Voter guide: What you need to know about the Overland Park mayoral election
City Council veteran Curt Skoog will face off against political newcomer Mike Czinege in a race to choose a replacement for Carl Gerlach, who has been mayor for 16 years but decided to step down.
The very identity of Overland Park has become the theme of this year’s mayoral race.
On one side is political newcomer Mike Czinege, a retired corporate executive who says the city was designed as a suburb and should stay that way instead of attempting to transform it into a big city by encouraging high-rise apartment blocks. The suburban life is what has made the city successful, he says.
On the other side is Curt Skoog, a 16-year veteran of the Overland Park City Council. Skoog says forward-thinking, more walkable development has enticed young people to the area who will like its amenities enough to eventually buy homes. He points to surveys showing high satisfaction with the services and amenities secured by past councils.
Czinege cites rising crime rates and says residents are tired of being ignored about apartment development and tax incentives.
“The key to solving these problems is restoring the voice of the residents to city government and making them the driving force in city decisions,” he said at a recent Shawnee Mission Post forum.
Skoog emphasizes his experience on the council, the city’s economic success and various surveys showing residents are happy with its quality of life. Skoog said in an interview that Czinege wants to take the city back to the 1990s or even 1960s, when Overland Park was a bedroom community.
“If you’re not moving forward you’re in decay. I don’t want Overland Park to decay,” he said.
This year a new ingredient has been added to the mix – party politics. Although most municipal races in Johnson County are non-partisan, Czinege routinely introduces himself as a conservative Republican as he goes door to door. At one point in the campaign, he told podcast host Kevin Kietzman that he would be a “firewall” protecting Overland Park from the policies of liberals and from rising crime.
Skoog, however, changed his registration from Republican to Independent because he said he doesn’t believe party talking points should play a role in local non-partisan races.
“Our recipe for success has been working on Overland Park and Johnson County ideas, not Topeka and Washington, D.C., ideas,” he told the Post.
On Nov. 2, voters will choose a replacement for Carl Gerlach, who has been mayor for 16 years but decided to step down. The mayor serves as a tie breaker for the 12-member council.
The open seat attracted four people to the August primary. Czinege, who joined the race shortly before the filing deadline, emerged as the top vote getter with 9,227 votes, or 38 percent. Skoog came in second with 5,644, or 23 percent. The other candidates were council member Faris Farassati and attorney Clay Norkey.
Since then, affordable housing and policing have become oft-debated topics, along with the council’s decision to approve a one-mill tax rate increase primarily to fund a new mental health unit for emergency responders.
Who are the candidates?
Curt Skoog: Skoog, 57, with a career in business management, has lived in Overland Park for 25 years. He was first elected to the city council in 2005 and re-elected in 2009, 2013 and 2017. His fellow council members elected him twice to be council president, an office he currently holds.
He cites his years and accomplishments in public service as a top reason he should be elected mayor. Besides the council, Skoog has served on a number of other regional and local boards. He was an elected representative to the Shawnee Mission School District’s South Advisory Board and is a former chair of the Mid-America Regional Council of Governments as well as a current chair of the Bi-State Commission.
Skoog often refers to the city’s high rankings in various publications as a place to live, retire, work and buy a home. Those rankings are a testament to the city’s efforts to keep property tax rates low and to invest in development and amenities that attract families.
Mike Czinege: Czinege, 68, is a 30-year resident of Overland Park running for an elected office for the first time.
He recently retired from the corporate world, having been a partner and executive with a background in infrastructure management, cyber security, data management, marketing and sales. He was senior vice president and chief information officer for both AMC Theaters and Applebee’s and a partner with Ernst & Young and United Research/Gemini Consulting.
He’s now on the dean’s advisory board for the Helzberg School of Management at Rockhurst University and served eight years as a board member of KVC Health Systems, a nonprofit agency focused on foster care, adoption and family therapy.
Czinege has said he is concerned the council is not listening to residents’ concerns about taxes, crime and apartment development. He also told the Shawnee Mission Post he was urged to run by a member of the Johnson County Republican Party who shared Czinege’s concern that the party had no representation this year in non-partisan city races.
Like many other cities, Overland Park has seen a post-recession apartment building boom, often including projects that mix office, housing and retail in close proximity. Those projects have not always been warmly welcomed by neighbors in single-family homes.
“Residents are tired of it,” he told KCUR. “Curt (Skoog) says he’s trying to make Overland Park a place for young people. Okay, let’s do that, but let’s not devalue the homes and destroy the quality of life for the residents who are already here.”
Czinege said he would like the council to be more skeptical of rezoning allowing apartment buildings near single-family neighborhoods. He also said he would like the city to do more to incentivize home building, since there is also a demand for single-family homes.
Skoog said the city has a good track record of building single-family homes and that continues today.
“But our city needs housing diversity,” he said. “We need to have housing that can serve young teachers and first responders and our empty nesters and seniors. The new kind of housing being built to serve them is critical to our long-term success.”
Some of the multi-family projects have been much needed for senior living, he said, adding that new apartments along Metcalf Avenue have brought more young professionals to a city with an aging population. Employers in that area say the apartments are popular because they’re within walking distance from work, he said.
The city also needs to continue efforts at smaller-scale housing options, Skoog said. For instance, three extended stay hotels are being renovated into affordable housing.
Policing and the budget
Since the 2018 police shooting of Overland Park teenager John Albers, most of the conversation around policing has concerned how the department responds to calls where mental health is an issue. This year, the council approved a one-mill increase in its taxing rate; a new police behavioral health unit and better crisis training were given as the main reasons.
Both candidates say they support the police department’s efforts to add more crisis intervention training and mental health co-responders. But Czinege said it could have been accomplished without the tax increase.
“There was plenty of money in that budget to do that. They didn’t cut out any discretionary items,” he said.
Czinege said the council could have cut back on its budget for office expenses or on spending to install LED streetlights.
Skoog countered that the budget was developed after a year of multiple public hearings, and questioned why Czinege didn’t offer those suggestions during that process. He noted Overland Park has lower taxes than its neighboring cities and that the increase will allow the police department to make changes in exchange for relatively low tax increases.
Czinege has referred to Skoog’s campaign contributions in forums and interviews, claiming Skoog has conflicts of interest that will not allow him to be an effective representative of voters.
In particular, Czinege has said Skoog has received too many contributions from attorneys, engineers and businesses related to development.
“I’m not saying he’s taking any money under the table. I’m not saying he’s corrupt, but they’re not doing that because they’re good people,” he told KCUR.
Skoog countered, “I have a 16-year track record representing the residents of Overland Park. Mike has no track record.”
Skoog said 80% of his contributions come from Overland Park businesses and Overland Park residents.
Other interesting races
School board races in Johnson County have also captured a fair amount of local and even national interest this year, as district officials debate mask mandates and how to teach about race.
This year the 1776 Project PAC, a national political action committee, became active in the Blue Valley School District contests, with endorsements of candidates opposed to teaching “critical race theory” – a catch-all term for history some consider too critical of white people.
The PAC endorsed Kaety Bowers, Christine White and Jim McMullen as a slate. Bowers is running against Andrew Van Der Laan for the Member 4 seat and McMullen is running against Lindsay Weiss for the Member 6 seat.
White, a pediatrician, dropped out of the Member 5 race against Gina Knapp after news reports surfaced that she supported mask choice and had secured a mask exemption for one of her school-age children. But unauthorized flyers and yard signs have cropped up asking residents to vote for her anyway so that a new board can appoint her replacement if she wins.
The PAC also endorsed Brian Neilson against Heather Ousley for the Member 6 seat in the Shawnee Mission school board.