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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 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 five seats are currently up for reelection on the Kansas November ballot including District 5, which includes the southeast part of Wichita, bounded roughly on the north by Kellogg and the Arkansas River to the west. The district extends to the south county line, taking in neighboring cities Derby and Mulvane.
Jim Howell, a Republican, is the current county commissioner representing District 5. He is being challenged by John McIntosh, 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.
Jim Howell, Republican: Campaign website, Ballotpedia
John McIntosh, Democrat: Campaign website, Ballotpedia
What life experiences shape the perspectives you will bring as a county commissioner?
Jim Howell: I attended Derby and Wichita public schools and graduated from Wichita Southeast High School. I have two bachelor’s degrees in management and leadership and an associate degree in avionics. I am a U.S. Air Force veteran, served during Desert Shield. Geographically, I have lived in this district for 40 years. I have been married to my wife Leah for 32 years and we raised our five kids here. I have 24 years experience working in flight test for three of the local aviation companies. I also served in the Kansas Legislature for four years. I witnessed domestic violence as a child. I was a victim of neglect. My father was gone most of the time and then he moved away when I was 12. I know how substance addictions can cause dysfunction within a family. I am glad to be on a better path, which I attribute to better influences and the local church, which has helped me become a good husband, father, grandfather and citizen.
John McIntosh: Being born in Kansas, but also growing up in Philadelphia for a good portion of my life, gives me the perspective of what a larger community needs. I spent 10 years as a fireman in the Philadelphia area, so I understand firsthand what challenges the first responders face daily and will work hard to make sure they are taken care of. Thirty years of selling building material gave me the opportunity to work with many builders and developers so I understand the need for controlled growth. Spending six years on the Derby City Council gave me experience on how government can work and what role an elected official has in the shaping of a city.
How will you make yourself available to constituents throughout your term?
Jim Howell: I host several opportunities each month where I invite constituents to have an informal chat with me. I pay for the coffee or whatever. I also have a formal Citizens Advisory Board where citizens can participate and steer ideas. I am also willing to meet anyone pretty much anywhere for more focused discussion, if those other opportunities do not work. I also give out my cell phone 316-788-4887 and I am willing to discuss issues over the phone. I answer my email. I actually go to my downtown office most weekdays and can meet people there as well. In the end, I pride myself in my being available to the people I serve.
John McIntosh: I will hold regular community gatherings so I can hear from the residents and their concerns. I will also make myself available to any constituent that wishes to talk about any issue facing Sedgwick County.
What two or three priorities will you pursue as a county commissioner?
Jim Howell: I am working about six initiatives in parallel, but I will highlight a few. I will continue to work on mental health solutions. I have led the commission to work on juvenile justice issues (fixes to SB 367) and to reduce the high number of suspended driver’s licenses. Recently, I am working on some traffic safety mitigations at certain intersections. I am also working to help the fire district with some fiscal sustainability solutions.
John McIntosh: 1) Our first responders – fire, police, and EMS – deserve better pay and effective management. The people protecting the public need respect and stability at work. Eliminating our staff shortages, increasing retention and ensuring they have the resources they need will make our community safer. 2) Sedgwick County needs to be more proactive in combating mental illness. Many of the issues facing our community, such as addiction and homelessness, stem from mental and behavioral issues. With a little prevention, we can ease the demands on law enforcement and our jail. 3) Overhaul the funding and representation of the Department for Aging. As the senior group in our county grows, we must make sure we are providing the proper services for them. Transportation is a large issue for those in the outlying cities and we must work harder at making it available to all that need it.
With the city of Wichita decriminalizing marijuana, what if any role do you think Sedgwick County should take in response?
Jim Howell: We will have to fund the consequences at the district attorney and the Sedgwick County Jail. If the county pursues convictions in district court (as described by the DA), there may be as many as 700 more people processed through the jail and the county courts.
John McIntosh: I feel the county should work with the Kansas legislators to make sure this is handled at the state level. If the legislators had listened to the people and legalized medical marijuana like all our other neighboring states have, then we would not be having to deal with this now. The loss of funding we have experienced because of the state’s inaction on this issue could have helped us be able to have proper funding to deal with mental health issues throughout the state.
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?
Jim Howell: I will need to see the report before I can comment. I did request a baseline analysis and at that time (in the beginning) it appeared that the county was already very diverse. We will see what other areas need to be addressed once the reports are ready for review.
John McIntosh: No matter what the report shows, the county must make sure all efforts are put towards making sure all employees are treated fair and with the utmost respect. I would work with the HR department to make sure all our benefits and policies are where they should be in today’s world.
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?
Jim Howell: We are doing many parallel efforts. The pipeline of qualified workers can be bolstered by the implementation of the KU/WSU health sciences campus being planned. There is a legislative effort to review and possibly adjust the requirements necessary to become a provider. We are exploring a private-sector provider model to see if it would be more effective than ICT-1. We are working with state partners to bring a new state mental health hospital to Sedgwick County. We are planning a human services campus to help with detox and counseling and other related services. And finally, we are in the process of expanding COMCARE. We have already committed $17M to that project.
John McIntosh: First thing is to identify what the issues are that are keeping us from hiring the right people. If it is pay, then we need a plan to increase the pay to where it needs to be. If there are other issues, we must do whatever it takes to make sure we have the best people in place to handle the heavy workload that our employees are dealing with.
How relevant is the private behavior of a county commissioner to their public role? What example do you intend to set?
Jim Howell: When the private behavior of a commissioner becomes disruptive, it is very relevant. The Board of County Commissioners Code of Ethics states in part that commissioners should model decorum in all relationships, both professional and personal. Lately, we have seen elected officials abuse their power, some get DUIs. Some unprofessionally attack senior staff without evidence. One accused the county-provided newsletter of a political bias. There are many examples of bad behavior and commissioners should be better than that. We have a higher standard.
John McIntosh: As an elected official you are under the watchful eye of the public daily. What the public needs to remember is we are all human and not perfect. When representing the county as an elected official I will do my best to be professional and respectful to all around.
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?
Jim Howell: This is a nationwide issue, not just a local county issue. Nevertheless, we need to be all about stopping the flow of dangerous drugs into this country from the southern border and into this community. We must have an effective education program to warn people of the death risks they may have if they don’t know where their drugs came from. If someone makes a bad choice to partake anyway, they may suffer tragic consequences. Unfortunately, this is a personal responsibility issue and we will not be able to completely stop it but we can sure try to educate the people and warn them over and over.
John McIntosh: I believe that we should work with the state to decriminalize the fentanyl strips. Fentanyl deaths are a major concern, and we need to do whatever it takes to reduce the deaths. I would be for lobbying the state to do the same.
What if any further role should the county commission as the board of health play in addressing COVID-19 as a public health threat?
Jim Howell: Thankfully, COVID is largely behind us. We need to reflect on what we did right and learn on how to do things better. In time, this sort of issue could show up in a different way, but we know a lot more now. The early estimates were more than 1000% in excess of what actually happened. The mental health issues that we see now, the damage to students’ achievement, the fiscal consequence of closing businesses will be felt for a generation. I always advocated to provide the best information to the people and then trust them to make the best decisions for themselves and their families and businesses and schools. I think the principles of personal freedom and responsibility should be the principle we go to for threats like this in the future.
John McIntosh: The board of health needs to make sure they are addressing not only COVID-19 issues, but any countywide issues that come along.