Two seats are up for election on the Sedgwick County Commission this year, and both incumbents face primary challenges.
In the 2nd District, Commissioner Michael O’Donnell has two Republican opponents: Cindy Miles and Kathleen Garrison.
O’Donnell is banking on his political experience and first-term accomplishments to win re-election. He says he wants to continue working to make Sedgwick County more responsive and more efficient.
“Particularly this year with so much upheaval and so many problems in the community, I feel like having that consistent leadership is important,” O’Donnell says.
O’Donnell’s career includes successful elections for the Wichita City Council and Kansas State Senate. In 2016, he wanted to return to local government and made a run for the county commission’s 2nd District. He campaigned on the idea that he would bring “a fresh perspective” to a district that was represented by a four-term commissioner.
The message resonated with voters and O’Donnell won the race and replaced the lone Democrat, Tim Norton, on the five-member county board.
“I learned so much more about what Sedgwick County government does, how we can have a positive or a negative impact on every single person inside of Sedgwick County," O'Donnell said. "I've also learned ways to find common ground."
O’Donnell’s Republican opponents are campaigning for the August primary with the same message — that the district could benefit from a change in leadership.
Cindy Miles is the CEO of the Nonprofit Chamber of Service. She has decades of civic experience from serving on numerous local advisory boards and committees.
“I've been doing a lot of work out in the community," she said. "I've been seeing how I can make a small impact, and I want to be able to make even a bigger impact in the things that our county faces."
Kathleen Garrison is a business owner and also works for the U.S. Department of Justice as a data analyst. She’s finishing up a master’s degree in diplomacy and international affairs and decided a run for elected office couldn’t wait.
“The climate of local politics is disturbing to me. I want to bring back more accountability and openness to what goes on and keep people informed,” Garrison said.
All three candidates say the COVID-19 pandemic shifted priorities for the 2nd District and Sedgwick County. They know managing the health crisis comes first. They also say the local economy remains a top concern.
O’Donnell wants the county to keep taxes flat to support struggling businesses.
“We have to look long-term that there is going to be a very negative effect to the economy because of the COVID-19,” O’Donnell said. “That’s what concerns me a lot is we have so many people who are suffering, that are out of work. We have so many businesses that are struggling, barely staying alive.”
Miles says it’s a challenging time for the county to navigate the economic recovery.
“We need our businesses open. We need our economy to recover,” she said. “So if we are not very alert, if we’re not very reactive and try to figure out how do we address these issues, our economy could take even a bigger blow than what it already has taken.”
Garrison says the county should focus on keeping businesses strong while also supporting public services.
“I want to make sure all of our emergency services are covered. I feel like that’s our duty. We have a moral obligation to make sure people can get access to those services when they need them,” Garrison said.
“But honestly, business is very important.”
Sedgwick County commissioners oversee the county budget of about $458 million. The five-member board also serves as the Board of Health. The commissioners rely on Sedgwick County’s Health Officer Dr. Garold Minns to provide recommendations and information related to public health matters.
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the commission into a more visible and critical role in making public health decisions. As a result, there is renewed discussion about broadening the Board of Health to include medical and health experts.
O’Donnell says he and Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner have been working on possible changes to the Board of Health for more than a year. He says with coronavirus infections surging, now is not the right time.
“I think once we get through the crisis, we do need to evaluate that and see about getting more voices and having more of a joint Board of Health with an outside board and a health director,” O’Donnell said.
Miles and Garrison also support changing the way public health decisions are made in the county.
“Maybe we need to have some differing views, not just all relying on one individual," Miles said. "That might give us a broader spectrum of opinions and ideas."
Garrison says the Board of Health needs to include medical experts.
"I’m not saying that the Board of Health can’t continue to consist of those county commissioners," she said, "but I just think there needs to be medical experts ... helping make those decisions."
Garrison says O’Donnell’s conduct was another reason why she entered the race.
“I’m just very uncomfortable with his seeming willingness to do things that are less than ethical,” she said.
Miles says she can’t support O’Donnell to lead the district.
“I think O’Donnell has proven over and over again that he’s willing to cross that ethical line. My morals and my values are very high, and I expect more from the people who are elected to office,” Miles said.
O’Donnell says a former county commissioner was behind much of the controversy that surrounded the Sedgwick County Commission during the first few years he was in office. He says he was a target because his colleague didn’t like O’Donnell’s position on public health matters.
“[My term] has not been exceptionally calm," O'Donnell said. "But at the end of the day, I believe I was acquitted. I believe that the public was able to see that there is politics that enter prosecution a lot of times."
In March 2019, a jury acquitted O’Donnell of nearly all charges related to his state and county campaigns, but were deadlocked on five charges of wire fraud and money laundering. The county later decided not to pursue an internal investigation into the county commission.
COVID-19 social distancing restrictions canceled some traditional campaign activities like parades and public meetings. Some fundraising events and voter meet-and-greets also stalled. So the candidates are using other ways to get their name and message out beyond yard signs.
O’Donnell is handing out small branded bottles of hand sanitizer when he meets voters.
“The pandemic has made it challenging, I think, but it’s also I think been beneficial as an incumbent because it doesn’t give a lot of room for other people to be out there campaigning either so you’re kind of secluded from a lot of the normal campaign tactics,” he said.
Garrison is counting on her business and personal networks in Clearwater and Haysville for votes next week.
“I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and say, 'I want to know more,' because they are more engaged," she said. "They’re paying attention because there’s so much going on right now. People are very concerned."
Miles says she’s using social media and virtual town halls to reach 2nd District residents.
“I’m just consistently looking at how do I be more creative in my campaigning," she said. "I’ve never campaigned before so I don’t really have anything to compare it to. I just know it’s different than what the strategies were that I initially came up with."
The winner of the 2nd District primary will take on Democrat Sarah Lopez in November. Sedgwick County commissioners are elected to four-year terms, and earn about $95,000 a year for their full-time role.