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Incumbent Howell Faces Former Commissioner Skelton In Sedgwick County 5th District Race

Deborah Shaar

The race for the Sedgwick County Commission’s 5th District is between two men who have experience being a commissioner.

Republican Jim Howell of Derby is currently representing the district, and independent candidate Jim Skelton is trying to reclaim his old job.

Howell is an Air Force veteran who worked in the aviation industry before entering politics. He served eight years as a Republican precinct committeeman and then two terms in the Kansas House of Representatives. He won the 5th District county commissioner race in 2014.

“I think that I have a good history with this district, and I love the people. I think that I've demonstrated good leadership in the past," Howell says. "I care very much that we will continue a very positive leadership going forward."

Howell’s opponent, Jim Skelton of southeast Wichita, also has military and political experience. Skelton served in the Army and Kansas Army National Guard. He entered politics by working on local campaigns and serving on city advisory boards.

“It’s something I do. It’s something I enjoy, and it’s about serving the people,” Skelton says.

Skelton was elected to the Wichita City Council in 2005. Five years later, he won the election to become the 5th District Sedgwick County commissioner. He says he did not run for a second term so he could focus on recovering from a leg injury.

“So having 10 surgeries in seven years, my health wasn’t very good. I just thought it was time to take a break, so I did," Skelton says. "I got out."

Skelton was a Republican the last time he ran for county commissioner, but is running this tims as an independent. He says he switched his party affiliation before he left the county commission.

“Many people know that I have not changed my political views because I'm an independent. I'm still the same person. I'm pro-life; I'm pro-Second Amendment," he says. "It's just that I chose to be independent just because I did not want to be under the thumb of a political party. I don't want to have to be 'a yes man.'"

What sets this race apart from the 1st District and 4th District county commission elections is that both candidates have proven experience of serving Sedgwick County. Jim Howell hopes voters take notice.

“You can look at the things that I have done and what he has done, and you can compare," he says. "You hopefully will pick the right one. There are differences in the two of us. We both have a history. Please judge us with wisdom and knowledge and know what actually happened."

The 5th District covers the southeast part of Sedgwick County, and includes Derby, Mulvane, southeast Wichita and McConnell Air Force Base.

Sedgwick County commissioners manage a budget of nearly $440 million. They decide Sedgwick County’s priorities based on funding allocations and strategic planning.

The commissioners are responsible for county property, roads and bridges and the financial affairs of the county, among other duties. The county government employs thousands of people.

Howell’s priorities include expanding educational opportunities and job skills training to meet the needs of struggling families.

“We have lots of jobs. We don't have people to fill those jobs. We do have people without jobs. What do you do?" he says. "We've got to find ways to develop skills, get people where they're ready to take those jobs, and encourage them to have personal responsibility and an initiative to want to get those jobs."

Skelton would like to see the county make improvements to drainage infrastructure. He also would support merging some Sedgwick County services with their city counterparts.

“I think a pressing issue would be to find additional ways to combine the city and county governments," he says. "There’s a lot of opportunity. Both governments do offer the same services in certain areas. It’s my opinion that we could have one governmental entity that does that."

The five commissioners are elected to four-year terms. The current board of commissioners are all Republicans.

Even though some motions end with a split three-to-two vote, Howell says there is no underlying alignment or majority among the commissioners. He says he votes based on the merits of the issue.

“Some of my colleagues don’t like the fact that I might vote against them on some issue, but I don’t care. I’m brave and I’ll do it, and then we’ll get along later," he says. "But the issue is what’s important to me. So I will vote my conscience and do what’s right, whether I have support from anybody else or not."

Skelton is campaigning on the idea that he would make consistent decisions, and establish a code of ethics to keep political influence out of the commission’s decisions on government contracts.

“So many people are telling me they're tired of this division here in America," he says. "So I'm glad I'm independent. I'm glad I choose to be nonpartisan serving on a local governmental body that deals with nonpartisan issues."

Skelton and Howell agree on the importance of being accessible to voters and using public feedback in their decision-making. Skelton considers himself a neighborhood leader who would take a nonpartisan approach to county business.

“I've always operated by appointing a district advisory board that is composed of citizens that live throughout my district," he says. "These members are privy to the same information I get when I am making a vote or exploring an issue."

Howell says he likes to dig in deep on issues and hear from constituents.

“They want good government, things that make sense. They want efficiency and effectiveness but they want a representative that’s available. So I give people my cell number and they know they can call me,” he says.

Skelton can claim at least one election accomplishment that Jim Howell has yet to achieve: Skelton defeated an incumbent commissioner by a 2-to-1 vote in 2010, giving him the chance to represent the 5th District.

Results from the Nov. 6 general election will decide whether history repeats itself.

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

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.