ELECTION GUIDE: County Commission candidates discuss 5 key issues
photo by: Contributed Photos
County voters have three candidates to choose from to fill one seat on the Douglas County Commission.
Democrat Patrick Kelly is the incumbent. He will face Republican challenger Justin Spiehs, who repeatedly has spoken out against mask mandates and was convicted in Douglas County District Court in relation to actions while protesting. Libertarian candidate Steve Jacob, a maintenance technician with the City of Lawrence, also is on the ballot.
Not all Douglas County residents will get to vote in the race. The seat is for District No. 1, which is entirely in the city limits of Lawrence, covering an area primarily west of Massachusetts Street, north of Bob Billings Parkway and east of Wakarusa Drive.
Kelly began his current term on the commission in January 2019. Kelly has lived in Lawrence for more than three decades and is nearing 25 years of work with the Lawrence school district. Today, he’s the district’s chief academic officer.
Spiehs is a former tenure-track assistant professor in the family and human services department at Washburn University, where he was employed until May 31. In describing the end of his employment there, Spiehs said he was “wrongfully offered a terminal contract” for opposing so-called “critical race theory propaganda” circulating among faculty in his department. A representative with the university said they were unable to provide any details about how his employment ended. Spiehs is also a Navy veteran and formerly was a licensed therapist and addiction counselor. He said he is retired and plans for the county commissioner role to be his only full-time job if elected.
Spiehs in August pleaded no contest in Douglas County District Court to two misdemeanor charges stemming from a case in which he was originally charged with aggravated assault. He was sentenced to 12 months, but the judge suspended the sentence to probation. When asked what he would say to voters with uncertainties about whether he’s in a stable enough place to serve in office effectively, Spiehs did not answer but rather encouraged people to look at his YouTube channel.
As recently as Tuesday, Spiehs was asked by Lawrence’s mayor to leave the Lawrence City Commission meeting after he called the mayor, who is Hispanic, a Nazi and said she was being racist against him because he is white. Spiehs was asked to leave under a new City Commission policy requiring commenters to focus on topics germane to the commission.
Jacob has lived in Douglas County for all but one year since 1983 and has worked for the City of Lawrence since 1990. Jacob said he’s running for office to provide checks and balances on the commission, and it’s his belief that the commission is running people out of Lawrence with high taxes.
Growth from Panasonic battery plant
The Journal-World asked candidates whether the commission needs to strike a balance between impending population growth in areas like Eudora and the desire to protect agricultural land.
Jacob said he doesn’t think any balance is needed, since he thinks it shouldn’t be up to the government to decide what people should do with the land they own.
“Let the property owners and consumers decide what is needed,” Jacob said.
Kelly said he anticipates the addition of the Panasonic battery plant just east of Eudora will have a “significant impact” on Douglas County in the form of not only jobs but pressure on the county’s capacity to provide housing, transportation infrastructure, and schools and services. Kelly said he believes the county has plans and processes in place to respond to those challenges, though, citing regulations he helped pass early in his current term that encourage development patterns toward urban areas.
Spiehs said he thinks the County Commission has done such a poor job managing the county in recent years that most, if not all, of the future employees coming to the area to fill an estimated 8,000 jobs won’t end up living in Douglas County. He didn’t expand on that any further, using the rest of his answer to this question to criticize Kelly for not debating him.
Renewable energy development
The Journal-World asked candidates whether they’re open to larger-scale renewable energy development, and what they’d need to see in a proposal to be comfortable it would fit with what neighbors in the affected area want. There has been significant discussion about the possibility of a large-scale solar farm in eastern Douglas County, and also some discussion about a wind farm in southwest Douglas County.
Kelly said the county needs to continue to look toward larger-scale renewable energy development to address climate change, but also acknowledged there are “legitimate concerns” about how such development would impact the county’s natural environment and rural landscape. He said the regulations on the county’s books guiding wind farm and industrial-scale solar development require a conditional use permit, which will provide opportunities to hear concerns from neighbors and develop conditions to mitigate those concerns.
Jacob said he thinks the United States, in general, is making policies regarding renewable energy that it has “nowhere near” the infrastructure to handle, so he’s in favor of larger-scale projects in Douglas County. He also reasserted that he believes folks should be able to do what they want with the land they own, which applies to their neighbors as well.
Spiehs didn’t answer this question directly, instead spending most of his answer criticizing Lawrence Mayor Courtney Shipley for the car that she drives. He said he thinks the push for green energy is “just another way for Democrat politicians to virtue signal” and stoke fear in the community in order to take more tax money, and that the community should spend its time focusing on other issues that impact taxpayers.
Future tax relief
The Journal-World asked candidates how they would approach the budget process next year if property values spike again.
Spiehs said he would like to cut into the expected $42.8 million the county has saved in seven key county funds supported by property and sales taxes, plus the $12.6 million accumulated via the county’s one-cent sales tax. He also said he wants to propose a modified “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” policy that caps how much money the county can collect in property taxes, refunds taxpayers with surplus tax revenue, caps county spending, and puts any tax increase requests on the ballot for the community to vote on.
Spiehs said he’s also in favor of putting the county’s 1994 one-cent jail expansion sales tax and the quarter-cent mental health sales tax back on the ballot so the community can vote on eliminating or suspending them, reducing them by a certain percentage, or capping how much money they can collect with any surplus money being refunded to taxpayers.
Kelly noted the county’s budget for 2023 actually includes a mill levy decrease of a little more than 1 mill, the equivalent of about $1,783,000 in tax dollars. Kelly said his approach to the budget will always be to understand the needs of the community and to balance those needs against the financial burden to taxpayers.
“I’m proud to live in a community that understands that if we all work together, we can support our neighbors so that every member of our community can live a safe, healthy and productive life,” Kelly said.
Jacob said it’s not a question of “if” when it comes to property values spiking again in 2023. He said the county has become “addicted to spending and taxes,” and that the county’s fund balance savings would be cut in half in the next budget if it were up to him.
Expanding to a five-member commission
The Journal-World asked candidates whether they support expanding the County Commission from three members to five, and whether they think that would be an effective way to create more representation on the body for people outside Lawrence.
Kelly said it’s important to think about the opportunities and consequences of moving to a five-member commission. Doing so would allow for two commissioners to meet outside of a scheduled meeting without violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act. It also could provide broader representation, dependent on who runs for office and who’s elected. Kelly also acknowledged there’d be a fiscal impact, as an expanded commission would require additional administrative support and other resources. Kelly said he was happy to put the question on the ballot and would gladly work with two or four fellow commissioners.
Spiehs said government expansion costs taxpayers more money, so he’s against an expanded commission. On top of two additional annual salaries for commissioners at $41,226 each, Spiehs expressed concern that county staff would also have to grow to accommodate the larger commission. Spiehs referenced the salaries for the Douglas County administrator and assistant administrator positions, which county spokesperson Karrey Britt confirmed are $196,581 and $106,330, respectively.
“Imagine now paying for another administrator or another assistant administrator and then an assistant to the assistant administrator,” Spiehs said. “It would be endless.”
Jacob said he plans to vote in favor of expanding the commission, noting that the intent of the five-seat commission is to provide representation for residents who live outside Lawrence.
The Journal-World asked candidates what other work the commission should do to move the needle further in boosting the county’s capacity for affordable housing.
Jacob said he thinks elected officials talk about affordable housing as they raise people’s taxes and utilities, rather than making living in Lawrence more affordable. He said the county needs more apartments and houses, and that he’s open to any rezoning of county property from commercial to residential classifications.
Kelly said affordable housing is a significant issue for Douglas County, which requires a variety of solutions. That includes adding a wide variety of housing types, reduced barriers to build or rehabilitate housing through revised building codes, and exploring private-public partnerships.
“Keeping people housed by providing critical services, such as behavioral health care, is also necessary,” Kelly said.
Spiehs said he doesn’t support paying for more affordable housing, but does recognize and understand many people are struggling financially right now. Instead of adding housing, he said he would propose putting money in residents’ pockets by way of tax relief as he outlined in his earlier answer. That way, Spiehs said, residents won’t need to rely on the government for affordable housing because they’ll just have more money to live on.
During the course of reporting on the Douglas County Commission elections, the Journal-World had an interaction with candidate Justin Spiehs and the Lawrence Police Department that we want to disclose to readers.
On Oct. 11, Spiehs created a disturbance at the Journal-World offices that prompted us to call the Lawrence Police Department to our offices. Spiehs and two companions left the office before police arrived on scene. However, Spiehs, his companions and staff members of the Journal-World all provided information to the police department for a report. No citations were issued by the police department. Following that incident, the Journal-World made the decision to no longer allow Spiehs access to the Journal-World offices. That is an action we did not take lightly, but believe it is the appropriate decision to minimize disruptions to our employees. We continue to provide coverage of Spiehs and communicate with him in ways that don’t involve him coming to our offices.