Johnson County’s elected leaders oversee a budget of $1.45 billion and set the direction for a sprawling county of more than 600,000 residents and growing.
Governance is vested in the seven-member Johnson County Commission. Six members are elected from districts. The seventh member, the chairperson, is elected to represent the entire county and thus holds the most power. This position is up for election in 2022.
Four candidates are on the ballot for Johnson County Commission on the Aug. 2 primary election. The top two vote-getters will continue to the general election on Nov. 8.
The Beacon spoke with all four primary candidates to learn more about their campaigns, what promises they’ve made to constituents and what changes they hope to see in the county government if elected.
Charlotte O’Hara is the current commissioner from District 3, which covers southeastern Johnson County. She is also the only candidate in the nonpartisan primary who identifies herself with a political party — in her case, the Republican Party.
“I’m a Republican. I’m not only a Republican, I am a conservative Republican,” she said. “They already know, so why not just be transparent about it?”
O’Hara’s primary issue is transparency. She said she has been frustrated that in order to receive certain documents as a sitting commissioner, she has had to file a formal records request with the county government.
Her aim is to ensure that relevant information is already available to constituents who want it, without always needing to go through a formal request process. If elected as a commission chairwoman, she would also like to ensure that all commission meetings are recorded as a livestream on the internet.
“Every meeting, except executive sessions, needs to be videoed and livestreamed so that the public has maximum access to the information that’s being discussed,” she said.
Beyond transparency, O’Hara would like to take a more critical eye to the county budget. She believes that Johnson County’s budget of $1.45 billion is too large and that cuts are necessary.
One area where she would like to see cuts is the county health department. She said that its budget has grown since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she would like to see it return to its 2019 total.
“The health department budget really ballooned during COVID,” she said. “We don’t need an epidemiologist on staff. We don’t need trackers anymore”
The Johnson County Commission serves as the Board of Public Health. As a member of this board, O’Hara said that she would not consider any further emergency shutdowns, vaccine mandates or mask mandates.
In order to bring down residents’ property tax bills, she would also like to eliminate most tax incentives for county projects. She does not believe that tax incentives in general support economic development.
For example, the Panasonic manufacturing plant is set to be constructed in De Soto. This plant is predicted to bring 4,000 jobs, and Panasonic will receive $829 million in state tax incentives to construct the $4 billion facility.
“I have really yet to see one (tax incentive) that is necessary,” O’Hara said.
As a former business executive and the former Kansas insurance commissioner, Ken Selzer wants to bring a critical eye to the Johnson County budget.
“We’re focused on fiscal responsibility,” he said. “We need somebody in the board chair office who understands fiscal responsibility, who understands budget, who has a financial background and has a proven track record of making government more efficient.”
Selzer emphasized, however, that his focus on efficiency does not mean that he wants to downsize government services. His aim is making sure that every tax dollar can be stretched as far as possible.
With increasing property tax bills amid economic inflation, he wants to prioritize easing the financial burden of county government on taxpayers.
Though he would look at all elements of the county budget, he named public health and transportation as two areas that he would scrutinize.
Selzer said that he would also like to see Johnson County be more assertive when collaborating with its neighboring counties and municipalities.
With public transportation in particular, he believes that Johnson County is “pushed around” by its neighbors.
“We will work, where appropriate, on cooperating,” he said. “In fact, we will try to always be cooperative. But we will be a leader rather than being pushed around or following in the metro area discussions.”
In matters of public health, Selzer does not make any specific promises, but he said he wants to avoid any future county mandates or emergency shutdowns. He said he would rather that the most local governments make those decisions.
Selzer added that individuals should focus on self-educating on topics of public health to make pandemic decisions on a personal basis.
“There needs to be a very strong focus on educating and recommending, as opposed to mandating,” he said.
To hold himself accountable to voters and his constituents, Selzer promised to make more meetings public and to break down complicated budget concepts into simple terms.
“I love to meet with supporters, and I love to meet with people who have differing views from mine,” he said. “That’s how I strengthen my own views. It’s how I have a broader view of what needs to happen.”
Throughout his campaign, he has completed a tour of every barbecue restaurant in Johnson County — his favorites are Jack Stack, Blind Box and Meat Mitch — to meet as many constituents as possible.
“We’ve made a real effort to make myself available and to meet people and understand Johnson County as best we can from county line to county line,” Selzer said.
Mike Kelly is the current mayor of Roeland Park, and his campaign for Johnson County Commission chair focuses on climate innovation, preserving county services and economic development.
Kelly started the Climate Action KC nonprofit group, which focuses on integrating a climate lens into all decisions made by local governments.
In practical terms, he wants county-level decisions to support resilient infrastructure — meaning roads, utilities and pipes that can handle extreme weather and projects that plan for climate change in the long term.
He also wants to bring to Johnson County business and manufacturing opportunities that support a healthier environment. One example he cites is the Panasonic plant coming to De Soto that will manufacture batteries for electric vehicles.
“Not only protecting the environment, but being able to innovate for the future, and in doing so, bringing new benefits to the community,” Kelly said.
Kelly believes Johnson County can expand the services it provides while also lowering property taxes. The key, he said, is bringing businesses and economic growth to the county to expand the tax base.
He would also like to look for additional partnership opportunities from the city, state and federal governments. For example, Kelly believes that the Infrastructure Jobs Act signed into law late last year by President Biden is a unique opportunity for the county to strengthen its roads, bridges and public transit without raising property taxes for residents.
Given Johnson County’s close ties with the other counties in the Kansas City metro area, Kelly also believes bistate collaboration is critical.
“We want to make sure that we do our part to maintain a robust metropolitan region because our economy and our community depends upon it,” Kelly said. “We’re not trying to reinstill a border war, but instead finding best practices and a rising tide that can lift all boats in the metro region.”
The biggest areas for collaboration, in his view, include public transportation and improvements ahead of the 2026 World Cup.
Kelly said science and data will play a big role in whatever decisions he would make as a member of the Board of Public Health. Under his leadership as mayor of Roeland Park, the city distributed free protective equipment and COVID-19 testing kits to residents. Kelly said he trusts medical experts for guidance on navigating the ongoing pandemic and mitigating possible spread of monkeypox.
“We need leaders who are going to value that truth in data and science,” Kelly said. “(Leaders) who aren’t going to be afraid to make difficult decisions that are in the best interest of our health in our economy, and that aren’t going to be afraid to stand up against misinformation and derision.”
Shirley Allenbrand is one of two current commissioners on the Johnson County ballot who would like to step up to chair the county commission. She represents District 6, which covers the western portion of Johnson County, including Olathe, De Soto, Gardner and much of the county’s unincorporated land.
Allenbrand formerly owned and operated assisted living centers in Johnson County, and as a county commission chair, she wants to support Johnson County’s social services including workforce development, public safety and housing support.
When creating job opportunities for residents of Johnson County, Allenbrand believes that it is critical to consider workforce education and housing for workers.
“A lot of people say, ‘It’s the company’s problem,’” she said. “It’s not. It’s all of our problem. First of all, they have to have a place to live. They have to have transportation. They have to have child care.”
She believes the county government can partner with programs like Workforce Partnership, which runs the Johnson County Workforce Center, the local community college and public transportation to ensure that workers within the county are well-resourced to find accessible jobs.
Within the broader context of the Kansas City metro area, Allenbrand wants to work across county lines and the state line to collaborate on public transportation and other improvements leading up to the 2026 World Cup.
When making budgetary decisions, Allenbrand said she will always prioritize putting money into county services for residents. Examples she gave include food pantries, programs for seniors and infrastructure improvements.
To manage the budget, she also believes it is important to consolidate and trim the budget where possible to reduce the burden on taxpayers.
She supports the 2023 budget that will lower the tax levy by one mill — or .1% of assessed property value. However, she will also consider whether consolidations and budget cuts are sustainable in the long term.
“There are a lot of consolidations that we can still do, but we have to do them smartly,” she said. “And we don’t want to just do something because it feels good at the time. You don’t want to go back.”
Given her background in health care, Allenbrand said that she wants to make public health a priority.
During the initial shutdown in 2020, Allenbrand connected physicians with local nursing homes to recommend disease management strategies. As new COVID-19 variants cause outbreaks in Johnson County, she hopes her constituents appreciate the benefits of the vaccine. She does not favor mandates, but believes in individual responsibility.
“It’s important to follow the direction of the medical experts,” she said. “I’m not a doctor, so I respect the physicians that come together.”