City Council candidates address pressing community issues

Elizabeth Orosco
Northeast News

Ten candidates vying for 3rd and 4th District City Council seats attended the Northeast forum Saturday, March 16 to discuss their stance on pertinent issues, and if elected, how they would make tangible, impactful change for constituents.

Current 3rd District Council members Jermaine Reed and Quinton Lucas and 4th District Councilwoman Jolie Justus are term-limited and are all running for Mayor.

Candidates in attendance included Katheryn Shields, current 4th District Councilwoman who was elected in 2015 and is running for her second term, Austin Strassle, candidate for 4th District At-Large, Geoff Jolley, candidate for 4th In-District, Jared Campbell, candidate for 4th In-District, Eric Bunch, candidate for 4th In-District,  Joseph Jackson, candidate for 3rd In-District, Rachel Riley, candidate for 3rd In-District, Melissa Robinson, candidate for 3rd In-District, Brandon Ellington, candidate for 3rd District At-Large, Reverend Wallace Hartsfield, candidate for 3rd District At-Large.

Issues addressed to candidates included education, trash pickup, affordable housing, revitalizing neighborhoods, crime, gun violence, and gaining local control of the police department.

On the topic of revitalizing neighborhoods, Melissa Robinson said she will work with each 48 neighborhoods in the 3rd District to develop their own plans, especially when it relates to housing.

“We need to attract private investment to help the neighborhoods plan, and not the investor’s plan. We need to look at how we are putting people back in the space of power and giving them the leverage to design what conditions that they want to see. Our city planner is often times underutilized and we need to make sure that city planner is sitting down with neighborhood leaders and developing those plans.”

On the same topic, Katheryn Shields said we need to focus on the things closest to the residents.

“Part of this is our sidewalks and infrastructure. The Council approved $150 million for sidewalks. I think that needs to be used in a more targeted way than it is now. I think the majority of that money should go into our older neighborhoods and we really ought to do a block-by-block assessment and spend that money in a coordinated way so that in the end, you know that in fact the dollars have been invested.”

Brandon Ellington said the Northeast is a unique area, and he wants to focus on small business investment.

“When I look at the small businesses in this area that have been able to grow and flourish without any help from local government and state-elected officials, I want to continue to help encourage and incentivize the small business growth. Some of that can be done with taxation measures for small business retention and also transit. Transit is one of the areas I notice the Northeast lacks when it comes to connecting the Northeast to the rest of Kansas City. With the small business model down here, I think it’s extremely impressive for a so-called minority community to own pretty much every entity in this area.”

On the issue of education, one resident asked the candidates how their policies will ensure a quality education for our youth.

Melissa Robinson, School Board President of the Kansas City Public Schools, discussed the current state of the district.

“Our kids have been able to test higher than they’ve ever tested, under our leadership, through collaborative relationship building, making sure that we hired a strong Superintendent. Bringing that level of prosperity for our schools to City Council is critical in terms of the relationships that I have. One of the things we will do is work with industry leaders to make sure we have strong pipeline programs. For example, 40 percent of our seniors are 18-years-old and we can work with them with labor and other cutting-edge industries to make sure that they are prepared. I will have part of our 1460 Plan that we are rolling out, a business summit every quarter to make sure the curriculum is paired with business leaders so kids know what they need to be able to do and know in order to get a job if they’re not going to college.”

Joe Jackson said, as a school board member from 2010 to 2014, the first thing he would look at is TIF (tax increment financing).

“We are looking to trying to have a Pre-K Tax, which is a regressive tax that hurts the families of lower income. We also have to have good quality career training programs because the city does billions of dollars a year in improvements, but how many of those are getting job training to work with our students, so when they graduate, they can either go to college or begin to have a career, so we have to have that partnership between City Hall and the school districts because the next generation that we are training is the next generation of Kansas Citians that will lead our City, but they have to have good quality education that is not built on the back of TIF.”

Eric Bunch, said he wants to focus on one specific thing the City does have the responsibility and authority to do.

“We need to ensure that the neighborhoods around each school are safe, the sidewalks are in good condition, and it’s easy for kids to get to school, so all they have to worry about is learning, they won’t have to worry about their walk to school. My organization, BikeWalkKC has provided a lot of walkability audits and recommendation to the school districts and individual schools.”

Austin Strassle, said he echoed the need for comprehensive TIF reform in Kansas City.

“It is fundamentally wrong that we are diverting over $30 million from the school district. We can talk about education all day, but when we are giving that money away to corporations, that harms our school districts. I’m advocating that, as part of those TIF reforms, that we allow the school districts to opt out of having their revenues diverted from them to the corporations. I also think it’s important that we talk about the issue of housing as it relates to education. We know that in KCPS, student mobility is higher than ever, and so it’s really important that we establish an emergency relief program for families with students in KCPS so that they can stay in their neighborhoods, so that they can stay in their homes, so they can keep going to school, so we don’t have students who are going to three different schools in a year, who are being forced to move out because of an eviction.”

Katheryn Shields discussed the proposed Pre-K Plan.

“I am very concerned about this sales tax. It is regressive. It harms the poorest in our communities and it is a program that was designed without any input from any of the school districts that reside in Kansas City, Missouri, and all of those school districts are in opposition to this sales tax, because it doesn’t actually meet the needs of the individuals in our community who most need the help to provide preschool.”

Geoff Jolley said he intentionally sent his two daughters to Kansas City Public Schools and his wife is a KCPS teacher, who teaches at Troost Elementary.

“One of the things she mentioned that she sees in the classroom are students who are dealing with repeated and regular trauma throughout their lives. Seeing blight or trash on the streets or having to worry about being assaulted on the way to or from school… one of the things we can do as a city is to make sure we create safe environments for those children to learn and acknowledge that they are dealing with regular and repeated trauma.”

Candidates also were asked about their plans to address affordable housing, predatory landlords, code violations, and what will be done to create a healthier habitat for residents.

Brandon Ellington, said there are ordinances that can be put in place to protect residents.

“When we talk about tenant benefits, from a local level,  there are ordinances that we can draft and write that will protect tenants rights and protect them from getting evicted. There are ways that we can deal with the codes department to ensure that people who are permanent residents aren’t getting beat over the head for not being able to maintain paint or etcetera on their houses.  There’s also a caveat that the city needs to work on when it comes to absentee landlords that don’t stay in the city. All of these are things that can be commissioned under city ordinances.”

Austin Strassle said he would advocate for a Tenant’s Bill of Rights.

“One of the things I think we need to implement as a council that I would support is to implement a tenant’s bill of rights that codifies in city ordinances that every tenant, every renter in Kansas City is deserving and has a legal right to quality, affordable housing and that we should empower the city attorney to go after those landlords that are putting individuals into unsafe and unhealthy living conditions.”

Rachel Riley discussed the need for legislation and certifying landlords.

“A landlord policy needs to be established, most definitely certifying landlords in Kansas City, particularly those neighborhoods east of Troost. I believe it should be city-supported and council-enacted legislation, authorizing the regulation of residential rental properties, in order to take back our communities.”

To learn more about each candidate, please refer to the March 13th issue of the Northeast News for a guide to all 3rd District candidates. A guide to all 4th District candidates in included in the March 20th issue on pages 16-17.

To listen to the forum, click here.

Robert Westfall, candidate for 4th District At-Large, advised that he was not made aware of the forum, but will be contributing a Letter to the Editor in the March 27th issue of the Northeast News.

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