Geary County Commission candidates took part in a forum Tuesday night at the C.L. Hoover Opera House, where the debate grew heated between incumbents and their opponents as they answered questions submitted by members of the public.
Candidates on stage included incumbent County Commissioner from District 1 Brad Scholz (Republican) and his opponent Patricia “Trish" Giordano (Independent) and incumbent County Commissioner from District 2 Charles Stimatze (Republican) and his opponent Alex Tyson (Democrat).
The first question was about the county commission agenda, which currently is a calendar page with an outline of what they commission plans to discuss. The outline is vague, does not contain details of what will be discussed, and sometimes does not contain everything the commission will do during its meeting. The question asked candidates if they thought the agenda should be more detailed.
Tyson said he felt the problem was less how the agenda was formatted and more that meetings took place all day Monday and are not livestreamed or broadcasted in any way.
“Where you run into a brick wall is when someone’s working a 9 to 5 or an 8 to 5, or 8 to 6 job,” he said. "it's really hard for them to attend these meetings. So we need to be able to make these meetings available for everyone to attend that’s in our county.”
Tyson said he believed meetings should be livestreamed or broadcast so the public could watch online when they had time.
Giordano felt the agenda format should be changed to reflect more accurately what the commission had planned for its meetings.
"I definitely agree with having everything that we're going to take action on on the agenda,” she said.
Giordano relayed a story about how she wished to be present for the discussion when the Geary county Conventions and Visitors Bureau advisory committee was put back into place by the county but was unable to due to the fact that she didn’t know about it until after it happened. There was no hint that the CVB advisory committee, which had been taken out of existence in spring of 2019, would be reformed at this early September 2020 meeting.
Giordano said she sought answers about the matter from commissioners at a subsequent meeting.
"And so I went and asked to be on the agenda and asked them (about it),” she said. “Instead of saying 'yes, you're right, it should have been on the agenda,' they were very offended … We need transparency.”
The meeting is open to the public to attend, Giordano said, but members of the public don’t have the time to attend a six-hour-long meeting in the middle of the day, which is why the agenda should reflect what goes on at the meetings so people can attend for certain discussions if they wish to do so.
“We do need an agenda that is specifically based on what they're going to talk about when they're going to talk about it, so the public could make it if they wished to do so,” she said.
Stimatze said he felt the agenda was fine as it was.
“We don’t have to have an agenda, but we need to have an agenda so we can have transparency,” he said.
The agenda, he said, could not contain everything they planned to discuss because sometimes emergencies came up.
"I'm not saying that we are hiding anything, because we're not because everything is open to the public,” Stimatze said.
He said there had been discussion of live streaming the meetings but that they had not started yet because they didn’t want to change the way the county did things when it was possible the legislature might change the rules about live streaming shortly after the county made changes to its format.
Stimatze said the agenda needed to be flexible if emergencies came up.
Scholz was also fine with the status quo as far as the agenda was concerned.
"An agenda is created to make sure that meetings stay on track,” he said. “I've served on several boards through the course of my time volunteering in the community.”
Scholz said there had never been an issue with the Kansas Open Meetings Act or the Kansas Open Records Act caused by a less-than-detailed agenda.
He said he would be open to seeing county commission meetings live streamed.
"I know it's been brought up with the state legislature — or there’s been rumors of it — and I'd like to see that with any board that receives any type of levy monies or taxpayer monies,” Scholz said. "All those meetings are open to the public.”
He said when the CVB advisory committee was reinstated, the commission was pressed for time to bring the CVB board back after an article came out in the Junction City Union that addressed a lack of oversight for the CVB.
Candidates took the opportunity for a rebuttal.
Giordano said she never accused the county of breaking the law with their agenda, but instead said she felt not having a hot-button issue on the agenda was unfair to the public.
"My my main thing was, there was no reason for them to make a motion and do that without it being on the agenda,” she said. "That was a hot topic. That is the attitude that I feel needs to change ‚ that they can do whatever they want, and say 'oh, it's because of an emergency.’"
Stimatze’s rebuttal consisted of him talking about the difficulty of filling positions on boards such as the CVB advisory committee and saying the topic of bringing the committee back had been discussed for a long time by commissioners even before Scholz returned to the board.
"We did our due diligence in ensuring transparency with the CVB because of the allegations and what was put in the paper,” Scholz said. “I’ve had numerous phone calls with regards to that. And that is the reason why we work so hard and so late at night. I know I was on the phone on the weekends with county counselor (Steve Opat) working out the bylaws up until the last minute. We did not know once we got in there if those be completed or not.”
Tyson said he felt it was a mistake to rush the reformation of the CVB committee. He said he had the chance to listen in on the meeting where the board was brought back.
The next question was if candidates would be ok with commission meetings being scheduled over shorter periods of time and/or at a different time than during the work day.
Giordano and Tyson were in favor of shorter meetings and said they believed meetings could take place later in the day to allow members of the public to attend as they wished.
Stimatze said he would be open to holding meetings later in the day but said shorter meetings would not be possible.
Scholz said he would be fine with shorter meetings and different times, but felt the length of the meetings could not always be helped.
The candidates were then asked how they ensured the county meetings were held in accordance with the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Because there are only three county commissioners, two of them together is considered a quorum and if they discuss county business at that time, it is considered a violation of the open meetings act.
"I can guarantee you that we are following all the rules, all the statutes, to a t,” Stimatze said.
Scholz said that by statute purely social gatherings do not violate KOMA, which is why he said it was fine for commissioners to be present together at social events such as the Junction City Area Chamber of Commerce Dinner. The commissioners shared a table with CVB Director Michele Stimatze at the Chamber dinner earlier this year and were pictured in the newspaper doing so. According to Scholz, this is fine by KOMA standards as long as no business is discussed.
"We were not discussing business, but it's these this type of innuendo, that gives us a bad name and it’s not just,” Scholz said. “It's not fair.”
Tyson said that while it was hard in a small town to avoid running into people in public, it was important to avoid contact with other commissioners in order to avoid potential KOMA violations.
“You have to do your best to keep your distance from your coworker and make sure that you guys are really being transparent with the community,” he said.
Giordano said she was glad Scholz explained the issue and said she felt the people were not as concerned that commissioners attended a Chamber function together as that they were rumored to have purchased artwork together during a Geary Community Hospital fundraiser.
"I think people were talking about the fundraiser for the hospital,” she said. "I don't think there was a Chamber thing it was when you guys bought that the picture together is what they were trying to say was violation."
Giordano said KOMA was something commissioners needed to be cognizant of because so much as one commissioner sending a text to another about county business could be considered a violation.
Candidates were also asked how they felt about a financial management position for the county.
Scholz said he felt there were already enough checks and balances in place for county finances. Stimatze agreed the position was not necessary. Scholz said a financial manager position would burden the taxpayers by adding a new position to the county — another “layer of government” he said.
Tyson and Giordano believed such as position was necessary to keep the county’s finances in order.
Giordano showed the budget of the Junction City Police Department — where she is a captain — versus a county budget. The county budget was less detailed, she pointed out.
“Where’s our money going?” she asked. “I think we can do things more efficiently with a budget person.”
Candidates were asked how they would maintain integrity and transparency.
"I think integrity and transparency are two of the biggest things that you act on,” Tyson said. “You can’t walk into the building on Monday morning with a conflict of interest that’s a couple of streets down from you. You have to be able to work knowing that you're going to do right by not only the job that you have, but also the constituents that you have to answer to.”
Giordano said she already lived by standards of transparency and integrity in her job with the JCPD.
"I feel that you live your life in a fishbowl, as a politician, just like you as as a public servant and in law enforcement,” she said.
Stimatze said the county was already transparent.
“There’s so much that it out there that we give,” he said.
Stimatze said he felt the CVB had been picked on over how it spends its money. He said bed tax, which the CVB operates using, is not ad valorem tax money — meaning it does not come from local tax payers but from people outside the county staying overnight in local hotels.
"I think it's great that everybody is concerned about that, but don't you think people ought to be concerned about putting all your ad valorem tax dollar goes as well?” Stimatze said. "if we're going to be transparent, let's be transparent across the board for everyone that’s taking our tax dollars.”
Scholz said he was open to all county voters, including those outside his district. He said he did not doubt his own work ethics or his own integrity.
“I feel integrity goes hand in hand with ethics,” Scholz said.
Giordano rebutted Stimatze's point by saying bed tax dollars are a community resource, even if those funds do not come from community members directly.
"I don't feel that we should not care about the CVB money coming in any less than we care about our property tax money,” she said. “That is still money coming into our community and it should be monitored exactly the way we monitor other taxes.”
The candidates discussed vouchers as well and the county’s system of signing off on them, which the incumbents feel is fine as it stands and other candidates believe could use improvement.
Candidates were asked about how they would serve the best interests of all county residents.
"I'm running as an independent because I want to represent all of Geary County,” Giordano said. "I have no ties to any political party. I don't feel that I owe anybody anything. I am here to do the job and do it well and not have to worry about whether I make anybody — any party — upset. I'm not going to fall into the status quo.”
Stimatze said he felt he had done a good job of representing Geary County since his election in 2016.
"As a Republican, we have views, obviously different than the democratic and unaffiliated, but we all can work together,” he said. “We have worked very hard over the last three years of bridging the gaps that are out there and still are out there.”
Scholz said he felt he represented all of Geary County and not just his constituents.
"I've been a republican for over 20 years,” he said. "Just because I'm a republican doesn't mean that I don't take serious any questions as an independent or a democrat or libertarian, or what have you has, we're all in this together. We're a community that needs to stay close.”
Tyson talked about his military experience and how the Army brought him to the community and his present day work with Geared up Dads and Delivering Change. Again, he brought up his lack of conflicts of interest.
“I wouldn’t have to recuse myself from things,” Tyson said. " I don't have any conflicts when coming in to do the job of the county commissioner.”
When a question came up about conflicts of interest, Stimatze talked about how his wife, Michele, is the CVB Director but said he recuses himself from votes that pertain to her job.
“Everybody says that there is a conflict, which there is not,” he said. "I have not voted on anything to do with her salary or wages or benefits. I have not voted on anything that would gain for us monetarily. The stuff that I have voted on in the last three years for the CVB is for the department — for Geary County, it's what's in the best interest of Geary County. It has nothing to do with it because she's my wife.”
Scholz said he had been accused of having a conflict through his job and said he does not. He said he abstains from voting on anything pertaining to the pay of his fiancé, who is a judge with the Eighth Judicial District.
"That is the right thing to do,” Scholz said. "And that is integrity and ethics.”
Tyson reiterated what he said before — that he has no conflicts.
Giordano said she planned to retire from the JCPD if elected so she would not have any conflicts of interest, unless the county plans to buy a vehicle from Jim Clark — which her fiancé Willie Thornburg is involved in — in which case, she would abstain from voting.
The entire debate was livestreamed on Facebook and is still available to watch on the Chamber’s Facebook page. The livestream contains the discussion between the county clerk candidates, the sheriff candidates and a speech by Tracey Mann, Republican candidate for Kansas’ first congressional district.
The entire forum lasted about four hours all told. More than two hours of that time was spent on the county commission candidates.
Readers are encouraged to watch the entire livestream if possible.
See the video online at www.facebook.com/JCACCKS/videos/3866840643335477/ to watch the entire forum.