Wyandotte County primary could begin to reshape the Unified Government commission


Tuesday’s election will give voters their say in three competitive primary contests that could begin to reshape the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas Board of Commissioners.

There are also three Board of Public Utilities positions up for an initial vote on Tuesday.

Election officials are expecting somewhere between a 10% and 15% turnout. Bruce Newby, the Wyandotte County election commissioner, said advance voting and mail-in ballots are coming in at a modest, if so-far unimpressive, rate.

“The voters of Wyandotte County are welcome to surprise me,” he said.

Incumbent commissioners Melissa Bynum, Ann Brandau-Murguia and Harold Johnson each face two opponents, necessitating a primary election on Tuesday to cut the race down to two candidates. In November’s general election, 6th District Commissioner Angela Markley will have a competitive election against Diana Aguirre.

This year’s elections affect four of the 10 seats on the UG Commission. Brian McKiernan, a commissioner whose 2nd District covers large portions of downtown KCK, faces no opposition on his way to a third term in office.

Tuesday’s election will whittle down a field of candidates for a commission that continues to face a tug-of-war between residents wanting continued relief from the UG’s property tax rates, while also expecting improvements in public infrastructure and services that requires money going to the government.

Meanwhile, the UG is spending more money than it’s bringing in, requiring it to dip into reserves — about $3 million in 2020 — to balance its budget as revenues aren’t growing as fast as expenses.

District 1 at-large

Melissa Bynum emerged from a crowded primary four years ago and later easily beat former Kansas state senator Mark Gilstrap to represent District 1 at-large.

There’s a chance Bynum and Gilstrap could face off in the general election, too. Gilstrap and Steven James, a community health worker for the University of Kansas, are seeking Bynum’s seat.

Asked about her four years in office, Bynum points to her work on getting the Northeast Master Plan approved by the UG Commission in November 2018. The Northeast is generally defined by areas south and west of the Missouri River, east of Interstate 635 and north of State Avenue and Washington Boulevard.

The master plan is a lengthy document that guides future development, housing and investment in one of KCK’s most economically distressed areas. Its goals for the Northeast include improving health outcomes, providing residents with access to employment and careers and developing transit infrastructure.

“I guess I hold that out because it’s something I’m proud of, it’s something that took commitments, it’s something that took diligence, resolve and cooperation,” Bynum said.

And, as a planning document, it’s likely years before residents will see tangible effects of its policies and recommendations.

For those already restive about the pace of change in KCK, like primary challenger James, waiting for improvements is a tough sell.

“We are a long way away from fruition,” James said. “The Northeast is in dire need of jobs and infrastructure rebuild.”

James echoes a common refrain in KCK: The western edge of the county has gotten a shot in the arm for the last 20 years with big-ticket projects like Children’s Mercy Park, the Kansas Speedway and the Legends shopping district while progress out east is much more tepid.

James, 39, is a lifelong Kansas City, Kansas, resident who graduated from Wyandotte County High School and later attended Kansas City, Kansas, Community College.

“Wyandotte County needs to step it up a little bit,” he said.

Gilstrap’s campaign literature touts his time as a state senator from 1996 to 2008 for his role in advancing legislation that allowed for developments like the Kansas Speedway, which opened in 2001. He is a retired UG employee.

Gilstrap, once a Democrat, switched parties in 2008. His bid for the UG Commission in 2015 saw him finishing second in the primary, edging out Nathan Barnes by one vote, before losing to Bynum. He did not return calls and emails seeking comment for this story.

District 3

District 3 covers southwest Kansas City, Kansas, primarily the Argentine and Rosedale neighborhoods.

Ann Brandau-Murguia is seeking a fourth term as UG Commissioner. In her previous three terms, Brandau-Murguia has been credited with helping bring long-awaited development to Argentine. Through her efforts, a Walmart Neighborhood Market now occupies a former Superfund site. A Save-a-Lot store provides another retail option for Argentine residents.

Brandau-Murguia’s time in office has also been marred by accusations of conflicts of interest and self-dealing. She ran a nonprofit development agency, Argentine Neighborhood Development Association, that sought UG funds while she was still a UG commissioner until changes in ethics rules put a stop to the practice.

Brandau-Murguia stepped down from ANDA last year. She was also arrested on suspicion of domestic battery in 2018 following a dispute with a man she described as a long-time friend. Prosecutors later declined to file charges.

She has been an advocate for a fast food development in Argentine, one that staff recommended that UG Commissioners reject because it had no private equity in its financing plan. The proposal for a joint Wendy’s and Pizza Hut store contained only public sources of funds, including a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The project is currently stalled.

Brandau-Murguia, who ran unopposed in 2015 after losing a 2013 bid for mayor, has drawn two opponents this time around.

“I will say a good part of it is when the current commissioner came in, she had good ideas, she had a lot of good things,” said Christian Ramirez, who entered the 3rd District race. “Then over the years, a lot of the things she does is self-interested.”

Ramirez, who said he has lived primarily in Argentine since he was 5 years old, is joined in the race by Mary Gerlt.

Ramirez said his priorities include delivering long-awaited infrastructure projects like new roads and sidewalks, particularly in southern Rosedale, where he often hears complaints about a lack of attention from elected leadership.

“They tell me they were promised that and 12 years later they have not seen that improvement,” Ramirez said.

The 3rd District race is Ramirez’s first bid for elected office, but not his first taste of politics. He worked on 2018 Democratic congressional candidate Brent Welder’s campaign. He was a legislative intern for Kansas state Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City. He works for the Johnson County Parks and Recreation Department.

Gerlt, 36, was a Libertarian Party candidate for lieutenant governor in Kansas in 2018. She moved to Kansas almost three years ago after living in Kansas City, Missouri, 10 years ago.

She was drawn into the 3rd District race after seeing the incumbent run unopposed in 2015.

“I contrast myself in that my first priority is not myself or any kind of — how do I say it delicately? — any kind of benefit that may come to my personal associations,” Gerlt said.

She said she’s an advocate for transparency.

“Too often I see that people don’t have a lot of interest in coming to UG meetings or learning about what’s going on in the county,” Gerlt said. “Or they may, but they have given up because they feel like nobody wants to listen to them.”

4th District

The 4th District is sandwiched between the downtown KCK government district and the Northeast.

Harold Johnson, a former banker and current pastor, was elected in 2015 after ousting incumbent Tarence Maddox.

Maddox now seeks to return to his 4th District seat, along with political newcomer and real estate agent Jorge Luis Flores.

“I believe we got some great things started,” Johnson said during a candidate forum sponsored by KCKCC and Business West.

Johnson cited the start of academic building for Donnelly College on 18th Street in his district as well as an $11 million affordable housing project in downtown.

“Right now we’re seeing unprecedented growth in the 4th District,” Johnson said. “It’s not perfect, we have a ways to go.”

Maddox’s one term in office was tarnished by incidents ranging from a tantrum caught on film at Legoland to threatening a driver in an incident recorded by a police dashcam.

“I had a little bit of turmoil in there, but I’ve aged, I’ve learned, I’ve matured,” Maddox said at the KCKCC forum.

He cast a dire warning for 4th District voters, running on a campaign in which he branded himself as the “urgent option” to save the district from its problems.

“We are running out of time,” Maddox said. “We have a three- or four-year window before things really fall apart in this district.”

He pledged a safer community, improved infrastructure, better codes enforcement and opportunities for youth. Maddox believes there’s inefficiencies to find in UG’s budget by taking a closer look at line-item expenditures.

Johnson said part of the reason the UG has had to go into reserves to balance the upcoming budget was three years of modest decreases to the city’s property tax rate.

“One of the reasons we see the shortfall right now is because we did try to enact what was held to us by our constituent bases,” Johnson said.

Flores, a former Kansas City, Kansas police officer, said his focus is on KCK’s youth community.

“I will use my experience in law enforcement to make our neighborhoods as safe as possible and help implement new measures such as speed bumps in neighborhoods and near schools,” Flores said in an email. “I will use my business experience in real estate to initiate new housing opportunities and better our code enforcement initiatives so they are more effective and quicker.”