For once, a debate with heat in Johnson County for commission chairman

07/26/2014 10:00 AM

07/26/2014 9:53 PM

Unlike many mushy political debates, the one last week for Johnson County Commission chairman was a doozy.

There were differences on almost every key issue facing voters in the Aug. 5 primary election, where one of the three candidates — Ed Eilert, Patricia Lightner and Ed Peterson — will be eliminated, with the remaining two facing off in November.

Here is my take on their comments:

King Louie: Eilert defended the county’s purchase of the former bowling alley to house the Johnson County museum and county agencies. Lightner attacked it as a waste of money. Peterson, who voted for it, attempted to backtrack. My take: I opposed it because originally it was to also house a Museum of Suburbia, a dud idea. But now that the county owns it, constructive use of the space includes the Johnson County museum.

Spending: Canons to the left; canons to the right. Eilert was caught between Lightner, who says the county is spending too much with a lot of waste, and Peterson, who says the county is not spending enough. Peterson maintains the county is at a crossroads and needs to invest more in its libraries, parks, and services, including buses. Eilert, who has run a tight ship, was whipsawed by the other candidates. My take: The county has far fewer employees and is spending tens of millions less than it did before the Great Recession. It would seem to be difficult to find much more to cut. And it would be difficult to “move forward,” as Peterson said, without raising taxes. Eilert, for better or worse, would hold the line.

Mass transit: Peterson brought up buses at least four times during the debate. It is clearly one of his highest priorities. Eilert and Lightner agree that spending more on buses is a waste of money. My take: You could add dozens of buses, and there would hardly be a blip in ridership. This is an automobile county.

Regionalism: There would be no regionalism under a Lightner regime. She said our sovereignty was at risk. Peterson, who serves on the Mid-America Regional Council, cited successes in regionalism, including roads, air quality and water quality. Peterson is an advocate of more leadership from Johnson County on regionalism. Eilert pretty much agrees with Peterson but seems to be in no hurry to advance regionalism. My take: I think Peterson has the edge on this issue. There are more areas where the metro could cooperate.

County courthouse: Eilert insisted a new courthouse would have to go to a vote of the people, but reading between the lines, Eilert did not seem to favor a new courthouse as his first option for handling the space problems. Lightner said rehabbing is the most cost effective. Peterson emphatically claimed the county needs a new courthouse, not necessarily with a public vote. My take: I would rather see the county not spend the $150 million to $200 million to construct a new one. But I liked the clarity of the opinions.

Economic development: Everybody steered clear of the “border wars,” involving lavish tax incentives.My take: Everybody dropped the ball. The “border wars” may not be a county issue but the leader of our county could use the bully pulpit to try to get this nonsensical practice stopped.

Human services: All three emphasized the dramatic increase of poverty. Even Lightner, an ultra-conservative, recognizes the need to fund core services for the needy. But she also returned to her theme of waste and backed audits. Eilert said the key is good jobs. Peterson described suburban poverty — that it is spread out and invisible. My take: No one wants to say so, but if poverty continues to increase, the budget will get eaten up by programs to serve the poor.

In closing, Lightner said we needed an outsider to get a fresh look. I would have asked her why her campaign literature emphasizes that a “culture of life” is a county chairman’s issue. Peterson said the money earmarked for libraries and parks hardly touched deferred maintenance. I would have asked him if he would increase taxes to achieve his goals. Eilert claimed credit for steering the county through the recession and said we now are adding a million dollars each to libraries and parks. I would have asked him if that amount is enough to keep the county first-class, as we all expect.

To reach Steve Rose, a longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to srose@kc.rr.com.

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