Douglas County Commission candidate profile: Patrick Kelly
Incumbent District 1 Douglas County Commissioner Patrick Kelly’s decision to seek reelection was driven, in part, on the connections he’s helped forge with community agencies.
“That’s where having experience as a commissioner, to me, is a big benefit,” Kelly told the Journal-World. “We’ve developed some really strong relationships and partnerships, especially during the pandemic.”
Kelly began his current term on the commission in January 2019. He’s lived in Lawrence for more than three decades and is nearing 25 years of work with the Lawrence school district. Over the years, Kelly has gone from teaching in classrooms to serving as the district’s chief academic officer. He’s also participated in public service for more than a decade, including stints on the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission. He and his wife, Amy, have been married for 24 years, and they have two adult daughters.
Bringing players in the community together toward a common goal — whether it be the Unified Command team that formed to respond to the pandemic or the many agencies that have contributed to Douglas County’s behavioral health campus — is something Kelly said he’s especially good at. He said the same of his ability to listen to others.
Those skills play into Kelly’s idea of how to practice good leadership. Regardless of policy positions, Kelly said he sees good leadership as being honest, inclusive, principled and willing to listen to others’ viewpoints.
“While issues are certainly important, when I ran four years ago, I certainly didn’t have ‘pandemic’ on my (campaign) walk card,” Kelly said. “I didn’t have an EF-3 tornado (that struck the county in 2019); that wasn’t something I was thinking about. So when people pick a leader to lead their community, they have to be thinking about not only the issues that are happening right now but the core values, the core leadership practices that those leaders have in making good decisions on behalf of their community.”
That doesn’t mean Kelly isn’t thinking about the nuances behind the big issues commissioners have tackled in recent years. In one of those areas, affordable housing, Kelly said he sees the county’s work as more than just providing emergency shelter.
Not only is there a need for more affordable housing options, Kelly said, there’s a need for different types of housing. He said that means bringing together partners — like Tenants to Homeowners and the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority — to figure out the right ways to provide the services and supports needed to keep everyone housed in an affordable way.
“We need to continue to work with all these partners,” Kelly said. “Housing is a very complex system, and just providing affordable housing is really a superficial understanding of the depth of the problem. It also requires that some of the folks we need to provide housing for have severe mental illnesses, and that’s a different type of housing than it is for seniors.”
Kelly said each person and each family is different, and that means they each require their own complex system of supports. It also means there’s no “quick fix,” he said.
Kelly said that when the county allocated all of its American Rescue Plan Act funds, he was especially proud that a significant portion was going to agencies dedicated to affordable housing access.
On criminal justice reform, Kelly said that the county’s work isn’t quite done yet, but that it’s been good to see the jail’s population decline since he entered office, thanks in part to a number of reform efforts. Those include creating programs such as the county’s drug and behavioral health courts. It all contributes toward providing alternatives to incarceration, which Kelly said would require many “upstream” solutions, including things like truancy prevention to help keep students from falling into a cycle of incarceration.
Kelly has also been part of the process of passing regulations for solar energy development in the county. The conversation about those regulations was spurred by energy firms that were interested in bringing large-scale solar development to the county, and Kelly has often been the first to say during commission meetings that county leaders have yet to consider any actual proposals.
When they eventually do, Kelly said it’ll be a matter of considering each application individually and listening to what the public thinks. He noted that the planning commission’s ad hoc committee did some important work in pulling together those regulations; they both outline requirements and give commissioners the flexibility to address areas of concern.
“I think we have to consider each application as it comes forward, and I hope all of those neighbors that are concerned about that or those who are very concerned about climate change — and those can be the same people — come to us and share with us what they value, how they see the project,” Kelly said.
As for an action that could take place much sooner, expanding the commission from three seats to five, Kelly said it’s a change he hopes voters will take the time to understand when they cast their ballots in November.
“The one thing that would make me disappointed is if we go to five members and it doesn’t turn out the way (voters) wanted it to turn out,” Kelly said. “Is that because of the way the districts were drawn, or did it just turn out that way because of who was elected? Because it’s ballot language, I think it’s really down to the voters to do the responsibility of understanding what it is that they’re voting for.”
Kelly is one of four candidates who have filed for election, along with fellow Democrat Dustin Stumblingbear, who he’ll face in the upcoming primary election, Republican Justin Spiehs, and Libertarian Steve Jacob.
The Aug. 2 primary will decide which Democratic candidate will run in the general election, set for Nov. 8.