Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton and Kansas state Sen. Michael O’Donnell clashed during their first debate Thursday.
They also addressed controversies that have emerged in the race for Sedgwick County’s District 2.
The debate, hosted by the Wichita Crime Commission, was the first between Norton, first elected to the commission in 2000, and O’Donnell, who has served in the Kansas Senate and on the Wichita City Council. Neither faced a primary challenger.
O’Donnell said residents feel District 2, which includes southwest Wichita, Haysville and Clearwater, has developed slower than other parts of the county.
“People just feel left behind, and they feel like they’re not being listened to,” O’Donnell said. “Sixteen years is a long time and four more is twenty years. And that might be too long for anybody to be in any office.”
Sedgwick County is at a crossroads and we are struggling. I think we do need new leadership (and) a new majority.
Sedgwick County candidate Michael O’Donnell
“Sedgwick County is at a crossroads and we are struggling,” O’Donnell said. “I think we do need new leadership (and) a new majority.”
Norton touted his experience at the county and his work on Intrust Bank Arena, the National Center for Aviation Training and the Child Advocacy Center. He said he’s “spent a lifetime trying to understand this community.”
“If you want somebody that’ll get things done, I’m your guy,” Norton said. “I still have the energy, the expertise, the experience, the knowledge of what people want from the south side…I understand my district as well or better than anybody that lives down there.”
O’Donnell criticized county commissioners over raises and said he would accept a level of pay from before the recession.
“(Commissioners) have been giving themselves pay raises during the recession,” he said. “The people that I talk to in southwest Sedgwick County…they’re very tired of that, tired of what seems as tone-deaf leadership.”
County commissioners got pay increases in the 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 budgets. There was a pay cut in the 2012 budget. Four out of the five commissioners, including Norton, will make $91,285 each in 2016.
I still have the energy, the expertise, the experience, the knowledge of what people want from the south side…I understand my district as well or better than anybody that lives down there.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton
Norton said the commissioner job is “about paying somebody to get a job done.”
“You can say that I raised my salary; I voted for a budget,” Norton said. “So did other people that are county commissioners. It is the way the system works.”
Norton added that he left a high-paying management job at Target to serve as Haysville mayor full time to help the town recover from the 1999 tornado. He said that paid $7,000 a year for two years.
“So I don’t want to hear about sacrifice,” Norton said. “I’m proud of my service to this community.”
City-county relations, consolidation
Citing personal relationships with city council members, both candidates said they would work to improve county relations with the city of Wichita.
“I’m not the problem with the city-county relationship. I’ll say it again: I’m not the problem,” Norton said to laughter.
Norton said he doubted that complete consolidation with the city of Wichita would be feasible or provide major cost savings.
“Functional consolidation, however, is critical,” Norton said. “I think there are plenty of places to have good solid conversations.”
O’Donnell pointed to the success of consolidated governments like Wyandotte County.
“There needs to be more than a conversation,” O’Donnell said. “I think there needs to be consolidation of services. I think it’s well past time.”
Both candidates also answered questions from audience members submitted to a moderator about federal grants, support for mental health services and the Sedgwick County Zoo.
Beer, campaign signs
“When someone turns 21, you sometimes give them a gift of alcohol,” he said. “Looking back, it definitely wasn’t the best idea.”
Norton didn’t comment on the beer gifts.
O’Donnell also was asked why he accused Norton supporters of destroying a campaign sign last month. O’Donnell said the vandalization occurred shortly after his birthday and when a relative was undergoing major surgery.
“You’re up with your family and it’s your birthday. And then that happens and it all compiles,” O’Donnell said. “It’s just frustrating.”
Norton said his supporters don’t have the time or the motivation to damage an opponent’s sign.
“If you’ve known me for anytime at all, you know that integrity and running the campaign at the highest level is critically important.”
Both candidates were asked what they admire about their opponent.
O’Donnell said he admired Norton’s service to the community.
“Even many of my supporters, they like him a whole lot. He’s a very likable guy,” O’Donnell said. “His service goes back almost 30 years in elected office in parts of District 2.”
Norton said he admired O’Donnell for having the will to “get into this crazy game called politics.”
“It is not easy to represent the public,” Norton said. “I admire his youthful exuberance and willingness to jump into the fire.”