cost are the primary issues involved in the reconfiguration and access of roads. KDOT engineers and consultants have done an excellent job of studying the issues and presenting their findings to the county. We should implement those findings, while listening to the concerns of Lecompton’s citizens and limiting their costs as a community.
Lawrence’s well thought-out Horizon 2020 plan was the result of an incredible amount of community involvement. As with any long-term plan, there is always a need to refine and clarify it in light of the local, national and international climate in which we live. I do feel that it is important to work with current businesses to help them expand and use those successes to attract new business to our county. It is critical that our next commissioners not simply approve updates, but that they actively work to promote the kind of healthy growth we seek. This takes hard work, constant dialogue and creative problem solving.
Since graduating from the University of Kansas, I have devoted my life to community service. I have spent the last 12 years mentoring students, serving our schools, and working to bring positive changes to our community. As I have spent time in the community, I have consistently heard that people don’t feel their voices are being heard by politicians. Through serving, I have been prepared to not only listen, but also to help bring skills in dialoging with others, creative problem solving and collaboration to work to find solutions for our community that put people first.
Elected officials should not approach their governance with “spending priorities.” It isn’t their money to spend — it belongs to taxpayers. Taxpayers should be heard in how elected officials spend taxpayer money. My top priority as commissioner will be to listen to voters so that we can find better solutions to the challenges that concern them. Three areas that come up consistently when I visit with people are the provision of better treatment for those experiencing a mental health crisis, the need for solutions to jail overpopulation and the continuation of excellent county services, roads and facilities.
Jail and mental health crisis center
Linking of a potential jail expansion and a mental health crisis center as a single ballot proposition is not the central question. The new commission will prioritize these needs, finalize the proposals, provide education to the public and ultimately choose how to present them on the ballot. After years of studying these issues, I am personally convinced and in full agreement with my fellow commissioners that both a jail expansion and separate mental health crisis center are essential for our community’s future health and well-being. If re-elected, I will work hard to see that both projects are presented to the voters who will ultimately make the decision to fund or not. But frankly, I believe the conversation must go much deeper than this “coupling/de-coupling” conundrum.
Here are the facts: Douglas County has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the entire state. This is largely due to the diligent diversion efforts in the District Attorney’s office working with local law enforcement, local courts, and a wide array of collaborative social services in our community. Despite our low incarceration rate and diversion efforts, our county jail is chronically filled beyond capacity and its structural configuration is not suitable to properly house our women inmates and those inmates with mental health issues or special needs. We now pay $1 million per year to house anywhere from 50 to 70 Douglas County inmates out of the county, taking them far from their family, far from their legal counsel, and far from our nationally recognized re-entry services designed to help keep them from coming back to jail. Facing these hard facts, in 2013 the Commission began an intensive review of the situation with input from the Sheriff’s Department, District and Municipal Courts, the District Attorney’s office, mental health professionals, and nationally recognized consultants with expertise in mental health diversion and de-incarceration. We also held six town hall style listening sessions along the way. Personally, I have spent literally hundreds of hours talking to citizens on a one-to-one basis, reviewing the data, talking with other local officials, visiting facilities in other cities and states, and gathering all the input I can. I want to make sure we get this right for now and years to come. And I say this not just because of the fiscal implication of inaction–which is substantial–but because of the human implications for our citizens both inside the jail and out.
It has also become crystal clear that more mental health services are needed in Douglas County, especially services for people with severe and persistent mental illness and those experiencing mental health crisis. Catastrophic budget cuts by the state have caused mental health services to shrink. Our County Commission has done its level best to backfill those budget cuts so our citizens would not experience diminished mental health services. Nevertheless, our most vulnerable citizens are left with few options for care when an already difficult situation goes from bad to worse. Consequently, our jail sometimes becomes the default location for housing people in the throes of problems that sometimes come with serious mental illness. Again, faced with this growing need, the county undertook intensive study of the issue with input from the community at all levels, as well as listening to expert consultants in the field of mental health diversion and de-incarceration. What has emerged is a clear consensus that a community-based mental health crisis center is needed, taking the form of a stand alone mental health facility located on the medical campus by Bert Nash and Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
Some argue that if the courts, district attorney, sheriff’s office and other county agencies just tried harder we could significantly decrease our jail population. Well, we are trying harder. Since 2014 we’ve added three new diversion programs: Behavioral Court, A.I.D., and Pre-Trial Supervision. Additionally, we’ve created a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to guide the County Commission in further efforts to reduce incarceration and assure we have a criminal justice system that is on the leading edge. However, some of system change people hope for is beyond the county’s control. The state sets mandatory sentencing which ties our judges’ hands. Chronic underfunding by the state leaves our district court, corrections office and mental health system with inadequate resources to quickly process cases. This means people move through the criminal justice system slower, await trial longer, and are housed at the county’s expense in the meantime. These are issues which need to be taken up aggressively at the state level for sure, because the impact the county’s situation greatly. But for those things the county can control, we are attempting to using good data, seeking reasonable solutions, and weighing every option with an eye toward both justice and compassion. That is not just our fiscal duty. It is our moral duty as well.
I prefer an alignment of I-70 with K-10/SLT that provides local access to Farmer’s Turnpike. After a huge turnout for a KDOT-hosted public forum on alignment options, KDOT agreed to re-evaluate their plans in hopes of finding a way to align the needs of the local community with the need for KDOT to provide a fast and safe interchange.
KDOT has gone to extra measures to include Douglas County, the city of Lawrence, and citizens’ comments in its evaluation process. KDOT recently announced a plan to proceed with an environmental impact study and when this is underway they will invite public comment on that process, likely in early 2017.
It is important to note that KDOT has the ultimate authority for this interchange decision, though they are listening to the concerns of our Douglas County citizens. This project is currently unfunded beyond concept planning and costs of public engagement.
As for access concerns in the southern part of Douglas County related to the proposed western SLT lane expansion, the county has included funding in its capital improvement plan, which sets the stage for a state, city and county partnership to extend Wakarusa Drive and create a new interchange that would dramatically improve local access between southern Douglas County and Lawrence. We will continue to implore the state and city of Lawrence to jointly fund this project sooner rather than later since, in our estimation, it does not have to wait for the SLT lane expansion, which could be many years away, and could provide dramatic improvements in both safety and access for those who live in southern Douglas County.
I have long been an advocate for preserving the rural character of Douglas County, and I am proud to have created the county’s Natural and Cultural Heritage Conservation program. This competitive grant program helps fund projects that preserve and protect the fabulous rural character of Douglas County, which is rich with unique historical sites and structures, rich with an agricultural base of small family farms, and rich with irreplaceable natural resources like prime agricultural land and deep running waters. To date, this program has helped leverage over $1 million in outside dollars toward Douglas County’s natural, cultural and historic preservation and conservation efforts. This matters when it comes to our community’s quality of life and local economy. Protecting these community assets also helps draw people to move here and set down roots. Paying attention to our natural environment, history, culture and arts, having a strong local food and farming culture, maintaining good public trails and parks with vistas of a clean, healthy and unspoiled environment are things people now weigh heavily in deciding whether to move to a community or not. And on these things, we shine in Douglas County. But to keep it that way takes forward thinking programs, planning and policies.
In keeping with these priorities, I also initiated the state’s first Food Policy Council here in Douglas County. The work of this group helps define issues of local and regional food system development and food security, local food economy and local food culture, which all help inform future planning decisions regarding sustainable agriculture, urban agriculture, availability of truly good agricultural land and water, developing market demand strategies and distribution chains for food production and food sales. To date, our local Food Policy Council is responsible for leveraging $1.2 million in outside dollars toward local efforts building a sustainable, equitable local food system.
In terms of more general planning policy, I am currently co-chair of the Horizon 2020 Steering Committee, serving alongside Mayor Mike Amyx. The committee is charged with helping create the new comprehensive plan. In that role I have been an active advocate for infill development over sprawl, multi-modal transportation, which is bike and pedestrian friendly, walkable neighborhoods, quality affordable housing scattered across the county, strong environmental policies combined with language that acknowledges the planning challenges of climate change adaptation. My great hope is that after a couple of years of work on the new comprehensive plan, we will have an end product that is actually comprehensible. It will be more accessible to the general public while still providing strong, clear, far-sighted guidance for those challenging development projects and planning decisions that are sure to come before us in next 15 to 20 years.
I was born and raised in Lawrence and, after being away for almost 15 years, chose to move back to Lawrence with my husband to raise our three children here. I’ve spent the majority of my life in this community, always involved in some way, whether through being a nurse briefly at LMH (most of my nursing employment was at KUMC), or as an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church and then Plymouth Congregational Church. I also helped lead the North Lawrence and Grant Township neighborhoods through a difficult but successful public process to save some of Douglas County’s most prime agricultural land from being developed into a proposed industrial and warehousing park.
All of these local activities, combined with a strong sense of public service, informed my decision to run for County Commission in the 2nd District in 2008, then in 2012 and now again in 2016. While I lived for many years in several neighborhoods in Lawrence, my sense of connection to rural Douglas County is strongest, having moved to Juniper Hill Farm, a working farm in Grant Township, 16 years ago. From this place, I have learned how important the rural voice and agricultural voice is in determining the future of Douglas County, especially given the Lawrence-centric nature of almost every conversation. Baldwin City, Eudora, Lecompton and all of the rural townships have a lot at stake when the Douglas County Commission meets. Whether by land-use decisions or economic development partnerships, collaboration in core services of public health, mental health and public safety, shared public infrastructure like roads and bridges, open space and trail coordination, and many more points of rural/urban intersection, I bring a lot of knowledge, experience, hard-earned wisdom and insight to local governance conversations that set the course for our whole community for the years ahead. I’m happy to serve my community this way and treat it as my full time occupation.
Economic development and job creation are always top priorities. These days that means more than industrial park development for primary jobs. It’s imperative to create jobs within our small business and entrepreneurial communities, too. I’m hoping to build a more robust E-Community program for our Eudora, Baldwin City and Lecompton partners (supplying gap funding for startups and business expansions in these towns, as well as providing entrepreneurial training and support). I also hope to strengthen the Metropolitan E-Community program, which is now one of only two state pilot programs to provide gap funding and entrepreneurial support to low income, minority, and women’s business startups, primarily in the north, east and southeast parts of Lawrence.
I also remain committed to working on the serious problem of lack of affordable housing in Douglas County. My main interest for the County is to advocate and find funding for the creation of more transitional supportive housing for the folks who have the most difficulty finding affordable housing: the homeless, those with chronic mental illness and/or addiction, and those who have little or no personal and financial resources.
Lastly, a constant and overarching priority for me is trying to be a model for civility in public life. These days especially, basic human decency in politics are wanting. My highest aim is to fight that sad trend and regain the trust of a weary citizenry–at least at the local level. I am committed to listening and learning, to taking action when needed, to solving problems in the moment but always with concern for the consequences of those actions for future generations. In everything, civility, reasonableness, and good public process are my aim.
Jail and mental health crisis center
I do not support the current linking of the mental health crisis center and the completion of the county jail on one ballot issue. I am proud to say that I was one of the first individuals to bring up the idea of decoupling these two ballot initiatives in this election. In my view, issues of such magnitude must be addressed separately. It is the only fair resolution to address those citizens that may prefer one solution but not the other.
Personally, I do support both, because I have seen first hand the people, especially women, who are currently crammed into cells, which is simply sickening to think about. However, other individuals, such as my mother, don’t support both initiatives but deeply support and understand the need of a crisis intervention center, My mother and others like her shouldn’t have to vote on something so important as an all or nothing issue.
The current situation is chaotic. I completely understand why many Lecompton residents are fed up with much of what is going on in regard to current KDOT operations in the southwestern part of the county. I would urge members of Lecompton and southern Lawrence to make their voices heard either to myself or KDOT. so that we can make sure the best solution may be adopted.
My plan for growth is to work with the various city commissions that represent Douglas County in order to put our best foot forward when it comes to attracting primary employers. Primary employers in my definition are those that pay the majority of their employees a living wage, employ a sizable number of individuals, and have openings for a diverse and wide variety of people.
The most important element of pursuing this goal is coordinating with all representatives within the county. The last thing we want is to bring in business that could lower property values, damage environmental resources, or otherwise adversely impact our wonderful community. This is why coordinating will play such a large role.
My goal since day one has been growth with balance and that is a promise that I am well suited to fulfill.
As an entrepreneur and business owner who currently employs 30 residents of Douglas County, I have the management and coordination experience that this community deeply needs. As a resident of this community for 16 years, I understand many of the concerns that currently face our community and have plans to resolve those concern. This includes plans to protect our seniors in an economic environment that has far too many of them living paycheck to paycheck, as well as plans to increase employment within Douglas County and reduce the current plague of economic stagnation.
Ultimately what I have seen as I go around speaking to residents within our community is that we live in a place filled with talented people just waiting for their chance to shine. My goal is to create an environment where they have that chance.
While I don’t have space to list all of my priorities, I can talk about two that have come up time and time again within community meetings. The first is ensuring that our county is capable of meeting the needs of our mentally ill residents. With current state wide budget cuts there is going to be a huge gap that it will be up to county officials to cover. Current steps, which I support to address this issue, are the mental health crisis center and the establishment of mental health courts. I also support working on long term continuing treatment solutions that will do more for the mentally ill then shuffling them from one bureaucratic organization to another.
An additional priority, that I will have upon taking office is working on establishing community policing protocols and training for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. While I do believe that the Sheriff’s Office is taking the right steps, I also believe that someone can only be as good as their training. This training is designed in such a way to ensure that all sides in law enforcement interactions have their safety respected with the ultimate goal of avoiding a violent result.
Jail and mental health crisis intervention center
This is a very complex issue and there isn’t an easy answer. If we as a community truly want to address the mental health issue, we need to address the entire system and make sure no individuals fall through the cracks. There will continue to be mentally ill individuals who will need to be incarcerated, and we have a moral and legal obligation to care for them and to provide an environment that will alleviate not exacerbate their symptoms. We also have a moral and legal obligation to ensure the safety of our community and the safety of the incarcerated, as well as the responsibility to reintegrate people back into society. In addition, we have a legal obligation to provide an adequate jail. We have a nationally recognized re-entry program. How do we ensure those who will benefit most from it have access to it?
The County Commission formed and is funding a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and the council is making great strides toward addressing issues. As far as I am concerned with the formation of the CJCC, the ballot question as previously discussed no longer exists. The county through its commitment has sent a message it is willing to look deeper into the issue.
As a candidate, it would be irresponsible to commit to anything. With so many variables and options, there is not an actual question or proposal before us. What I can say is I fully support studying the mental health crisis center as well addressing the issues at the jail. That is why I have attended and continue to attend the jail and mental health town hall meetings and study sessions, the CJCC meetings, meet with Bert Nash staff and other community partner agencies who serve our mentally ill community members and meet with the sheriff, the district attorney, the director of the county’s re-entry program and a justice matters member.
The critical nature of this issue is a perfect example of why it is imperative that we have informed, unbiased and proven leaders to continue this discussion and that we work together as a community to find a sensible, long-term solution and not a quick fix.
In regards to access to south Lawrence and the southwest section of the county, the Wakarusa extension is listed in the county’s capital improvement plan with the hope construction could possibly begin in five years. We will need to continue discussions with the city of Lawrence to get its commitment to the project. In regards to the Lecompton interchange, KDOT has put all public discussions on hold and is conducting a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the entire South Lawrence Trafficway west leg corridor. If the Lecompton interchange is moved two miles west, we need to ensure the current access to the Farmer’s Turnpike remains open until the new interchange is complete. Closing this access would create financial hardship on the city of Lecompton, as it would cut them off. It would also create safety issues as KDOT’s suggested alternate routes are East 1000 and East 800 roads and East 600 Road/US Highway 40. East 1000 and East 800 roads are township roads not built for high traffic or high speeds. Increased traffic on these two roads would also impact the Kanwaka and Wakarusa townships financially with increased maintenance costs from the increased traffic. U.S. 40 is already a dangerous road with blind curves and no shoulders. Increasing the truck and vehicle traffic on this road would be extremely unsafe.
A steering committee has been working to lay the groundwork for a new comprehensive plan. It has presented its work to the Lawrence-Douglas Planning Commission to create the Comprehensive Plan for the city of Lawrence and unincorporated areas of Douglas County. A draft of that plan should be ready early next year for review. A review of the new plan by the Board of County Commissioners and final approval with the input of community stakeholders will set the tone and our path for responsible growth. Growth is inevitable, and it is necessary. Any growth should be directed to specific areas where the necessary infrastructure is in place or planned. Any annexation required for growth should be done with careful consideration ensuring compatibility with the surrounding area. Residential development in the unincorporated areas should be carefully planned, taking into consideration existing farms, conservation areas and environmental features, as well as access to utilities and infrastructure.
I was raised to be an active participant in my community, so I have been involved in organizations, charities and community events since I was a child. For the past 27 years I have had the privilege to continue my civic engagement in Douglas County through the Lawrence Police Foundation, Douglas County Valor, United Way, Junior Achievement, St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Douglas County American Red Cross, LEAP, Go Red for Women, Penny Jones, and many more. That experience has provided me with a broad knowledge and understanding of issues and needs in our community.
The role of a county commissioner is not something I take lightly. It is a serious commitment, which brings with it serious responsibility for the safety and well being of the more than 116,000 county residents. I attended County Commission meetings for 3 ½ months prior to filing to run to make sure I had an understanding of the process and the position, and I have now been attending the weekly meetings for one year.
Since January, I have been attending the monthly township meetings for the six townships located in District 3, as well as Lecompton City Council meetings. I attended all of the 2016 KDOT meetings and open houses regarding K-10 and the Kasold Drive and Farmers Turnpike intersections. I attended the county’s 2017 budget hearings and budget work session, and I have met with each department director at the county, as well as the current commissioners and the administrative staff. I have met with the CEO/director of the 22 community partner agencies who receive county funding in excess of $7.2 million per year. I have also met with the director of the Bioscience Technology Business Center and the director of Peaslee Tech on more than one occasion, in addition to attendance at many community events and numerous meetings with community members and business leaders. With more and more financial burden being placed on local government, it is imperative we have informed, unbiased, proven leaders who can work together to make responsible decisions for our citizens and with our tax dollars.
My three decades of civic engagement and my preparation over the past year show my dedication to service and commitment to the citizens of Douglas County and has best prepared me to step into the role of county commissioner.
It is my priority to serve as a good steward of our taxpayer dollars. My goal is to continue meeting regularly with township community members as well as Lecompton and Lawrence community members in order to ensure an equal voice for our rural and city residents.
The new concealed-carry law goes into effect on July 1, 2017, so the next commission will need to get to work finding how best to protect community members and employees. Two locations that should take priority are the Community Health Building that is home to Bert Nash and the Douglas County Courthouse at 11th and Massachusetts. Studies have been completed and options are being explored but it will be up to the County Commission to budget for that public safety need.
There are some exciting things going on as a result of the partnership between the county, the city and the Chamber Economic Development Corporation; Peaslee Tech and the Bioscience Technology Business Center are great examples of that partnership and the need for it to continue.
As a resident of the Wakarusa Township I understand the concerns of our rural citizens about equal representation. As Lawrence continues to grow the possibility of an all “city of Lawrence” Board of County Commissioners increases jeopardizing true representation for all. Balance within our commission is imperative to best serve our citizens. At some point we need to explore the possibility of expanding the County Commission to five commissioners in order to better represent the citizens of our four cities and nine townships.