For nearly two decades, Johnson County’s seven county commissioners have been elected on a nonpartisan basis, without party labels identifying them on ballots as Democrats or Republicans.
But after the Kansas Democratic Party got involved in the last round of commission elections in November — and two registered Democrats defeated two Republican incumbents — the idea surfaced that perhaps the county should stop the pretense of nonpartisan seats and make the move to partisan elections.
That idea was front and center Thursday as the current commission held its last meeting before the newly elected commissioners take their elected seats next week.
Commissioner Mike Brown, a Republican who was not up for election last fall, proposed a county charter amendment that would provide for commissioners to be elected on a partisan basis. He wanted that charter change to go before voters in November, before the next round of commission elections in 2020.
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Brown told his colleagues he generally supports the nonpartisan approach. But he argued it’s not working in practice when the parties get involved with no consequences. He said the Kansas Democratic Party paid for a mailer supporting Janeé Hanzlick, who won her District 4 Commission race against incumbent Jason Osterhaus, a Republican.
“It is not OK that the Kansas Democrat Party weighed in to a nonpartisan election,” Brown said. “They crossed a line. They stepped on it and they kicked it and they jumped over it and thumbed their nose at us.”
Johnson County voters should decide this year whether to move to partisan elections, Brown said. Most if not all of the other county commissions in Kansas already have partisan elections.
But Commission Chairman Ed Eilert strenuously opposed Brown’s proposal and said it shouldn’t be hastily adopted without a lot more debate.
Eilert said Johnson County voters supported nonpartisan elections when they adopted the new charter in 2000. The appropriate time to debate changing that approach, he said, would be when the next Charter Review Commission is appointed in 2020.
The commission voted 5-2 on Thursday in favor of the partisan proposal. Those in support were Brown, Osterhaus, Michael Ashcraft, Ron Shaffer and Steve Klika. Eilert and Commissioner Jim Allen were the lone dissenters.
But the measure needed a super majority of six votes to pass, so it failed by one vote. Eilert said the idea will be a key topic for the Charter Review Commission to consider.
Hanzlick, who will be sworn in Monday, was in the audience and heard Thursday’s discussion. She said she specifically asked county election officials what “nonpartisan” meant when she filed to run for office last year.
“I was expecting them to give me a list of guidelines, and they said there aren’t any,” Hanzlick said. “So when the Democratic party offered to help me, there were no guidelines to prevent that.”
Hanzlick said she also asked to speak to the Northeast Johnson County Republicans, since it’s all supposed to be nonpartisan. “I was told, ‘No, because you’re not a Republican.’ ”
Hanzlick said she personally hopes the seats remain nonpartisan but agreed guidelines are needed on party involvement.
Becky Fast, a registered Democrat who defeated incumbent Ron Shaffer for the District 1 Commission seat, said she received some financial help from a Johnson County Democratic women’s group but did not take money from the Kansas Democratic Party, nor did she have a mailer paid for by the Democrats.
Still, Fast noted that Shaffer was an elected Republican committeeman while he was running for the nonpartisan commission seat. She said it was interesting that Republicans only objected when Democrats got involved politically.
Klika, the District 3 Johnson County Commissioner, said he’s a registered Republican but worked hard to run a nonpartisan race in 2012. He said his opponent at the time ran an overtly partisan campaign with heavy backing from Republicans. So Klika said this issue has lingered for years and involves both parties.
“One of the flaws that we’re now facing with this whole issue of nonpartisan on the county side is that there’s no enforcement,” Klika said. “Some teeth should go into the provision that if it continues on a nonpartisan basis, that there are ramifications if that line is crossed.”