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Jackson County Legislature elections: The 2022 candidates for Kansas City and Lee's Summit

 From left: Jackson County Legislature 1st District candidates Manny Abarca and Christina McDonough Hunt and 6th District candidates Sean Smith and Amanda Toomey.
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From left: Jackson County Legislature 1st District candidates Manny Abarca and Christina McDonough Hunt and 6th District candidates Sean Smith and Amanda Toomey.

Voters will have a choice for legislative representatives in Jackson County's 1st District, which includes western and eastern swaths of Kansas City, and the 6th District, which includes Lee’s Summit.

Some of the races for the Jackson County Legislature were decided in the August primary election, and one district’s incumbent is running unopposed. But voters in three legislative districts will see a choice on their Nov. 8 ballots.

The legislature is the primary governing body for Jackson County. It oversees the budget, county departments and unincorporated Jackson County land. The legislature has nine members, at least six of whom will be new faces this year. The county executive, who is not a voting member of the legislature, is also up for election this year.

Among the six districts of Jackson County, three legislators were selected as presumed winners in the Aug. 2 primary. Venessa Huskey won the Democratic primary for the 2nd District, with no Republican candidate on the ballot. DaRon McGee, a Democrat, won his primary in the 4th District, which also had no Republican in the race. Jeanie Lauer, an incumbent Republican, was unchallenged in her bid for reelection in the 5th District.

Three districts will select a county legislator in the general election.

In the 1st District, which includes western and eastern swaths of Kansas City, Democratic primary winner Manny Abarca will run against Republican Christina McDonough Hunt. Abarca is the current treasurer for the Kansas City Public Schools board and deputy district director for U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. McDonough Hunt leads fundraising for Special Olympics Missouri and Calvary Lutheran Church and School. The 1st District covers most of western Kansas City, downtown and the northeast.

In the 3rd District, which is largely in Independence, incumbent Democrat Charlie Franklin is running against Republican April LaJune McGill. Franklin is a certified public accountant.

LaJune McGill, who makes YouTube videos, has operated a controversial business that purported to help customers gain access to secret U.S. Treasury accounts. The FBI has warned about similar businesses, calling the concept a scam.

In the 6th District, which includes Lee’s Summit and unincorporated areas in the southeastern corner of Jackson County, Republican primary winner Sean Smith is running against Democrat Amanda Toomey. Smith is a businessman from Lee’s Summit and Toomey is a teacher and adult educator, also from Lee’s Summit.

The Beacon sent all six candidates a list of five questions about what they hope to accomplish as a Jackson County legislator. Franklin and LaJune McGill, the candidates for the 3rd District, did not respond.

Responses have been edited for clarity, length and Associated Press style.

What new perspectives will you bring to the legislature?

Abarca, 1st District: [I will bring] over a decade of combined experience in the federal, state and local government bureaucracies and at U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver’s office. Coupled with over 10 years of neighborhood volunteerism and philanthropic board service, I understand the physical needs and challenges throughout the county. From serving a federally qualified health center to governing the regional leader for mental health services, I understand the needs of the health levy. As the treasurer of one of the largest taxing jurisdictions (KCPS), I have learned the complexities of property tax collection and the nuances needed to change it for the better.

Hunt, 1st District: I am a first-time candidate running for an elected office. My perspectives are new and fresh. I am a resident and homeowner in Jackson County first. We all want affordable homes and to live in a safe and prosperous community. I feel that many of our elected officials have been in politics so long that they have lost perspective on how decisions that they make directly impact those of us who work hard to provide for our families — both in our pocketbooks and in the safety of our community. It’s time our voices are heard and represented.

Smith, 6th District: First, as a constitutional conservative, I think my perspective is underrepresented in the county legislature but represents a significant portion of my district’s constituents. Additionally, I’ve been a successful small-business entrepreneur, I’ve worked with Fortune 1000 corporations, led finance departments, technology projects and massive infrastructure projects — all of which can directly lend specialized expertise to the county legislature. Coming from private industry and not-for-profit sectors, I will bring a “disruptor” mindset to the legislature and the county, rather than a business-as-usual perspective.

Toomey, 6th District: My career and academic experiences give me a broad background from which to communicate and work with our Jackson County residents and contractors. From farming, to science and technology, education, health care, HVAC and the world of e-commerce, I have a proven track record of bringing stakeholders together to create solutions that work for everyone.

What will be the most important factors for you when making yearly budget decisions?

Abarca, 1st District: Equitable funding, prioritizing the needs of those with the least instead of the wants of those with the most. At KCPS, we have a … model that was put in place by previous board members. This has been the most effective way to ensure true equity is met during budget decisions. It isn’t perfect but a good start to eliminating a patronage system, and empowering minority stakeholder voices and needs through budgeting. If it isn’t a budget priority, it isn’t a county priority.

Hunt, 1st District: First, we need to be sure that our tax dollars are … funding programs that strengthen our community and make it safer and more affordable. Second, will this affect only a small portion of Jackson County residents? If so, how can we ensure that a majority of our residents will benefit? And finally, are we under budget, over budget or balanced? … I will be a strong voice for cleaning up the waste and working for Jackson County residents to ensure their needs are heard.

Smith, 6th District: The single most important factor is serving the whole community and doing so in a transparent manner. Additionally, we need to focus on our present circumstances (inflation pains, lingering challenges from COVID-19, supply chain and labor issues) while at the same time not selling out our future. The need for a new justice/detention center is vital but must be addressed with full public participation, fiscal responsibility and long-term effectiveness, including being efficient and fair to those who may be detained, the employees and professional staff that work there and the community.

Toomey, 6th District: Above all, the budget must be balanced at the end of the year. We need to make conscientious decisions to utilize taxpayer funds in the most responsible way possible. We do that by ensuring priority goes first to the health and safety needs of Jackson County residents, then to those projects which are “nice to have.” Within that category, the focus should be on which projects create the largest positive impact for residents in their daily lives.

How will you make yourself available to your constituents throughout your term?

Abarca, 1st District: For the last eight years I managed the team that executed all constituent services for Congressman Cleaver, saving constituents millions of dollars and helping connect directly with the federal agencies. For too long, constituents have been disconnected from their legislators. I would support direct mail budgets and expanded staffing to communicate legislature efforts across the county. I could build a constituent-focused response training, as I did in the congressman’s office, to ensure every discussion and articulated need is effectively documented and followed up on. I furthermore commit to quarterly town hall meetings.

Hunt, 1st District: I love meeting new people, and I want to hear what they have to say! Even through the process of campaigning, I have invited everyone to reach out to me with any questions and I reply to each one because what they have to say is important. I will be available through email, social media, phone and public town halls for my constituents as a Jackson County legislator.

Smith, 6th District: I will provide constituents updates on a weekly basis about legislative business. I want transparency of the “behind-the-scenes” business of the county. The legislative meetings need to include more time for important items of substance and less time on mundane business. I also publish my contact information and respond on a prompt basis via social, email and a phone line that forwards to me during most business hours.

Toomey, 6th District: As with any modern political appointment, social media and email accounts will be active for communicating information about the workings of the legislature as well as responding to comments and concerns. Routine press releases will be available for the local media. In addition, I will arrange regular meetings within my district at community locations and with local community groups to ensure physical access for those who prefer face-to-face interactions.

If elected, what are two or three specific things you plan to recommend to improve the county government?

Abarca, 1st District: We must immediately find relief for property tax increases that are projected to increase on average of 30%, from the previous increases, to meet the state law’s requirement of 90% of value. I am the only candidate in this race with a clear plan to pass state legislation that protects seniors and folks on a fixed income, creates true payment programs lasting 12 months instead of just four, moves the collection date of property tax away from the holiday and creates clear discussions about the approval of 353 tax abatement programs that protect revenues of our taxing jurisdictions.

Hunt, 1st District: First, I propose that we give the county legislature jurisdiction over the offices of county executive and county assessor. This will prevent these offices from making hasty decisions without any oversight. Second, the county assessor needs to be an elected position, instead of a county executive appointment. Third, I propose a charter review, adding three more county legislators. The current 1st District has one county elected official representing most of western Kansas City. That is a very diverse group of neighborhoods and, truthfully, people in the northeast have different concerns than those in Brookside. We need to ensure that we are all heard and represented.

Smith, 6th District: I want to see the legislative meetings include more time spent on substantive issues. Presently, most of the official public business of the legislative meetings focuses around smaller “day-to-day” business. I would like to keep that transparency while also including more time, discussion and public comment on significant issues. I will also work to inform the public of the upcoming issues and highlight the specific items that are of public concern. Our use of boards and commissions using both county and outside funds to enhance the community are vital. I want to see more public awareness and partnerships with these wonderful programs, such as Eitas.

Toomey, 6th District: Increased transparency to prevent miscommunication, confusion or the feeling of being blindsided by the results of legislative decisions. Increased preparedness for natural disasters, in particular extreme weather events. Increased outreach with the community so the public knows the role of the legislature beyond taxes.

How has the legislature been successful in the past, and how do you think it can improve?

Abarca, 1st District: I watched as the world shut down, everyone closing their doors in response to the global pandemic. I was in the driver’s seat as the treasurer of the Kansas City Public Schools board, navigating the challenges of closing classrooms, digital classes and trying to figure out how to safely reopen. Jackson County stepped up as a leader and collaborator within the region to establish streamlined and efficient programs to vaccinate, jump-start the economy after months of it being shuttered, and create a layered health care system managing limited bed space and ever-increasing demand. We watched regionalism firsthand.

Hunt, 1st District: The county legislature has been successful when it has been doing the people’s business and has had balanced representation, giving way to productive legislation that benefits all Jackson County residents. It can improve by getting back to these basic principles.

Smith, 6th District: Historically the legislature and its predecessors created wonderful public resources such as our park system and libraries. The biggest “failure” of the legislature is likely the structural issue that has resulted in a lack of meaningful oversight of the county executive. From board and commission appointments to the assessment debacle, it is clear the community isn’t served when the legislature exercises inadequate authority over the executive functions of the county. I’ll seek to change that and ensure more oversight.

Toomey, 6th District: Though unpopular in many spheres and certainly not perfect, the vote by the legislature to uphold the recommendations of the health department and enact a mask mandate to protect the citizens of Jackson County marked a success in the role of the legislature to protect the people it represents. In the future, such decisions can be improved by preemptively establishing a plan of action based on scientific data and precedent. These plans must target Jackson County so implementation matches the impact on our population with clear, detailed, information provided about what will trigger the start and conclusion of actions taken.

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

Corrected: October 21, 2022 at 3:14 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about the county executive’s ability to vote in the legislature.
Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter.
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