Locally, there is one race that hits particularly close to home this election season — the seat for District 1 of the Harvey County Commission.
Three candidates are running for the commission position this year, including incumbent George "Chip" Westfall (R-Newton) and two independent candidates — Dan Harms and Greg Nickel, both of Newton.
Westfall, a 41-year resident of Newton, has served with the commission since being elected in 2006. Prior to serving, Westfall was a lieutenant with the Kansas Highway Patrol for 28 and a half years (continuing to serve in a part-time role) and was in law enforcement — including a stint in Halstead — for a total of 32 years. Other community involvement has included work with the Harvey County Fair Board, airport advisory board, Regional Economic Area Partnership and more.
Harms, a Newton native, is a local businessman who owns and operates House of Glass Inc., where he has worked for nearly three decades. Harms has served on the parks advisory board as well as the advisory board for the Newton High School Career and Technical Education program. He also helped organize the grassroots campaign to preserve Camp Hawk as a county park during last year's election.
Nickel has been in Newton for 15 years, serving as the court administrator for the city of Newton 14 of those years. Nickel previously served in public office as a municipal judge in Goessel for seven years and is extensively involved with community organizations as a board member of the Harvey County Food & Farm Council, Harvey-Marion County Community Developmental Disability Organization, Harvey County Big Brother Big Sisters and more.
All three candidates were sent a questionnaire prior to the Nov. 6 election and their responses are listed below.
Q: What are your reasons for running?
Chip: To continue to work with the current county commission, administrative staff and employees who have made our county government a very efficient operation that wisely uses tax dollars. We have three key issues that need to be addressed in the years ahead: 1) Hesston Road from Newton to Hesston, which is 75 years old and needs rebuilt; 2) increase and improve the landfill, as it is running out of space for demolition and construction debris; and 3)providing new strategical rescue equipment for the Harvey County Emergency Response Team to protect the officers when they deploy on high risk operations, thereby also increasing the safety of citizens in those events.
Dan: I came to the county commission two years ago to understand the decision to sell Camp Hawk and found no meeting minutes, no consultation with the advisory board and no vote for the people. I asked for an explanation — for the materials, the data the commission considered when making the decision. I was met with resistance, ever-changing justifications for the sale and no supporting materials — not a single study, statistic, estimate or piece of data.
We have to change this. We have to change the way decisions are made at our county commission. I’m running for county commissioner to bring openness and transparency to our local government.
Greg: I grew up on a family farm where success was built on responsibility and hard work. As an optimist, I believe the same is true for our communities. I believe that a fresh voice on the commission can propel us forward. As court administrator, I see the need for greater initiative in drug prevention. Additionally, I see opportunities for young people and people of broad ethnic backgrounds who want to be engaged. I believe this can be accomplished with fresh initiative.
Q: What are your goals, if elected?
C: 1) Maintain the county's seven year road and bridge maintenance program. 2) Begin the rebuilding project for Hesston Road, which will be a three to four-year project to include the design and funding needed to begin construction. 3) To get the final landfill design and obtain approval from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to begin to add another layer on top of the current pile of debris. The new layer of debris will be 3 to 10 feet high and then an 18-inch cap of soil must be placed on top to seal it. Additionally, a larger expansion of the landfill site will need to be studied over the next few years, with a design and funding proposal put together. 4) Continue to provide assistance to seniors living in the county with Medicare Part D counseling services and transportation needs. 5) Provide quality emergency services to respond to any situation that might arise. 6) Currently, the Kansas special legislative committee is taking testimony on requests for road and bridge projects across the state and how to fund them over the next 10 years. The county will have to pay close attention to this as it will affect how much funding the county receives back from the federal and state highway taxes for use locally.
D: To change the culture of our county commission. We need to pull the decision-making out from behind closed-doors. We need to include citizens and experts in that process. Let’s stream commission meetings so citizens have access to what and why things are happening in the county. That will give every citizen the power of oversight.
We need to fully engage the budget. We must evaluate needs in the community and track actual spending as compared to the budget as we work to meet those needs. Mental Health funding is one item that has suffered as commissioners chose to simply keep everything flat — our agencies can’t keep up with inflation with this approach to budgeting.
If we make fact-based decisions on the record, with citizen and expert input, we will have better decisions for Harvey County. No more starting projects before asking if we can afford them. No more selling amenities that are well used and inexpensive to operate.
G: I want us to become a model community in Kansas for drug prevention — our domestic violence program, which I co-chair, has already achieved a similar distinction. I want our communities to see strong economic development. I want to focus on safe roads and parks. I want the full variety of people in our community to feel heard by their local government. I want to accomplish these things, not through tax initiatives, but by working through community leadership groups.
Q: What makes you the best candidate for this position?
C: In addition to my 12 years as a county commissioner, I have also served in a leadership position as a Lieutenant with the Kansas Highway Patrol. While with the KHP, I received the Governor's Award for Leadership for my skills used in leading the KHP response to and directing operations after the Hesston tornado in 1990 and for my leadership in investigations of two separate shooting incidents involving injured KHP Troopers. I also served as an instructor for the KHP New Supervisors curriculum, instructing 18 hours of the 80-hour course material. I have presented training on employee management and evaluations, incident command and policy compliance.
The 12 years that I have served as one of your county commissioners has been a great learning experience. I regularly visit with each department head and staff members to understand their responsibilities and the value of their services to the county. I then take that information and share it with others involved in county operations, which makes for a more efficient operation of all county departments.
D: I am a family man, tradesman and businessman. I am an outsider to government work. I will bring a citizen’s perspective to government rather than a government’s perspective to the citizens.
I’ve attended weekly commission meetings for two years, as well as the 2017 and 2018 yearly budget meetings. I’ve studied the budget and filed Kansas Open Records Requests in an effort to understand decisions and to bring the facts to light. Unfortunately, the commission’s statements about Camp Hawk are not the only public announcements that don’t align with the facts.
My motivation is transparency and fair representation. My leadership style is inclusive. I find value in a wide range of viewpoints. And I insist on having all facts before making a decision. I believe Harvey County is ready for this approach to government.
G: I have a vision for Harvey County that moves us beyond the status quo. I see new opportunity to strengthen our communities without new taxes. I have the ability to put new eyes on our needs and to see new solutions. I have the fresh energy that is overdue. I have the ability and passion to engage a broader cross-section of our communities. I come from a farm and am able to represent our rural interests.
Q: In your opinion, what are the most pressing needs and concerns of the county commission?
C: Maintaining the infrastructure of our road and bridge system and continuing the quality emergency services provided by the Sheriff''s Department, the 911 Emergency Communications Center and the Office of Emergency Management. Additionally, providing a safe and secure courthouse for our employees to work in and for the citizens to conduct business in with the county is of utmost importance. Requiring continuing education of all employees in their field of service.
D: Decision-making and Transparency. No matter what department or what the situation, if the commission’s decisions are not made on the record, are not based on evidence and facts and are not open to public scrutiny, we will continue to make the wrong decisions. We will buy expensive land before asking if we can afford it. We will sell parks before discovering that it won’t save us money.
There is a disconnect between the citizens and their government. Many feel powerless to change it. But this is small government. There is no need to be disconnected. We can fix this. Giving people access to the decision-making process promotes citizen involvement, allows commissioners to better serve their constituents and creates an environment for growth.
G: The most pressing need is the drug issue. The second, which is linked, is economic development. Companies are interested in communities with a skilled workforce that is able to pass a drug test. Expanding our economic base is critical to keeping our taxes low, and our quality of living high. Strong schools also play a key role in these needs. To make these happen, we need a commissioner with the fresh energy to address all the needs.
Q: With the current political and economic climate, what obstacles do you believe exist that would hinder the county's progress and how do you plan to navigate those?
C: Cities and counties have to operate within the tax lid law put into place by the Kansas Legislature. Working within those guidelines to keep our budgets in compliance with those regulations requires strong financial understanding of the current operational needs of county departments and a strong reserve fund to help fund unexpected needs.
We accomplish this by asking department heads to regularly attend commission meetings and provide updates of activities within their departments. When submitting budget requests each year, department heads are required to project capitol improvements needed, funding needed to meet federal and state mandates and to identify other large expenses that might occur over a five-year time frame. If, for some urgent reason, the county commission has to expand the budget requirements larger the than the tax lid law allows, a countywide mail ballot election is required by law.
It is my goal to avoid this process, as any financial need over the statutorily imposed tax lid limit would require an additional expense of at least $20,000 to conduct a mail ballot election over and above the unforeseen budget request.
D: The attempted sale of Camp Hawk was Commissioner Westfall’s third strike, the Logistics Park and the $1.3 million Fairgrounds being the first two. Unfortunately, these major decisions shape Harvey County’s current political and economic climate.
Financially, we must press on with the Logistics Park. We want to grow and bring jobs to Harvey County. We didn’t hit the home run here, so we might need to explore other strategies. I believe a stronger focus on growing our small businesses would strengthen our local economy.
As we knocked doors for Camp Hawk and now for this campaign, we’ve found frustration and distrust of the government to be common themes. Some folks don’t believe we can change that. Others thank us warmly for bringing the information and hope for better access and better decisions in future. I believe we can regain the trust of the citizens. People want to be optimistic. But they need to be heard.
Being forced to protest our representatives had a galvanizing effect. Like me, most of my campaign committee are political first-timers. Citizens accomplished something rare by saving Camp Hawk. Many carried petitions, more than 1,300 signed it. And 77 percent voted to keep the park. We need to capitalize on this momentum. Us versus them isn’t working. Let’s work together to make a positive change for Harvey County.
G: The current political climate is plagued by partisanship. I am running as an independent candidate because I am comfortable working successfully with people of all political stripes. My strength is in working collaboratively with people of different interests and in building healthy organizations. Throughout this campaign, I have maintained a positive relationship with the other candidates — this is the kind of personality we need.