Tuesday's Primary May Shift Power Dynamic In Jackson County
Primaries for the Jackson County Legislature don't usually draw enough much money or attention to even run ads. But no Republicans are running this year for the at-large seats, so those races will be decided by voters on Tuesday, August 3, and the races have become pretty contentious.
The candidates hear this question a lot: "So . . .what does the Jackson County Legislature do, exactly . . . besides collect property taxes?"
Theresa Garza Ruiz says that as she goes door-to-door, she tells residents, "County government is like the operating system on our computer. We don't see it. We don't really think about it, but we know it's there. Every time you cast a vote, when you use a regional trail, when you go to a baseball game, when you defend a client in the circuit courts, or even when you eat at a restaurant in the numerous suburbs, those are all things that the county does."
The county also provides some basic services outside the municipalities, funds law enforcement and health programs.
First District At-Large
Garza Ruiz currently represents the 1st district at-large, the northeastern part of the county including Independence and Grain Valley. ("At-large" means the entire county votes for her seat.) She says she's tried to make the legislature more accountable by communicating with residents, and pushing for ethics reform.
"So many people had a negative concept of county government, and it was very rarely heard that you heard the words 'ethics' and 'county government' in the same sentence. And if you did it was kind of a joke," Garza Ruiz says.
She says that's changing since she's been in office, and under County Executive Mike Sanders. After many months of stalemate, the legislature strengthened the power of its ethics commission this year.
Her challenger, Ray Salva, Jr. also supports ethics reform, but he thinks his opponent may be pushing it too hard.
"Politics, especially on this level, has more to do with bringing people together than it does with sticking your flag in the ground and holding tight to something you may or may not believe in," Salva says.
He says concerns about how contracts are awarded are the stuff of political insiders.
"The legislature needs to address: unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosures that are sweeping across our county," Salva says. "We have people out there that I'm talking to every day as I go around and knock on doors that are teetering on the brink of ruin."
Third District At-Large
Other candidates are talking about economic development too - like current city councilman Terry Riley, who's running in the third district at-large, which is southeast Jackson County.
"Jackson County has continued to lose jobs in the last 20 years, and population," Riley says. "Raytown, Independence, Lee's Summit, Blue Springs, Kansas City, Buckner, Fort Osage, Lone Jack. Do you know the last time that all those economic development corporations met was when Cleaver was in office?"
Riley's challenging incumbent Fred Arbanas, a former Chiefs player who's served on the Jackson County legislature since it was formed in 1973. Arbanas says he helped the county become what it is today, including creating one of the largest park systems of any county in the country."I saw all this property and I thought - let's start trying to put in some different facilities out here, and make the parks more useable for the people."
Arbanas says the legislature has worked particularly well together the last couple of years under County Executive Mike Sanders. In fact, all the candidates give Sanders high praise, and endorse his regional rail plan. All except for Riley support revisions to the county charter, which are also on the ballot this week. (Riley says he disagrees with new rules regarding the emergency appointment of a new County Executive.)
Second District At-Large
The most contentious race has been in the second district-at-large, which covers downtown, midtown, and South Kansas City. The legislature's chair and former state representative Henry Rizzo is being challenged by Crystal Williams, who's a policy advocate for non-profits.
"There is a lot of funding that comes through our tax dollars that goes to non-profit entities in order to provide services to the less fortunate within our communities," Williams says. "A lot of that money's been pulled back over the last couple of years, and that's what's gotten me interested in this."
Williams says she became frustrated trying to track how budget decisions are made. She's concerned it's all happening behind closed doors.
"Not saying that the budgets have not had to be trimmed, they have - I'm sure that's probably the case. But if you don't discuss it publicly, it's going to make people question whether that's the wisest place to cut." Williams says the legislature needs to have public hearings on the budget, the way the city council does, and consider that input when it makes decisions.
Her opponent Henry Rizzo says budget and contracting processes are fair and open.
"Our real referendum on that kind of obvious criticism was the COMBAT tax. If you can pass a tax that's being administered by all forms of Jackson County government at 70% in the worst economic times since the depression, I think people have confidence in it," Rizzo says.
Rizzo says he supports the ethics reforms in the county charter revision. He says he held off on voting for them for several months, because the Jackson County legislature was already covered under the Missouri Ethics Commission.
"It became more and more of a tempest in a teapot, so I along with Legislator Dan Tarwater introduced legislation to put us under the current Jackson County ethics commission too."
Rizzo says during his tenure, he's helped fix an unfair system for assessing property values. He now wants to focus on increasing attendance at parks, and improving the county jail, which recently merged with the city's facility.
A third candidate in this race, Patricia Flucas, has not campaigned, or returned phone calls.
As for how concerned people are about ethics and transparency in Jackson County, political observer Jim Bergfalk says people vote with their feet.
"If the issues are so significant, why is only about 15 % of the people gonna vote?" Bergfalk says.
Depending on the outcome, though, he says this week's primary could shift the balance of political power in Jackson County. Three other in-district seats are also in contention.
1st District At Large Democratic Primary candidates: Theresa Garza Ruiz and Ray Salva, Jr.
2nd District At Large Democratic Primary candidates: Patricia Flucas, Henry Rizzo and Crystal Williams
3rd District At Large Democratic Primary candidates: Fred Arbanas and Terry Riley
1st District Democratic Primary candidates: Scott Burnett
2nd District Democratic Primary candidates: James Tindall
3rd District Democratic Primary candidates: Curt Dougherty and Dennis Waits
4th District Democratic Primary candidates: Dan Tarwater
5th District Republican Primary candidates: Patricia Bottcher, Gregory Grounds and Jay Still
6th District Democratic Primary candidates: Syed Asif and Greg Walters
6th District Republican Primary candidates: Joseph Spallo and Bob Spence
This story was produced for KC Currents. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents Podcast.