In KCK, tremors of a political insurgency
Faith Rivera attended her first Board of Public Utilities meeting in April of this year. The Kansas City, Kansas, resident — she’s a precinct leader in the Rosedale neighborhood — watched as a handful of her fellow citizens asked the BPU’s board of directors for help with their various utility problems.
One said her service had been turned off on one of the coldest nights of the year. Another — an elderly woman living on a fixed income — said she experienced an outage after a limb from a neighbor’s tree fell onto her power line, and when she called the BPU to report it, she was informed she was financially responsible for the repairs required to restore her power. She had to take out a $1,000 loan to get her power back on, and was asking the BPU for assistance. Rivera says the BPU directors more or less shrugged, offering little in the way of help or suggestions.
“Their stories were so compelling,” Rivera recalls. “I was just sitting there like, What? They’re [the board] not doing anything about this for you?’ They’re not taking them seriously. They’re not listening to them.”
It was part of a trend Rivera had been noticing. She’d started going to more local government meetings after a for-profit gym called Metro 24 Fitness took over half of an Argentine community center. Her representatives on the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, strongly supported the gym deal. But Rivera feared Metro 24 would push out programs anchored around activities for local kids, and she feels it has. As she began to raise her voice about it, Rivera started to meet some like-minded concerned citizens: Diana Aguirre, Tscher (CeCe) Manck, Christian Ramirez, and Ken Synder.
On August 6, Wyandotte County will hold a primary election, and Rivera, Aguirre, Manck, Ramirez, and Snyder — all longtime Wyandotte County residents but first-time candidates — will be on the ballot for various UG and BPU positions. (The BPU is a locally owned utility that is a subdivision of the UG.) Their fledgling campaigns are fueled by dissatisfaction with the status quo’s approach to ethics, transparency, and economic issues facing the poorer communities of Wyandotte County.
They cite sweetheart deals like the verbal agreement between county administrator Doug Bach and (now-outgoing) KCK police chief Terry Zeigler that allowed Zeigler to live in a taxpayer-owned lake house rent-free. They point out violations of the Kansas Open Meetings Act and a behind-closed-doors approach to policymaking, evidenced, they say, by things like a recent commission meeting that lasted just five minutes despite having a full agenda.
They also point out that, while the western side of Wyandotte County — Piper, Edwardsville, Bonner Springs — is enjoying the spoils of new development, areas like Rosedale, Kensington, and the northeast and northwest sections of KCK remain isolated in food deserts and lack basic infrastructure like sidewalks.
“We don’t agree on everything,” Manck, who’s running for Register of Deeds, says. “But we all agree on the fact that we need change.”
Manck was at that same April BPU meeting that inspired Rivera to run for office. They met again at a Parks board meeting where Rivera introduced Manck to Aguirre, who she knew from public meetings about the Argentine community center.
“We just started becoming a unit,” Rivera says.
The three began attending meetings together about a month before the deadline to declare candidacy for the 2019 primary and general elections in Wyandotte County. At first, they tried to encourage others to run against incumbents. Eventually, though, it became clear that they ought to just run themselves.
“We realized we were all working toward the same thing — wanting change in Wyandotte County,” says Aguirre, who’s running for 6th District Commissioner.
Rivera, who kept up attendance at BPU board meetings after that first discouraging visit, says the continued dismissal of citizen concerns is what finally convinced her to run for a spot on the BPU board. If elected, Rivera says her top priorities will be to work to find a way to lower utility bills, provide better customer service, and increase transparency. She notes that the only way the public can access meeting minutes or BPU policies is if they go to the BPU offices and get a physical copy; the board meetings are open to the public, but they’re not shared anywhere online. Moreover, those who attend meetings are provided a booklet with a meeting agenda, minutes from the previous meeting, and information on agenda items. But the booklets do not include policies the board votes on. Earlier this year, the board voted on a hot- and cold-weather rule policy that would prevent unpaid utilities from being shut off when the temperature goes above or below a certain point. The policy was handed out to board members, but, according to Rivera, who was present for that meeting, community members were told they could only request a copy after the vote occurred, preventing them from voicing their thoughts on the policy beforehand.
David Mehlhaff, communications officer for the BPU, says the BPU is “one of few municipal organizations in the region that offer opportunities for the public to speak openly and address the board at every meeting.” He adds that the utility “is currently in the process of redesigning its web site to provide new and improved accessibility and usability features for the community, including online access to utility policies, customer chat bot feature and other communications enhancements.”
The UG’s construction of a $27.2 million juvenile justice detention center, set to open in 2020, is what spurred Manck to action. She feels all that money would have been better spent on keeping kids out of trouble. “They’re killing the programs so that when it [the detention center] is made, they can fill it up immediately with our babies,” Manck says. Without any openings in her district on the UG Commission or BPU, Manck opted to run for register of deeds, which oversees county real estate. If elected, she says she intends to use the perch to hold educational sessions that encourage community involvement.
Ramirez, who’s just 25, is currently the treasurer of the Wyandotte County Democratic Party (where he met Rivera), and he’s served a legislative intern for Kansas state senator Pat Pettey and worked on Brent Welder’s 2018 Third District Congressional campaign. He’s running for 3rd District Commissioner against 12-year incumbent Ann Murguia. Ramirez says he wants to see more funding directed toward youth programs, a focus on improving infrastructure, and increased communication between residents and elected officials in his district. Murguia, he says, “has done a lot for the district, but not in the best interest of everybody. I want to ensure everyone has a voice and that their voice is not ignored.”
Longtime KCK politicos might recognize Ken Snyder’s name. In 2010, Snyder spent five months as a traffic signal technician at the BPU. He was then called away for active military duty. Ten days after he returned to the BPU, he was fired. He subsequently started a website, 168 Days, chronicling what he views as his unjust dismissal. He also filed and won a federal employment discrimination lawsuit against Bill Johnson and Eric Clark, his superiors at the BPU. Earlier this year, Johnson was named BPU’s general manager. Snyder felt the appointment was unethical, and, after encountering Rivera and Manck at the BPU board meetings, he decided to run for a spot on the BPU board.
“I’ve heard so many people complaining that the rates are too high,” Snyder says. “They don’t get good customer service I said, ‘Enough’s enough. I need to step up, and we literally need to clean the place out.’”
Snyder realizes that, given his past, some might assume he has it out for the BPU. But he says his past is actually a strength — it guarantees his loyalty to the people of Wyandotte County.
“I’m using my experience as a motivator to do better for everybody else,” Snyder says. “I’m not going to gain anything out of this personally other than serving on the board and helping to make our rates more understandable, reporting to the community more, and being more open.”
As for Aguirre: though she was actively encouraging others to declare candidacy, she waited until the last possible day to file, when she realized no one else was going to run against 6th District Commissioner Angela Markley. She intends to prioritize keeping community centers and parks safe and available, cutting down crime, and making the UG more transparent.
Aguirre has her own complex past with the UG, though. In 2013, she resigned her appointed post on the UG’s ethics commission after she was convicted of battery for reportedly shoving Murguia during a community meeting—an incident Aguirre says she knew nothing about until a few weeks later when she received a citation saying charges had been filed against her.
“It never happened,” Aguirre says. She says the supposed incident occurred when she was at a public meeting in a small, crowded room, and that she had simply walked behind Murguia at one point in the evening. She says no one said anything to indicate anything had happened, and that an officer standing in the hallway never even approached her.
“I never went to jail, nobody ever arrested me—it was a small little fine,” Aguirre says, pointing out that Murguia herself was arrested for domestic battery last year. “But the difference is, I work with the community. I stay involved with the community. And I have still stayed involved, even after that.”
It will perhaps come as little surprise that the gentlemen currently leading the UG and BPU do not share the view that Wyandotte County is in desperate need of radical change.
“I think for some people, the way that they make a name for themselves is to stir the pot,” UG Mayor/CEO David Alvey says. “I’ve heard some of their specific complaints. We’ve presented all the information I think they need to answer their questions. They don’t want to hear it, and I just don’t know what else to say to it.”
In response to transparency concerns raised regarding July’s five-minute commission meeting, Alvey says most of the discussion for that night’s agenda had occurred in a standing committee meeting two and a half hours prior to the commission meeting.
“This is just how business is conducted,” he says. “We are a representative democracy, not a direct democracy, in most matters. Not every item is put up to a public vote, which is why we elect representatives. If they don’t like the representative, then it is their obligation in their capacity, to run — which they are doing. If they were to be elected, we will be using the same processes that they’re complaining about now.”
At the BPU, board president Norman Scott says they’re doing their best to put people with utility problems in touch with the correct departments for assistance.
“They have an opportunity to come in and speak five minutes at the podium and make their case,” Scott says of citizens at BPU meetings. “They come back and say the same thing over and over and over. We try to put them with the right manager to work out their problems.”
He notes that the board does not make policy, but rather approves policies drafted by various departments within the BPU. He calls the board an “oversight board” primarily charged with approving the budget, which he says he scours diligently.
“I always make decisions with the customer as my number one thought, and then the infrastructure of the BPU,” says Scott. “We have to have reliability and peace of mind that, when we turn on the faucet, water will come out. And the same with the electric lines.”
Scott — who’s running for reelection — points to his recent implementation of a tree-trimming program that keeps limbs away from power lines and has decreased power outages. He also points to the 45 percent increase in renewable energy use that’s occurred under his watch. And while Scott acknowledges there’s room for improvement in customer service, he doesn’t see any lack of transparency.
“We have open meetings, what can I say? Every word we say is published verbatim. And every word they say is published verbatim,” he says, pointing to the agenda booklets the BPU publishes for each meeting. “So I don’t know where they’re coming from.”
Alvey says that, due to a lack of funding, this crop of “change” candidates don’t understand how difficult it will be to implement the change they want to see. He says he’d love to see improvements and increased programming come to the community centers. But the money just isn’t there without raising taxes to pay for it.
“There’s tons of things we can always be doing better,” Alvey says. “And that’s the constant challenge. It’s always, you know, trying to find ways to provide more and better services at less cost … That’s what I think people don’t understand. We all want a lot of things, including lower taxes. But those two things work in opposite directions.”
Edgar Galicia, executive director of the Central Avenue Betterment Association (CABA), is also skeptical of what he calls this new crop of insurgents’ “change for the sake of change” approach.
“People think that rule-changing comes from outside, and nothing is further from the truth,” Galicia says. “These voices are willing to create a revolution, and they’re expressing themselves like, ‘We want change, they need to go, move out of the way, we are the new people, we know better than you do,’ all of that. But I’m afraid things don’t work like that.”
As Galicia—who’s been working with CABA for six years, four of which he’s been the executive director—sees things, it takes more than just a desire for change to bring about a new order of things. The kind of change Rivera, Manck, Aguirre, Ramirez, and Snyder are shouting for does not happen overnight. And, he says, the political dynamics in the county are far more nuanced than Rivera and the rest seem to understand.
“Some of them [current WYCO elected officials] have done nothing but run the show and appear in every picture, and they need to either get going and get doing or get out of the way,” Galicia says. “But some of them have done quite a bit. They just haven’t been able to negotiate their way into doing more.”
He’s noticed that those who take the time to learn the rules of the game are more effective at implementing change. “If you really want to make change, it has to be validated by reason,” Galicia says. “Educate yourself not only from the books, but from experience. Experience what it is like to be in these offices and get closer to those who are doing it.”
Ramirez says that he knows there’s always going to be a learning curve for any newly elected representative. But he’s put in the work to research as much about public financing and economic development as he can before taking office, and he’s out talking with people in the community about their needs almost everyday.
“I know that once I get in there it’s going to be a lot different, so that’s where I’ll take the time to research and learn and grow,” Ramirez says. He also charged the community with the responsibility to help him understand what he’s doing right and what things he needs to do better.
Rivera, who’s a single mom of two children and works as a school receptionist, also recognizes that she doesn’t have the typical background of most candidates. But that’s exactly why she thinks she’s the right person for the job.
“I’m not a doctor. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a senator,” Rivera says. “I’m a single mom who every so often gets that yellow slip that says ‘Disconnect Notice.’ I have to worry about where my money’s coming from. I know the reality of people living in the community.”
Back in 2011, when 2nd District Commissioner Brian McKiernan was first elected, he didn’t have had any previous experience as an elected official, and his campaign was fueled by a desire to improve his community.
“It was a huge learning curve,” McKiernan says.
He laughs when asked if governing has been as easy as he anticipated.
“Oh, gosh,” he says. “No, it has not been easy at all.”
In the years McKiernan’s been on the commission, he’s worked to improve the responsiveness of the local government to the people. He’s pushed to stretch out the budget-making process to allow community members more time to give their input. And he’s helped restart an annual citizen survey that has identified areas where the community wants to see improvement.
The results from the last three surveys have recently been compiled together, and priorities are clear: blight reduction, infrastructure, and better communication. Those are the issues he plans to focus on in his next term. (McKiernan is running unopposed in this election.) McKiernan says he’s been encouraged by the loud voices asking for change that have come together in this election.
“I think there is the potential for a positive benefit in any community when the citizens of the community take an interest in local governments,” McKiernan says.
Galicia agrees, and hopes that this new wave of candidates sticks around even if they lose this time around.
“How many candidates have you known of that are all for ‘community and working strong and making the good and we’re going to change things,’ but they lose and then they disappear?” Galicia asks. “My biggest challenge to these people is to not quit if you don’t get elected. Keep on pushing on your agenda. Keep on pushing for your actions if you don’t win the office.”
And pushing on is what these candidates say they are going to do. Aguirre tells The Pitch that, no matter what happens next week or after the general election on November 5, she’s going to continue searching for the right people to run for office in future elections.
“I’m going to continue fighting,” she says, “and continue being involved in the community and finding those young people that want to run for the next election.”
“I will keep being an activist,” Rivera says. “My long term goal is to become a state representative. I want to help make Kansas a better place for all of us.”
For Manck, she says she won’t be done until she sees the change she wants in Wyandotte County.
“[If I’m not elected] I have every intention of being on the ballot when it comes back up,” Manck says. “I’m not done. I’m not done until I see change.”