Archive for Tuesday, January 30, 2018

State law won’t allow Douglas County commissioners to campaign for passage of jail, mental health sales tax

The Douglas County Commission meets in the historic courtroom on the second floor of the county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

The Douglas County Commission meets in the historic courtroom on the second floor of the county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

January 30, 2018


Douglas County commissioners plan to use the next four months to explain why they decided to put on the ballot a half-cent sales tax to pay for a jail expansion and mental health initiatives, but they won't be allowed to urge residents to vote yes for the projects.

After receiving questions about the subject, county officials don't believe state law allows county commissioners to be active campaigners for or against the sales tax issue.

Commissioners approved last week the wording of a ballot question authorizing an additional half-cent of sales tax authority. The question is to be submitted to voters through a mail-in election to be conducted from April 25 through May 15. If the referendum is approved, the half-cent sales tax would raise an estimated $9.8 million annually to support bond funding for a $44 million expansion of the county jail, develop a $11 million behavioral health center, provide $5.1 million in annual funding for behavioral health programming and about $1 million of the additional $6.1 million needed each year to operate a larger jail.

At the Jan. 24 meeting at which the ballot language was approved, Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said county staff was still researching the extent to which commissioners could advocate for the half-cent sales tax and the projects it would fund. At that time, he didn't rule out the possibility that commissioners could publicly advocate voters cast ballots in favor of the referendum.

Weinaug and commissioners now agree that state statute prevents commissioners from advocating county residents vote in favor of the bond question. After further research and discussions with county counselor John Bullock, he said, it was now agreed commissioners can present information and answer questions regarding the referendum and discuss options available to them should the referendum fail. Commissioners should not, however, advocate for or encourage a yes vote, he said.

It always was understood statements from county staff and materials on the referendum the county provides could only be educational and informational in nature, Weinaug said.

Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said she would let the facts make the case for the sales tax, jail expansion and behavior health initiatives.

“It’s clear we can educate and provide compelling information,” she said. “The story we have to tell is a very compelling one, but the people with the county have to be careful not to come down with telling people to vote yes.”

County Commissioner Michelle Derusseau said she had not talked with the county counselor about the restrictions but understood the limits.

“We can’t as a general rule ask people to vote yes,” she said. “We can explain why we went in that direction, what the options were and what could happen going forward.”

As the campaign for the referendum gets started, Thellman and Derusseau have scheduled regular meetings to share information on the issue.

Thellman said she would meet with constituents on Mondays at the Lawrence Public Library. She would schedule the meetings at various times to accommodate the different schedules of constituents. The weekly time of the meeting and location within the library will be posted on her Facebook page, she said.

Derusseau will have referendum informational meetings from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month at the Wakarusa Township Fire Station, 300 W. 31st St. Commissioner. Mike Gaughan said he would look to schedule informational meetings on days other than Monday and Tuesday.

Thellman and Derusseau said they anticipated a pro-referendum group would be formed to advocate for the referendum and the projects it would fund.

“I expect so,” Thellman said. “I know folks out there who have called and emailed me about how they can help. They will have to organize that themselves, but there is plenty of energy out there in support of the referendum.”

This month, members of the faith-based community activist group Justice Matters attended County Commission meetings, urging commissioners put the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives before voters on separate ballots. Ben MacConnell, Justice Matters lead organizer, said the group has taken a position on the referendum but has not decided when to make it public.

Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, said the nonprofit opposed the referendum because of the bundling of the jail expansion with the behavioral health components. Appleseed’s opposition also is based on the county not contracting a thorough data-driven independent review of alternatives to incarceration, he said.

Appleseed won’t be going door to door or hosting events in opposition to the referendum, Magnuson said. Instead, the organization is inviting residents to visit its Facebook page to read its views of the referendum, he said.

The last day for unregistered voters to register to vote in the referendum is April 24.


Melinda Henderson 2 months, 3 weeks ago

"Weinaug and commissioners now agree that state statute prevents commissioners from advocating county residents vote in favor of the bond question."

Elvyn/Nick...that statute number would be....?

Nick Gerik 2 months, 3 weeks ago

Hi, Melinda. Sorry, that specific number wasn't available at the time of publication. If you'd like to reach Elvyn, you can email him at

— Nick Gerik, LJW digital editor

Melinda Henderson 2 months, 3 weeks ago

You freaking did their work for them? You missed the point entirely. The issue is that AN ATTORNEY GENERAL'S OPINION IS NOT A "STATUTE". IT IS NOT A "STATE LAW". THIS ENTIRE ARTICLE AND THE HEADLINE IS WRONG. AND MISLEADING. Is it SO WRONG to expect an article to be accurate? I know the UDK can't seem to get their editorials correct, but come on, LJW is NOT J-SCHOOL.

Jerry Harper 2 months, 3 weeks ago

So before Ms. Henderson takes the bar exam, she might want to do just a little homework. There is a statute. The AG opinion references it. But, it is a better learning experience to actually do the homework. So, I won't spoil it by giving the citation.

Actually, it is a little tricky. You have to know the definition of "municipality." There is a statute on that too.

Melinda Henderson 2 months, 3 weeks ago

AWESOME! Thank you, Jerry. I will research this while I continue to study for the bar exam. In the meantime I have contacted my attorney for some remedial study tips.

I wonder why the city used the AG Opinion instead of the statute last year.

And I have always wished that news articles that talk about "the legislature passed a bill..." that the actual bill number be given so that one could track it.

Which is pretty much the same reason I asked for the statute citation so I could look it up. I was under the impression that the county was going off the AG opinion that Patrick cited.

This is what happens when there's a SOTU I've been trying to avoid. Apologies.

Francis Hunt 2 months, 3 weeks ago

Absolutely indefensible for churches to actively campaign against $5,000,000 in new funding for mental health. INDEFENSIBLE.

From the article above, "the faith-based community activist group Justice Matters said the group has taken a position on the referendum but has not decided when to make it public." They have made it public, according to their Facebook page on Tuesday they "are focused on defeating the ballot measure and resuming the conversation once that is done."

Commissioners told them at the meeting last week that if it was defeated there would be NO funding for mental health. justice matters has made a CALCULATED decision to turn their backs on our mentally ill neighbors to pursue a fight against jail improvements.

Some background from the justice matters website: a justice matters working group says an "estimated 19,275 serious mental illness diagnosis are present in Douglas County each year." At an assembly of 450 key leaders on November 10, 2014 justice matters confirmed mental health as a priority.

So why are they now campaigning to reject funding that will provide $11,000,000 in facilities and over $5,000,000 per year in services and programs for the mentally ill?

The truth is justice matters only cares about the mentally ill if it is on their own terms, under their own conditions. The justice matters congregations (listed below) have prioritized fighting improvements to the jail over helping the mentally ill in our city. They have made a conscious decision to turn their backs on the mentally ill and focus on incarceration. 19,275 mental health illnesses they say in Douglas County yet they are rejecting millions of dollars to help our neighbors.

It is INDEFENSIBLE (if you don't know what it means look it up) for churches to actively campaign against our mentally ill.

Central United Methodist, First Baptist, First Christian, First Presbyterian, First United Methodist, Good Shepherd Lutheran, Haskell Catholic Campus Center, Immanuel Lutheran, Islamic Society of Lawrence, Lawrence Jewish Community Center Congregation, Morning Star, Night Street Baptist, Oread Friends Meeting, Peace Mennonite, Plymouth Congregation, St. John Catholic, St. Luke AME, St. Margaret Episcopal, Trinity Lutheran, Velocity and Victory Bible.

Shane Powers 2 months, 3 weeks ago

I think the Justice Matters group's stance is more that mental health and jails are two separate issues, and should be dealt with individually. I don't think it's so wild to believe that our community needs mental health resources but doesn't need more incarceration resources. Your stance is that they are being presented as a bundle, therefore MUST be responded to as a bundle?

Clara Westphal 2 months, 3 weeks ago

It would help if the two issues were on different ballots but the commission won't do that.

Paul Silkiner 2 months, 3 weeks ago

The commission thinks the two issues together would pass. This is their reasoning: We all know that criminals have mental issues and all people with mental issues will eventually need correctional housing. System Liberaltard Dynamics: procedures of circle thinking in space and time at others expense (tax & spend), a study of throwing others money at every possible chance. (If there is not a problem, we will create it and live from crisis to crisis)

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