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What you need to know about the 2022 election for Johnson County Commission chair

Charlotte O’Hara and Mike Kelly are running for chair of the Johnson County Commission in the Nov. 8, 2022, election.
Leah Wankum
Shawnee Mission Post
Charlotte O’Hara and Mike Kelly are running for chair of the Johnson County Commission in the Nov. 8, 2022, election.

The Johnson County Commission chairperson is the only member of the commission elected by the entire county. They will be responsible for setting the agenda for the next four years.

After the nonpartisan primary election on Aug. 2, the race for Johnson County Commission chair has narrowed to two candidates: the 3rd District Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara and Roeland Park Mayor Mike Kelly.

The Johnson County Commission oversees the county government, including a $1.45 billion budget and about 30 county departments. The Johnson County Commission chair sets the commission’s agenda, represents the county to the rest of the metro area, and is the only member of the commission elected by the entire county.

The commissioners for Districts 1, 4 and 5 are also on the ballot this year.

The two Johnson County Commission chair candidates on the Nov. 8 ballot represent different approaches to county government. O’Hara is a self-identified conservative Republican who wants to shrink the county health department, reduce tax incentives and increase funding for the sheriff’s department. Kelly is an advocate for climate innovation who wants to bring business growth and sustainable infrastructure to the county.

Below are candidate profiles that The Beacon published ahead of the primary election, based on interviews at the time. The two finalists recently provided a 100-word statement about the most important issues they perceive are confronting Johnson County.

Charlotte O’Hara

What is the most important issue facing Johnson County right now?

"Property taxes and public safety. Our budget increased from $815 million in 2013 to $1.64 billion for 2023, which has increased property taxes at an alarming rate. This hurts our residents on fixed incomes and small businesses. The commission must take their responsibility seriously and rein in spending.

Out of the 2023 budget, the commission could not find adequate funding for the sheriff’s office. However, the board did take a good step on Sept. 29 and increased the pay scale for the Sheriff’s Department, increasing starting pay to $28.50 (an hour) from $20.00 to address the 70 deputy vacancies."

What to know

O’Hara is the current commissioner from District 3, which covers southeastern Johnson County. She was also the only candidate in the nonpartisan primary who identified herself with a political party — in her case, the Republican Party.

“I’m a Republican. I’m not only a Republican, I am a conservative Republican,” she said. “They already know, so why not just be transparent about it?”

O’Hara’s primary issue is transparency. She said she has been frustrated that in order to receive certain documents as a sitting commissioner, she has had to file a formal records request with the county government.

Her aim is to ensure that relevant information is already available to constituents who want it, without always needing to go through a formal request process. If elected as a commission chairwoman, she would also like to ensure that all commission meetings are recorded as a livestream on the internet.

“Every meeting, except executive sessions, needs to be videoed and livestreamed so that the public has maximum access to the information that’s being discussed,” she said.

Beyond transparency, O’Hara would like to take a more critical eye to the county budget. She believes that Johnson County’s budget of $1.45 billion is too large and that cuts are necessary.

One area where she would like to see cuts is the county health department. She said that its budget has grown since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she would like to see it return to its 2019 total.

“The health department budget really ballooned during COVID,” she said. “We don’t need an epidemiologist on staff. We don’t need trackers anymore”

The Johnson County Commission serves as the Board of Public Health. As a member of this board, O’Hara said that she would not consider any further emergency shutdowns, vaccine mandates or mask mandates.

In order to bring down residents’ property tax bills, she would also like to eliminate most tax incentives for county projects. She does not believe that tax incentives in general support economic development.

For example, a Panasonic manufacturing plant is planned for construction in De Soto. This plant is predicted to bring 4,000 jobs, and Panasonic will receive $829 million in state tax incentives to construct the $4 billion facility.

“I have really yet to see one (tax incentive) that is necessary,” O’Hara said.

Mike Kelly

What is the most important issue facing Johnson County right now?

“Johnson County’s next chair must protect the institutions of world class service our residents expect, responsibly lower the property tax burden on our residents, and broaden the tax base through business development. As mayor, I have a track record of lowering Roeland Park’s mill levy, welcoming new business along Roe Boulevard, fully funding a police force, and finding innovative ways to meet our community’s desires.

As the next chair, I will work with all levels of government and the private sector to leverage once-in-a-generational opportunities like the Infrastructure and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.”

What to know

Kelly is the current mayor of Roeland Park, and his campaign focuses on climate innovation, preserving county services and economic development.

Kelly started the Climate Action KC nonprofit group, which focuses on integrating a climate lens into all decisions made by local governments.

In practical terms, he wants county-level decisions to support resilient infrastructure — meaning roads, utilities and pipes that can handle extreme weather and projects that plan for climate change in the long term.

He also wants to bring to Johnson County business and manufacturing opportunities that support a healthier environment. One example he cites is the Panasonic plant coming to De Soto that will manufacture batteries for electric vehicles.

“Not only protecting the environment, but being able to innovate for the future, and in doing so, bringing new benefits to the community,” Kelly said.

Kelly believes Johnson County can expand the services it provides while also lowering property taxes. The key, he said, is bringing businesses and economic growth to the county to expand the tax base.

He would also like to look for additional partnership opportunities from the city, state and federal governments. For example, Kelly believes that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law late last year by President Biden is a unique opportunity for the county to strengthen its roads, bridges and public transit without raising property taxes for residents.

Given Johnson County’s close ties with the other counties in the Kansas City metro area, Kelly also believes bistate collaboration is critical.

“We want to make sure that we do our part to maintain a robust metropolitan region because our economy and our community depends upon it,” Kelly said. “We’re not trying to reinstill a border war, but instead finding best practices and a rising tide that can lift all boats in the metro region.”

The biggest areas for collaboration, in his view, include public transportation and improvements ahead of the 2026 World Cup.

Kelly said science and data will play a big role in whatever decisions he would make as a member of the Board of Public Health. Under his leadership as mayor of Roeland Park, the city distributed free protective equipment and COVID-19 testing kits to residents. Kelly said he trusts medical experts for guidance on navigating the ongoing pandemic and mitigating possible spread of monkeypox.

“We need leaders who are going to value that truth in data and science,” Kelly said. “(Leaders) who aren’t going to be afraid to make difficult decisions that are in the best interest of our health and our economy, and that aren’t going to be afraid to stand up against misinformation and derision.”

This story was originally published on the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter.
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