Sedgwick County Commission majority could swing with elections

07/01/2012 5:00 AM

07/01/2012 7:33 AM

Two races could change the way Sedgwick County approaches economic development — and other key issues — the next four years.

If District 3 Commissioner Karl Peterjohn retains his seat and District 2 challenger Ben Sauceda beats incumbent Tim Norton in the general election, the makeup of the commission will tilt toward a conservative viewpoint that could forge a new majority.

When the five-member commission splits votes, Norton, Jim Skelton and Dave Unruh typically align opposite of Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau.

A win by Peterjohn in the Aug. 7 primary election against fellow Republican challenger Jeff Longwell, a Wichita City Council member, in the western part of the county, and by Sauceda, a Republican vying for Norton’s seat in the south-central part of the county, could put Peterjohn and Ranzau in the majority.

Economic development and spending are the biggest issues about which commissioners diverge.

Peterjohn is a strong proponent of voter approval of tax increases, something he campaigned on in 2008 but has yet to get enacted. He has voted against tax increment financing districts and, like Ranzau, against a sustainable communities grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He has Ranzau and Sauceda’s support.

Longwell has supported incentives to bring businesses to the Wichita area and supports the HUD grant.

Suzie Ahlstrand, interim president of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, said it was too early to speculate about how a new majority could affect economic development.

“We always work to educate all candidates on the recruitment and retention of primary jobs as it is one of our community’s highest priorities,” she said.

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce agreed that “it’s probably too early to say that the election of any of these candidates would hinder economic development.

“The chamber has a job to do during the election cycle that includes educating the candidates and voters. After the election, that work continues with educating policymakers,” said Gary Plummer, president and CEO of the chamber.

Susan Estes, the local leader for Americans for Prosperity, which believes in free market principles and has chided city and county leaders for “picking winners and losers” when they award incentives, did not return phone calls for this story.

County Manager William Buchanan declined to speculate about how the outcome of the races could affect county policies and spending.

Rejecting federal dollars

Ranzau, a Republican, has made it clear at virtually every commission meeting that he does not support accepting federal funds — typically in the form of grants — to pay for local projects and services. He contends that if those projects and services are important to the county, the county should pay for them.

He often speaks against federal government spending, saying he doesn’t want to burden future generations with the debt of today’s.

He and Peterjohn voted against the county applying for the $1.5 million grant from HUD with four other counties — Butler, Harvey, Reno and Sumner — through the Regional Economic Area Partnership.

Norton, Skelton and Unruh consider the grant a tool for the regional area to plan for growth, but Ranzau, in particular, says accepting the grants means letting the federal government decide what’s best for the area.

He has said many times that the grant comes with strings.

Although he’s been consistent with his message, his words have fallen short of changing the county’s involvement because he’s not in the majority.

Of a possible new majority, Ranzau said, “We’re very strong advocates for economic freedom and personal property rights. We support voter approval for tax increases at the local and state level.”

Ranzau said Longwell winning over Peterjohn would be “devastating for taxpayers. They’d funnel as much money to downtown Wichita as they could.”

Longwell said a majority with Peterjohn, Sauceda and Ranzau could stymy the area’s growth and ability to attract businesses.

“If I’m fortunate to have the voters’ support, I think you’ll see a makeup that will continue to be pragmatic and conservative in nature,” Longwell said. “Certainly a Republican majority, maybe a less Libertarian slant than would be on there.”

He wouldn’t expect the county’s involvement in economic development to change much if he were elected.

“Where you might see wholesale changes is if you have similar philosophies as Karl and Richard.”

Skelton supports Longwell and Norton, a Democrat, in the races because he said they are on board with economic policies that will make the county competitive in the business world.

“The rest of the world is doing it, and I am for staying in that game and being competitive nationally and internationally,” Skelton said. “Candidates who are from the extreme right wing do not appear to have that philosophy. I would worry about the community as a whole if he (Sauceda) were to be elected. I want people on the board who are going to be working for their constituents, not working against the government. I don’t want to work with someone who every time you turn around, they’re voting against something.”

District 2 race

But Ranzau, who represents District 4 in north-central Sedgwick County, said he is hoping for a change in the majority.

“Of course I’m supporting Ben Sauceda and I support Karl Peterjohn,” Ranzau said. “I haven’t talked to Ben in detail about every position he has, but in general, I think we’d have a better chance of controlling spending and taking a more critical look at some of the things we do” if Sauceda were elected.

If Sauceda were elected, Ranzau said, “the first thing I’d want to do is get out of the sustainability grant the first week or two if possible.”

Although Sauceda said he supports many of Peterjohn and Ranzau’s decisions from the bench, he cautioned against assuming that he always would vote with them.

“I do classify myself as a conservative for limited government,” Sauceda said. “But I will take a good look at the issues rather than painting a broad brush over it.”

Norton said he tries to “keep out of the realm of pure politics. For me, based on what people would know about me, I would worry about a certain combination of majority and what might happen to some of the things I’ve worked very hard on, which are economic development and jobs and job training and workforce development and the whole Visioneering thing. All of that could be minimalized” if a new majority were to form.

“Certainly there are a lot of thought processes that are different than mine,” Norton said.

Peterjohn plans to support Sauceda.

When Peterjohn joined the board, he tilted the majority. When the board split votes then, Peterjohn often voted with Kelly Parks and Gwen Welshimer.

Then, when Skelton, a former Wichita City Council member, defeated Welshimer in District 5 in the southeast part of the county in 2010, the majority shifted back to Norton and Unruh

Of the change, Peterjohn said, “We’ve had some disagreements on some things, but I don’t look at it as losing a majority.”

He also said that “more often that not, I’d say I’ve been in the majority.”

He doesn’t always vote the same as Ranzau.

Unruh, a Republican who represents District 1 in the northeast part of the county, has not officially endorsed anyone, but he hedged and said he has a “strong relationship with Jeff Longwell.”

“I think Ben is an outstanding young man who probably has a great future in politics. Tim has been a good friend and colleague on the commission.”

He agrees the upcoming elections could change the way the county does business.

“I think that some of the things that we’ve had a majority vote for, that 3 to 2 balance could definitely change,” Unruh said. “There’s indication that economic development projects would have a harder time finding approval. That’s all on the assumption that Peterjohn wins and Norton loses.”

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