Tim Norton and Michael O’Donnell squared off in a debate two weeks before a critical Sedgwick County Commission election.
The winner will represent District 2 on the commission, which includes southwest Wichita, Haysville and Clearwater.
Norton, who has represented District 2 since 2001, says he’s the candidate who deeply understands and cares about the district.
“I’m not running for county commissioner. I am the county commissioner,” Norton said. “I’m about relationships, getting things done, civility and collegiality.
“I want to do this for four more years,” Norton told members of the downtown Rotary Club, which hosted the debate. “I want to serve the people of south-central and southwest Sedgwick County. I’m one of them. I don’t have to knock the doors to find out what they’re thinking.”
O’Donnell says he decided to leave the state Senate because he believed Norton would not compete for a fifth term and because of frustration that “Topeka simply isn’t working.”
“I want to work for the people in southwest Sedgwick County. They are struggling,” O’Donnell said. “Wages are down. It seems the only people in southwest Sedgwick County getting pay raises are government officials.”
O’Donnell touted his work in the statehouse to protect seniors from financial scams, to crack down on scrap metal theft and efforts to lower the sales tax on groceries.
“I have the ability to get things done,” O’Donnell said. “Businesses are being strangled by regulation, bureaucracy and burdensome rules. And that starts at the local level.
“We have to change course. We cannot continue to grow local government,” O’Donnell said.
Norton pointed to his work as a commissioner in support of the National Center for Aviation Training, the Sedgwick County Zoo’s elephant exhibit, the I-235 and Kellogg interchange project, the Child Advocacy Center and roadway improvements near Clearwater and Haysville.
Points of contention
O’Donnell criticized local governments like Wichita and Sedgwick County for providing redundant services.
“We need to find more consolidation,” O’Donnell said. “Any type of consolidation that I would be looking at would not mean less services.”
Norton said he supported consolidating some services with Wichita but said too much consolidation would put residents in the county’s rural areas and small towns at a disadvantage.
“Consolidation doesn’t always save you money,” Norton said. “We have 19 other small cities. … How do you fit them into the mix?”
O’Donnell voiced his support for Project Access, which helps coordinate donated medical care to low-income residents.
“If every community in America had something like a Project Access, we wouldn’t have needed the Affordable Care Act,” O’Donnell said.
Norton also voiced support for health programs like Project Access. But he said the county could provide more support on quality-of-life issues like the arts.
“Sometimes, government has a little bit of a role of propping that up or you wouldn’t have a zoo or the art museum and Cowtown and a lot of those things that we love here,” Norton said.
O’Donnell echoed some of the county commission majority’s language on the state’s property tax lid on local governments, which requires a public vote to spend more property tax income than allowed by state law.
“I think that’s going to empower voters more, get them more engaged in the process,” he said.
“A lot of the burdens that the state put on local government is to protect the taxpayers,” O’Donnell added about the county’s relationship with the state.
Norton criticized some of those same state restrictions that “we have to work against.”
“I would like for them to get their fiscal house in order before they tell me how to get mine in order,” Norton said to some applause. “We’re bound by so many rules from the state that it hamstrings us sometimes.”
Take on presidential race
The room emitted a mixture of groans and chuckles when an audience member asked who the candidates would vote for in the presidential race. Norton, a Democrat, refused to answer.
“You walk into the voting booth and that’s the sacred secret that all of us have in our heart of who we support,” Norton said to applause. “Based on my record here, locally, of always sitting on the commission with four conservative Republicans, I can work with anybody.”
O’Donnell, who is a Republican, said he would vote for Republican nominee Donald Trump. He said Trump would appoint better Supreme Court justices and scale back regulation.
“I know that he’s not perfect (and) has said a lot of personal things that everybody is offended by, myself included,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell suggested Norton did not say who he would vote for because Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was unpopular in the district.
“All politics is local,” Norton responded.