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Update Oct. 26, 2022: This story has been updated to clarify the responsibility of the county commission in regard to district courts.
Five county commissioners serve on the Sedgwick County Commission, each elected to four-year terms. Commissioners oversee county finances, including the levying of taxes and the annual budget, issuances of bonds and awarding of contracts. They also oversee zoning, maintenance of county roads and bridges, the county jail and the district court budget and act as the local board of health.
Three of the five seats are up for reelection on the Kansas November ballot, including District 1, which covers the northeastern corner of Sedgwick County, including downtown and much of Wichita north of Douglas and east of Oliver. The district also takes in Eastborough, Kechi and Bel Aire.
Pete Meitzner, a Republican, is the current county commissioner representing District 1. He is being challenged by Kelli Grant, a Democrat. Their biographical information can be found on their campaign websites and Ballotpedia pages listed below.
What follows are the answers provided by candidates to a list of survey questions asked by The Wichita Beacon. Answers have been edited for length and Beacon style.
Pete Meitzner, incumbent, Republican: Campaign website, Ballotpedia
Kelli Grant, challenger, Democrat: Campaign website, Ballotpedia
What life experiences shape the perspectives you will bring to the commission?
Pete Meitzner: Started and grew a company as the president to eventually traded on NASDAQ. Over seven years as a Wichita City Council member. Now four years experience as a county commissioner. Numerous years as a board member of two major nonprofits, The Lord’s Diner and CPRF (Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation). Married for 42 years to wife Suzi, and raised our two children that we adopted at birth to be proud young adults.
Kelli Grant: I have had a life with adversity that required me to overcome significant challenges. Probably the most important life experience that gave me significant insights and opportunities to overcome was being a young single mom. Being in this position required me to ask for help, which was humbling and necessary. These experiences shaped me because I had two little people fully dependent on me, and every day I worked very hard at my job and in school to change our trajectory. I am proud of our story of overcoming because this time in our lives was full of adversity and these challenges taught all of us lessons about survival and fortitude that I am thankful for today.
How will you make yourself available to constituents throughout your term?
Pete Meitzner: I will continue to be available like I have been for over 10 years of local government service (through) email, phone calls, face-to-face meetings, outside participation with business and citizen groups.
Kelli Grant: I will make myself available through email, phone and social media. I will keep an open-door policy for staff, and I will hold regular advisory board meetings and other meetings as needed.
What two or three priorities will you pursue on the commission?
Pete Meitzner: Public safety and health from supporting the sheriff’s department and jail, the fire department, EMS (ambulance service) and 911, to the county health department; all providing essential services to all citizens in Sedgwick County. Mental health in our community, including addressing homelessness, is the next priority for me.
Kelli Grant: 1) The county has significant concerns related to organizational health with hundreds of empty positions. We can create a dedicated grants department to fund projects and help with budgetary shortfalls. We also need to look at the culture of the county and ensure that our employees have what they need to do their jobs and are not facing toxic environments at their jobs. 2) Domestic violence is a significant community health and safety issue. We can look at funding domestic violence efforts. We can also look for opportunities to implement a domestic violence court. With the highest per capita rates in the state, we must start having this conversation and taking action. 3) Protecting the Aug. 2 vote in terms of protecting access to services for women who have had their babies and need assistance. We can actively protect access to family planning, health, babies and WIC. We must actively protect this vote at all levels of government.
With the city of Wichita decriminalizing marijuana, what if any role do you think Sedgwick County should take in response?
Pete Meitzner: (I will) assure this recent ruling doesn’t have an adverse impact on our county jail and our criminal court system. If this ruling results in more citizens in jail and in the court system, it needs to be reworked.
Kelli Grant: Sedgwick County should follow suit and join the city of Wichita. Marijuana charges are a drain on the criminal justice system, and decriminalization does not remove discretion of an officer to use state statutes to charge someone, if necessary. Every state around Kansas has partially or fully legalized marijuana and our lack of action keeps people from choosing Kansas as a destination to settle and stay.
What if any actionable steps would you like to see result from the report due next year from the county’s diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, addressing the county’s treatment of employees who are LGBTQ, women and people of color?
Pete Meitzner: My hope is the report will show nondiscrimination practices exist today within our county operations. If the report indicates areas of improvement, I am supportive to help correct those areas.
Kelli Grant: Seeing the results of the report would determine action steps. If there are found to be issues with recruiting or retaining any marginalized group, actions should be taken immediately to remedy these issues as everyone deserves an inclusive and responsive employment environment. We know these issues are still present in our society and in our community, so we must take action if the report results in concerns about any of these employee groups.
Sedgwick County is unable to move forward on a number of mental health initiatives due to a shortage of available mental health care workers. What can/should the county do to address this problem?
Pete Meitzner: Staffing at government and business levels is a challenge nationwide. I am proud of the recent increase in compensation that I supported this past year and budgeted for the 2023 year. I also supported increased benefits, but I know we still have some work to do for all departments that provide many services to our citizens.
Kelli Grant: We must work communitywide to address shortages, and Sedgwick County can lead the way in this area and partner with nonprofits to coordinate services and projects. While these partnerships are important, Sedgwick County must address its own investment in a robust workforce in order to be a leader in this arena. We can work to expand types of work in this arena to meet needs, such as adequately paid case managers and part-time work. Incentives for employees to join the public sector and strategic recruitment could all help bolster the workforce in the mental health field. Sedgwick County can be and should be the leader in our community in these areas. Additionally, a diverse workforce is attractive to employees and needs to be a focus of recruitment. Diversity allows for better community response.
How relevant is the private behavior of a commissioner to their public role? What example do you intend to set?
Pete Meitzner: Private behavior in public is relevant to the citizens we represent. When I was first elected four years ago, we adopted a code of ethics and respect that code. I believe all persons who are elected, especially locally, should be an example of personal and responsible behavior.
Kelli Grant: Public servants are held to high expectations of behavior when working and out in the community. I think commissioners deserve a level of privacy, however they must understand that activities on private time, in public places, may be scrutinized.
Fentanyl deaths are a growing problem. What if any steps should the county take? Should the county lobby the Kansas Legislature to decriminalize fentanyl test strips?
Pete Meitzner: Thanks to Sheriff Easter, we took on a very aggressive media campaign about the fentanyl crisis in our county. And we took that same approach to the school systems to educate both the young persons and their parent(s) as well. I trust the medical community and value the advice regarding the use of test strips, and if they believe we should lobby the Kansas Legislature for decriminalization of test strips, then I would be supportive.
Kelli Grant: Yes, the county should lobby to decriminalize fentanyl strips. The city of Wichita already took this step. Strips can aid in saving lives from overdoses. When talking about saving lives, we need to follow up with actions like taking efforts to decriminalize fentanyl strips.
What if any further role should the county commission as the board of health play in addressing COVID-19 as a public health threat?
Pete Meitzner: The county commission should always be supportive of educating the public regarding COVID-19 and other health related threats.
Kelli Grant: As of October 2022, it seems that most sections of society have accepted COVID 19 as a part of our lives now. Sedgwick County should continue its education efforts and provide vaccines to those who want them. The Health Department does a great job at being in the community to educate and vaccinate, which we should continue for the time being.