Newton City Commission election looms

Chad Frey
The Kansan
Come Nov. 2 voters in the city of Newton will select three members of the Newton City Commission.

Come Nov. 2 voters in the city of Newton will select three members of the Newton City Commission. 

Voters will have six candidates to choose from on the ballot. Incumbents Leroy Koehn, Rod Kreie and Kathy Valentine will be challenged by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, Lance Gormley and Eric Thompson. 

The Newton Area Chamber of Commerce will host a candidate forum for city commission candidates from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Oct. 6 at  at the Meridian Center, 1420 E Broadway Ct.

Five candidates responded to a request from the Newton Kansan to create candidate profiles for publication. 

Advance voting by mail will be available for the election. Registered voters may apply for an Advance Ballot by Mail through the county clerk's office at the Harvey County Courthouse.  A separate form is required for each election. Ballots begin mailing 20 days prior to election, for this election on Oct. 13. Requests must be submitted by October 26.

​Early in person voting will begin Oct. 19 at the Harvey County Courthouse, 800 N. Main The early voting poll site will be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Oct. 30 in the commission room. Early voting will close at noon Nov. 1. 

Candidate profiles:

Rebecca Barrett-Fox

Rebecca Barrett-Fox

Age 43, 5 years total in Newton

Tell me one good thing about living in Newton you have experienced within the last year:

Last year, our family made a commitment to putting something daily in our neighborhood Sharing Box, which is a free pantry in our neighborhood. It's been a good challenge for us to identify what in our own life we can share with our neighbors--fresh eggs from our backyard chickens, a few muffins we’ve made that morning. Some days, it’s our gently-read copy of The Kansan or just a few tea bags, depending on how recently I’ve been grocery shopping. We like putting in back-to-school supplies and homemade Christmas decorations, knowing that someone will get use or joy out of things we have also enjoyed. These little exchanges--seeing what others love to give--have connected us with neighbors and helped us see what our community needs. Especially when COVID made it difficult to visit in person, our neighborhood Sharing Box gave us a connection to others. Neighbors who were suddenly working at home got to know each other outdoors as they met around the Sharing Box on our little walks. The Sharing Box reminds me that people want to take care of each other. And it allowed me to bake as much sourdough bread as I wanted, knowing it would get eaten!

What, in your opinion, is the top issue facing the community of Newton today:

The biggest issue we face is lack of confidence that we can solve our problems: complacency, resignation to the status quo, disinvestment from the community, and disillusionment that city government cares.The decline of our town, from failed businesses to vacant houses to depopulation, isn’t inevitable; it’s the predictable result of our pattern of reacting rather than acting, of scrambling to put out fires rather than to strategically planning our future. We have to change the mindset that “some problems just can’t be solved” as it undermines our ability to attract new residents and foster new businesses. We can rehab and build affordable housing and create strong, safe neighborhoods. We can care for seniors. We can build resilience so that when disaster strikes, we bounce forward. We can be a place where our children will want to call home. By focusing on the long-term and the big picture, we give people evidence that the city cares for the common good. Solving our problems requires trust and enthusiasm for our future, so I’d start there as I tackle the issues voters are telling me they care about: the cost of living, housing, crime, lack of businesses, and community decline.

What, in your opinion, is a solution you can bring to the commission to resolve this issue?

I’m an optimist, not because I’m naive but because I’ve seen Newtonians already do great things, often despite big obstacles. Some problems are hard and complex, but no one is better qualified to solve our problems--especially in a town with so many talented, smart, hard-working, creative people! Our most important resource is our people, and I help people find a reason to invest and figure out how they can make a difference, which everyone wants to do in some way. When you take time to help people see how their community values them, people take care of each other. As a professor, writing coach, and consultant, I help individuals and organizations identify problems and use their talents to solve them. If elected, I’d foster a sense of the common good by taking seriously the problems that people raise and the talents they bring, without prejudice. I’d present new solutions to old problems that others have decided are too difficult to solve. I’m a researcher and administrator, and I’m relentless about using data to identify future opportunities and challenges. Data-driven decisions with people at the center are the key to a flourishing town.

What unique skills or experience do you have that makes you a qualified candidate?

I wear a variety of hats: Most of my career, I’ve been a sociology professor. I’m currently in academic administratration helping my college expand its online programs to meet more students’ needs. I’ve recently served as the interim executive director of Offender Victim Ministries, a restorative justice agency in Newton that helps offenders take responsibility for the harm they’ve caused others. I’m a professional researcher, and I’m currently part of the Harvey County Drug Court, a new program that offers rehabilitation rather than jail time for some drug offenders; I collect data to see if the program works as expected to reduce recidivism so our community is safer and people with histories of addiction can be contributors. I’m a teacher who has taught courses in disaster preparation, sex crime and domestic violence investigation, and social problems. I’m a scholar who has worked with federal agencies like the Department of Justice and Homeland Security to help our government understand why people become domestic terrorists. And I’m a consultant, working with individuals and groups to solve the social problems that they care about. My speciality is working with Christians and Christian organizations that are seeking to help their communities, especially during crises.

What can the commission do to put, or keep, the city on a strong financial trajectory over the course of the next five years.

We need to increase the profits of local businesses by courting businesses that meet Newton’s needs. I envision many new businesses that residents would support and would attract out-of-town visitors and new citizens: a soccer academy, a “green” cemetery, a brewery, a tutoring center, a telehealth center, a birthing center, a kennel and obedience school. And probably readers of The Kansan have their own wish list of places they’d like to spend money locally! We also need to widen our property tax base, which means attracting young professionals interested in home ownership, mid-career remote workers seeking to escape high-cost areas, and retirees seeking a safe community with a stable cost of living. We need to improve amenities so that people who work in surrounding towns will choose Newton as the place where they buy houses, shop, and live. An affordable cost of living, more housing at all price points, and taxes that go toward the services that residents value will go a long way toward population growth, which expands our tax base. Finally, we need to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship by offering a maker’s space, pop-up restaurant space, and commercial grade kitchen where people can practice new skills.

Lance Gormley

Lance Gormley

Age: 39

Year living in Newton: 20 years

Tell me one good thing about living in Newton you have experienced within the last year?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just “one good thing” I have experienced over the last year, but one that always comes to mind is how many people truly love this community and are willing to invest in making Newton a better place for everyone. Through my involvement in community service activities this past year, I’ve met a tremendous number of Newtonians who are always willing to contribute their time, talents, education and experience to provide Newton a seemingly endless army of people who always want the best for Newton’s future.  I am amazed at their willingness to work hard as a team to make Newton a better place to live, work and raise their families. We are truly blessed with great people in this community and I’m proud to call myself a Newtonian and I hope that you are too. 

What, in your opinion, is the top issue facing the community of Newton today?

Economic Development should be our number one priority. We must continue to focus on bringing new businesses to Newton and providing an avenue for small businesses to start, grow, and maintain in our community. Not only do we need this for economic growth, but this also gives Newtonians more opportunity through higher paying jobs. This prosperity then helps generate additional tax revenue that’s been lacking in Newton over the years. I would like us to be more attentive to the needs of Downtown. 

What, in your opinion, is a solution you can bring to the commission to resolve this issue?

I believe someone who understands where we were, where we are now and where we are going will be the best individuals who will bring the most value to our current commission. I believe I'm one of those people. Who we elect this year will have a great impact on the direction Newton is headed and the opportunities that await us in our near future. I am a person who will hold the line when it comes to not raising your taxes, focusing on Economic Development, being attentive, involved, transparent, and accountable to all Newtonians with the things mentioned above. Understanding these things gives me a greater perspective when having something to contribute as a future commissioner here in Newton.

What unique skills or experience do you have that makes you a qualified candidate?

The ability to communicate effectively with Newtonians about issues pertaining to the City in its entirety. Communication is a two-way street, it shouldn’t come only from the city to Newtonians, it also requires actively listening to what Newtonians are saying and what they do and don’t want in their community. My Undergraduate Degree in Political Science has taught me a tremendous amount about how Government operates, and my Graduate Degree in Communications has allowed me greater experience in effective communication skills, especially in the avenue of citizen and government relationships. I’m currently a teacher at Wichita State University and this has also given me a greater understanding of what our younger generation is looking for in terms of employment, amenities, and community life styles when they graduate and look for a community to live in. My life experiences have also provided me with a wealth of understanding the perspectives of all people from all walks of life. 

What can the commission do to put, or keep, the city on a strong financial trajectory over the course of the next five years?

Do not raise taxes on Newtonians by maintaining the mill levy, continue our focus on economic development, housing opportunities for all socio-economic levels and paying down our debt that’s been acquired over the last decade or more. As we move forward over the course of the next five years, our focus should be paying down past debt and as we do this, reinvesting those funds into our community through conservative long-term planning and development. 

I believe in Newton, the People of Newton and the Future of Newton!

Name: Leroy Koehn

Leroy Koehn

Years living in Newton: 45

Tell me one good thing about living in Newton you have experienced in the last year:

The city staff and the city commission have continued growing the level of trust for each other that has resulted in teamwork on a variety of issues that has improved the quality-of-life issues for the community.

What, in your opinion, is the top issue facing the community of Newton today:

There are a certain number of people who are very polarizing and divisive about certain issues including vaccinations and whether one should or should not get vaccinated. If someone doesn’t agree with them and are not fully supportive of their decisions, then lines are drawn and serious judgments are made about people’s character.

What, in your opinion, is a solution you can bring to the commission to resolve this issue?

I am a promoter of collaboration between all groups of people, to listen to each other, and have compassion for wherever they fall in their outlook and to understand rather than be understood. An example of this collaboration is how the city, county, and USD 373 elected officials are all working closer together.

What unique skills or experiences do you have that makes you a qualified candidate?

I am a team builder, have good listening skills, and asks good questions. I am leading a growing company that provides many jobs, understands how business works, and how important it is to provide an environment where local businesses can thrive. Lastly, I have been very involved in numerous non-profit organizations and understand how important they are to Newton.

What can the commission do to put, or keep, the city on a strong financial trajectory over the course of the next five years?

We are as strong financially as we have been in several years. Our current commission has worked very diligently to do long-range budgeting to plug in certain amenity or infrastructure projects over the next 3 to 10 years where another bond payment is scheduled to expire and to not raise the mil levy to fund it. We want to grow our tax base by increased property valuations and helping existing businesses slowly grow.

Name: Rod Kreie

Rod Kreie

Age: 66

Years living in Newton: 12

Tell me one good thing about living in Newton you have experienced within the last year:

I would have to say that opening the new pool complex was a very big deal. Not necessarily because it was a new amenity – but the significance of asking our local citizens what was important to them (the survey), creating a long-range plan based on the wishes of the community (the survey), implementing the plan, refinacing debt giving room in the budget for new things, and managing our other debt to allow for other community assets that are on the drawing table (Library, etc.) – that’s how city government should operate.

What, in your opinion, is the top issue facing the community of Newton today:

I would have to say that community self-image is the top issue facing this community. Some people have it in their head that our community isn’t as good as many other communities. I marvel at the assets this community has to offer. There are many very good people in this community willing to give their time and best effort to make Newton a better place to live and work. With Newton being only 20 minutes from Wichita, there’s no reason we can’t capitalize on that as an asset.

What, in your opinion, is a solution you can bring to the commission to resolve this issue?

We are already doing it. Very intentional efforts have gone into economic development in the last couple of years. We have already seen great progress in the “looks” our community has received and we are in the process of working on projects that will greatly enhance our tax base. We have taken great care in how we approach potential projects to minimize the cities financial risk. We have done all of this as we continue to pay for things that have not worked out in the past without raising the mill levy or utility rates.

What unique skills or experience do you have that makes you a qualified candidate?

I am a CPA. I have done municipal budgets. I have done municipal audits. I have been involved in multiple startup companies. I am a multiple business owner. I have experience with project development, project finance and have also been involved with economic development for almost 40 years. I am an active Rotarian – involved for many years at the district, national and international level. I have received multiple awards for “service above self” and known throughout the country in that organization for getting things done. I grew up in a working-class family working with my hands. I care deeply about people and have always been willing to give my time and best efforts to improve my community. So as a candidate, my experience in planning for the future comes from a very compassionate financial and work background.

What can the commission do to put, or keep, the city on a strong financial trajectory over the course of the next five years.

We are on a very good pathway right now. We are actually planning further out than 5 years. This can’t be done without creating a strong working relationship with city management and staff. We have done that. It is important the commission shows strong leadership – but also important they understand their role as a commissioner. The commissions job is showing strong direction to staff and making sure there is a clear pathway to accomplishing commission goals and objectives. Staff is responsible for implementing that plan.

The wild card is the voters. They often expect commissioners to immediately solve problems that have been created over multiple decades. Uninformed voters are quick to elect people that promise short-term relief that would derail a long-term plan that will eventually give long term relief. So, I would say that our job as commissioners that would keep us on this trajectory is to try to get more people to understand there is no short-term solution to long-term problems and remind them, they have never elected a candidate that says they have this “solution” that ever successfully fulfilled that promise after they became a commissioner.

Kathy Valentine

Kathy Valentine

Years living in Newton:

My husband and I have lived in Newton since 2010, having chosen this community for a small town feel and early retirement, coming from over 30 years in Wichita.

One good thing about living in Newton within this last year:

Two things stand out right away, unable to choose one over the other, I am very glad to see that our Law Enforcement Center renovation is completed, and it is a showcase for our officers to work from. Many sacrifices were made to get there, and now our Police Department not only has a nicely updated facility to work in and out of, but we now have a modernized and efficient work environment to offer new candidates, as they consider coming on board with Newton P. D., (and I’m not forgetting how this great improvement has impacted the Harvey County Sheriff’s Department as well). In addition to the LEC, I am thrilled to finally see our new Newton Municipal Swimming Pool open to our citizens, with a fantastic ribbon cutting and grand opening this last August 14th, offering nearly every amenity that our citizens asked for. This is long awaited, and now it’s here! Next summer can’t come too soon folks!

What, in your opinion, is the top issue facing the community of Newton today:

What I hear from Newtonians is the need to “bring jobs to Newton,” in addition to seeing lower taxes. It is certainly a need for our community to increase our tax base by seeing new businesses choose our community as their new home, spurring new jobs, possibly new housing, which will, in time, hopefully allow homeowners and businesses to see their taxes lowered. Recently, we have seen the business landscape change with the addition of Freddy's, which added to our employment rolls, as well. In the months ahead, we will see the expansion of the second phase of Cottonwood Crossing, which will feature duplex housing, with the construction of 50 units, that will turn in to 100 new homes for families. Equally as exciting, particularly for seniors, ages 55+, we look forward to the Mennonite Housing project, which will ultimately bring about 120 new single-story patio homes after all phases are complete. Other projects for new businesses and current business expansions already underway offer great promise for Newton!

What, in your opinion, is a solution you can bring to the Commission to resolve this issue:

Individually, I intend to continue supporting the collaborative efforts between our City staff and the Harvey County Economic Development Council, as they continuously respond to inquiries about available pieces of land as potential business sites. A great deal of “ground work” is accomplished by these folks so that when it comes before the Commission, we have a clearer picture with which to take action when required. Our City staff and the Harvey County Eco Devo folks are great to work with.

What unique skills or experience do you have that makes you a qualified candidate:

As a Christian, I consider first and foremost a public office is a public trust. I am simply a representative from and for the citizenry; I keep that thought always before me. In this role, there is no room for pride. I have over the past six years sought to make sure I fully understand the issues, especially those involving tax payer dollars. I am big on researching and asking questions; I often “tear apart” terminology to get to the “root” meaning for clarification. Then I weigh in with a common-sense approach to my decision, all the while considering its impact on the community. Finally, I believe it’s important to be available and accountable to the people of this city. So, when I am contacted, I listen, take good notes, and if able to respond at that time, I do so; otherwise, I direct them to the City department that can best help them with their need. Regardless, I always follow up. This has been my commitment the past six years, and I will continue the same going forward. I would appreciate your vote on November 2nd!

What can the Commission do to put, or keep, the City on a strong financial trajectory over the course of the next five years:

A few years ago, we stressed the importance of a five-year plan, always looking ahead with that in mind as we approach work on the annual budget. While the pandemic has been a set-back for all of us, we’ve moved forward for the last four years with no tax increase, and while I, like any other citizen enjoy and appreciate that, I believe it will be unrealistic at some point. Growth cannot take place if we continuously cut, and we’ve done that in these last four years. I applaud our city staff for how creative they have had to be in these last four years to shift and manage, and just plain cut funds. At some point, cuts have their impact on citizens. City services need to be maintained, such as, but not limited to, infrastructure, safety and first responder departments, in order to accomplish things previously mentioned regarding business and job growth, which hopefully results in lower taxes for all.