This Johnson County race is usually overlooked. So why is it now hotly contested?

Signs for candidate in a race for the WaterOne Board line the roads in Overland Park Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Nine candidates are competing for four spots on the board in the Nov. 5 election.
Signs for candidate in a race for the WaterOne Board line the roads in Overland Park Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Nine candidates are competing for four spots on the board in the Nov. 5 election. jawooldridge@kcstar.com

It was the disasters in Flint and Newark — where low-income communities were poisoned by lead-contaminated drinking water —that inspired Olathe retiree Ullyses Wright to become a first-time candidate.

“It seems to me that a public entity, serving the public, needs to be representative of the public,” said Wright, one of three contenders for an open seat on the WaterOne board, which oversees Johnson County’s water supply.

“People need to speak up for people of color and people with different socioeconomic backgrounds, especially thinking about what happened in Flint and now Newark.”

Wright is among a slew of newcomers running for the water board on the Nov. 5 ballot. Usually one of the county’s sleepiest races, it is now one of the most contested, with nine candidates competing for four seats on the seven-member panel.

While it’s not unusual for some board positions to be contested, it is rare for an under-the-radar local race to draw so many challengers. They are motivated by a range of issues: climate change, environmental degradation and, like Wright — a person of color running for the currently all-white panel — the lack of diversity that can contribute to public health crises like those in Flint and Newark.

Some longtime incumbents attributed the deluge of candidates to the Democratic Party’s recruitment efforts. Johnson County races are nominally nonpartisan, but both the Democratic and Republican parties advertise their candidate preferences.

“I’ve had opposition many times, but I think the Democrats have organized and definitely want to take these seats,” said incumbent Robert Olson, a Republican state senator. “I’ve been on the water board for more than 24 years. And we meet and exceed all federal and state regulations (for water quality), so I want to maintain that.”

Like many other suburbs across the country, Johnson County is experiencing demographic change. An influx of younger, more diverse families with college-educated women helped send Democrats Laura Kelly to the Kansas governor’s office and Sharice Davids to Congress in 2018. That trend appears to be filtering down the ballot to county and municipal races that have traditionally drawn little party interest.

In the August primary for Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees, for example, 11 candidates ran for three seats. The field is now down to six.

“In Johnson County, we’re seeing a population trend starting to change some of the political dynamics,” said Greg Shelton, vice chair of the Johnson County Democratic Party. “And we’re changing that through our efforts as a county party and state party.”

Some have described the water board as “apolitical.” And most candidates said they are running of their own accord. But this time around, the race has attracted attention from both parties. And it’s turned into a launching pad for several first-time candidates.

Climate change motivates candidates

Greg Mitchell, who is challenging Olson, remembers growing up in Colorado — where water is in much shorter supply than in Kansas — being told which days of the week his family was allowed to water the lawn.

“Water was something that was talked about all of the time. It was a much bigger issue. Kansas City water supplies are very adequate here,” Mitchell said. “The primary concern here is contaminants getting into the water supply. And climate change is a huge concern.”

Many newcomers said they’ve never considered running for office before. But, yearning to do something to preserve the environment and address climate change, they thought the water board would be the right place to start.

“Our water resources are absolutely critical for our survival. And because the climate is changing so quickly, there’s actually a scarcity of water,” said Whitney Wilson, who, along with Wright, is running for an open seat. “I want to provide active leadership to help draw down sustainability efforts.”

The board oversees the finances of WaterOne, the utility serving more than 400,000 Johnson County residents. The panel is tasked with planning for new and updated infrastructure, maintaining water quality, plus setting policies that can affect utility rates.

First-time candidates also said they are worried about the Trump administration’s rollback of regulations that have protected drinking water for millions of Americans.

All of the incumbents and challengers said WaterOne has been well managed. But many worry that strong oversight is increasingly critical in light of Environmental Protection Agency’s new policies and recent environmental crises, like in Flint.

Some candidates shared different motivations. Melanie Kraft, who is challenging incumbent Terrence Frederick, mentioned environmental concerns, but also is focusing on public health and education.

Dave Vander Veen, the third candidate vying for the open seat, said he is running to ensure Johnson County has clean water and upgraded infrastructure to help attract more businesses and keep up with the growing population.

Incumbents said they’ve been doing all of what challengers cite for years, pointing to WaterOne’s recent receipt of the Sustainability Water Utility Management Award from the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

“We have a very dedicated staff that works hard every day to make sure the water is safe,” Frederick said. “Something we do differently than most places is long-range planning. Obviously there’s growth in our district. And we’ve done a great job of maintaining high quality water and keeping rates as reasonable as possible.”

What can the water board do?

One of the biggest environmental issues facing the water district, candidates said, is degradation of the Missouri River bed.

A couple of years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Mid-America Regional Council released a study that highlighted the need to eliminate or reduce sand and aggregate dredging on the river, which has contributed to the deterioration of the river bottom. The report shows issues are largely caused by commercial sand and gravel mining.

Bed degradation, or the erosion of the river channel, has done costly damage to federal, state and local infrastructure, threatening flood walls, bridges and navigation systems.

Olson said WaterOne is working with the Corps to prevent future dredging. He is asking for dredging permits, up for review next year, to not be renewed.

“Hopefully, we can put a stop to the dredging. It’s quite apparent it is one of the biggest contributors to the problem,” incumbent Mark Parkins said.

Parkins’ opponent, Chris Stelzer, said a campaign is needed to spread awareness of the problem and slow down commercial operations affecting the river downstream.

Many candidates also look to address issues affecting the Milford Lake Watershed, a reservoir in north-central Kansas that feeds into the Kansas River. The lake, managed by the Corps, is vulnerable to nutrient and fertilizer runoff from agriculture operations, as well as toxin-producing algae blooms. The blooms have hurt fish and bird populations, shut down portions of the lake to recreational use and put drinking water sources at risk.

“These are critical issues because our main water sources are out of the Missouri and Kansas rivers,” Vander Veen said. “We have to deal with the algae blooms contaminating the water. We need to defend against it.”

Many incumbents and challengers highlighted an ongoing project to construct ozone water treatment facilities at the Hansen Treatment Plant. Officials expect ozone treatment to offer more effective protection from bacteria, viruses, pharmaceuticals and other contaminants.

“There are a lot of potential pollutants that can be found in water system, and we have to make sure infrastructure and the system is safe and up-to-date,” Kraft said. “I do think the ozone system will decrease the number of chemicals needed for water treatment. We have to make sure it works appropriately.”

Updating and expanding infrastructure has been another major talking point, especially in light of urgent issues threatening Wichita’s water system. The 80-year-old infrastructure could fail at any time and the city has no backup.

Johnson County’s roughly 60-year-old system is in better condition, incumbents said, even as the WaterOne starts to spend more money updating pipelines. But as the county grows and the district continues to expand, many emphasized the need for long-term planning to avoid problems like those in Wichita.

While candidate motivations and goals varied, all said they hope to increase public awareness about the importance of maintaining the water system in Johnson County.

“I totally get that’s it’s super unusual to have a race like this for WaterOne, but it shows the level of civic engagement in Johnson County is increasing,” Mitchell said. “America is hyper-focused on what’s going on in Washington D.C., but people are also starting to realize that who sits on your city council, school board or water board is just as important to their daily lives.”

Meet the candidates

On Nov. 5, Johnson County voters will cast ballots for all four at-large seats on the WaterOne board. Here are the candidates.

Board member 1:

Terrance Frederick first joined the water board in 1991. He is a certified public accountant and has directed the Sprint Corporation’s tax department for more than 20 years.

His challenger is Melanie Kraft, a family medicine physician for 27 years. She has experience participating in several hospital and community board meetings.

Board member 2:

Robert Olson has been on the water board for more than 24 years. He also serves in the Kansas Senate following three terms in the Kansas House of Representatives.

His opponent Greg Mitchell has a long career in health care administration and supply chain management for hospital systems.

Board member 6:

Newcomer Ullyses Wright worked as a county extension agent for Oklahoma State University. He has also worked for the Corps of Engineers and as a supplier diversity specialist for Sprint.

Whitney Wilson is a population health executive for Cerner Corporation. She also is a certified American Water Works Association public water official.

Dave Vander Veen is president of Freedom Bank in Overland Park and has more than 30 years of experience in the banking industry.

Board member 7:

Mark Parkins was selected to serve the remainder of a vacated board position in 2016. He is an engineer currently working as a territory manager with the American Cast Iron Pipe Company.

His opponent, Chris Stelzer, is a mechanical engineer at a local firm, evaluating and designing equipment.

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.