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Commissioner Cruse Takes Office In Sedgwick County

Sedgwick County
Lacey Cruse takes the oath of office Sunday to become a Sedgwick County commissioner for the 4th District.

Sedgwick County held an oath of office ceremony Sunday for three commissioners who begin new terms this week.

Pete Meitzner represents the 1st District; Lacey Cruse represents the 4th District; and Jim Howell returns for a second term representing the 5th District.

For Cruse, becoming a county commissioner is the start of a new career in public service.

Cruse entered politics last year to build on the momentum she experienced during the Women’s Marches in Wichita. She also wanted to diversify the county commission’s representation.

Five men have been leading Sedgwick County’s government for the past eight years. In the 4th District, Republicans have held that position since the late 1990s. So when Cruse, a Democrat, won the primary and general elections last year, she earned more than a new job; she became battle-tested.

“I'm a 36-year-old single mom of two daughters, and I have no public service history," she says. "And I think that it's important to believe in yourself that you can do something. Believe in the people around you because they will help."

Credit Sedgwick County
Jim Howell, left, represents the 5th District; Lacey Cruse represents the 4th District and Pete Meitzner represents the 1st District.

Meitzner, Howell and others who joined the county commission in recent years were already in politics or retired. Cruse is transitioning from a full-time career in the private sector. She left her job with Kindred Hospice in September to focus on running for office.

“It was so very scary to do that because I am the sole breadwinner of our home. So it’s been a challenge. We eat lots of ramen noodles and we make it work,” Cruse says.

She will start getting paychecks again now: County commissioners earn about $90,000 a year, and it is a fulltime, year-round job.

In the two months since the election, Cruse has attended commission meetings, met with city leaders in her district and started getting up to speed on the county’s budget and functions.

“So generally, new commissioners will tour each county department in February but since I'm not working, I asked to tour every single department so that I could get a real good look at just exactly what happens in our county,” Cruse says.

She plans to attend the Kansas Association of Counties’ new commissioner orientation in Topeka. There is also a briefing with Sedgwick County’s legal staff to go over the rules and regulations, as well as ethical standards.

“You know, there are a lot of do’s and dont’s when it comes to being a public servant," she says. "So I’ll get an opportunity to learn about the Open Records Act and all of those sort of really legal type things. I don't want to get myself in any hot water."

Cruse is joining a county commission that recently ordered an investigation into county leadership that resulted in separation agreements for two top leaders. An investigation into the commission itself is still pending, and Commissioner Michael O’Donnell is awaiting trial on federal charges.

While those issues don’t involve Cruse, she will have significant business early in the term. Commissioners will hire a new county manager, the highest non-elected position in county government.

“We have to hire someone who has the public in mind and not this party politic thing going on. I really feel like we have to have somebody who's knowledgeable about running a county or running a huge entity," Cruse says. "Somebody who is personable; somebody who cares about people."

She got a taste of the scrutiny that comes with public service during the elections, and in a recent editorial cartoon. Cruse is a lifelong musician; she's used to being in the spotlight. But she says nothing can prepare you for being in the line of fire as an elected official.

“You know, people are going to criticize you whether you're doing really well or whether you're doing really bad. So I will say that I'm going to try to take it with a grain of salt and do my best,” she says.

Even though she’s a Democrat representing a longstanding Republican district, Cruse wants to put party politics aside in carrying out her duties as a commissioner. She doesn’t like that county elections are partisan and city elections are not.

“The part that I don't really like is the partisanship of all of this. We have to get away from those party politics when it comes to serving people because regardless of anyone's party affiliation, I'm serving that person,” she says.

She already has plans to take public engagement to a new level for the county commission. She wants to host an open mic night at a downtown Wichita bar, a place where she can mix music with politics.

“I think it’s a new avenue that the public can come in and access a public official in a different way. So not that I’m trying to perform for people, but give people an opportunity to ask me questions in a different type of setting,” she says.

Cruse will not only bring a fresh perspective to the county commission, she might also inspire other women to jump into the political pipeline.

Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.