Overland Park mayoral candidates tackle transparency, housing ahead of August primary

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. —With the Aug. 3 primary election less than a week away, FOX4 is working to help voters get a better idea where candidates stand on issues impacting residents in the metro. FOX4 sent out a questionnaire to all primary candidates in Johnson County. 

Four candidates are vying for votes in the primary election in hopes of becoming the next mayor of Overland Park. Mike Czinege, Faris Farassati, Clay Norkey and Curt Skoog intend to take over the position from current Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach, who has served in the position since 2005.

Here’s a look at what the candidates had to say: 

Q: What is your top priority for the city of Overland Park, and what type of future do you want for the city?

Czinege: My top priority for Overland Park is to restore the voice of the residents in the direction of the city. For too long the voices of the residents have been ignored or overruled as the city council and planning commission have allowed developers to exert undue influence in city decisions. This is best seen in the proliferation of high rise apartment buildings and excessively large apartment complexes throughout the city. 

The apartment sprawl has encroached on existing neighborhoods and have caused excessive traffic and congestion, added traffic lights that slow traffic, put a toll on 69-highway, and erosion and water runoff problems in neighborhoods. The city has even provided developers with significant tax subsidies for some of these apartment complexes. We should not use tax subsidies to encourage developers to further increase the apartment sprawl and reduce the quality of life for our residents. I want the future of Overland Park to flourish based on the practices that have made it a great place to live to-date: great single family home neighborhoods, planned communities, good schools, safe neighborhoods, low congestion and low density, high quality of life, residential growth, and a strong economy. Overland Park is and always should be a welcoming community for all those that want a high quality suburban way of life regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or political persuasion.   

Norkey: My top priority for Overland Park is to restore public trust in our city’s leadership by bringing full transparency and real accountability back to our local government. It is essential that we have leaders who recognize the importance of being forthright with residents. When decisions are made or when tragedy occurs, we need leaders who recognize that simply circling the wagons and taking a defensive posture erodes the public trust. We need a mayor who will step forward and engage with our residents. As Mayor, I will celebrate our successes and acknowledge our mistakes while working hard to fix them promptly.

We are at a crossroads for the future of Overland Park. I want our city to be a place that my children and all our children want to call home. Our city can be an example of excellence. Instead of settling for the status quo and failing to adapt to the challenges of tomorrow, we will excel. We will be a future-focused community with a thriving economy; top-in-the-nation schools; safe, attainable homes for anyone who works here; and a culture of inclusivity and vibrance that welcomes and serves people of all ages. With bold new leadership, we will engage in smart, reasonable development; raise up new voices; attract new investment into our city; and make sustainable infrastructure improvements that lay the groundwork for a brighter future. 

Curt Skoog Overland Park Mayoral candidate

Skoog: Overland Park is an amazing place. With a history of high ratings and high resident satisfaction surveys. All this while maintaining the lowest city property tax in Kansas. Half of Leawood.

This year alone Overland Park has received seven additional top 10 ratings as the best place to live, work and raise a family. This is reinforced by the discussions I am having at front doors across the city. People love living in Overland Park. But we have hard work to do.  Past success does not guarantee future results.

As your mayor I will lead the community through an update to the Overland Park Comprehensive plan – it will establish a consensus on our priorities by creating a road map with goals and objectives for the next 10 to 15 years. 

It will address our most pressing issues:  housing, infrastructure, the climate action plan and being a welcoming community. You will have a say in our future.

Much like the consensus built through the Vision Metcalf process, your voice will drive the direction of the city. Implementation of the Vision Metcalf plan has led directly to the transformation of aging commercial properties through private investments of over $540 million. This created a new grocery store and exciting community gathering places.

I am uniquely qualified to be your next Mayor:  Council Member, Council President, Committee Chair, Mid-America Regional Council member and chairman, Creating Sustainable Places Task Force co-chair, Bi-State Commission Chairman, Businessman, husband, father, and grandfather. I am a proven leader. Together we will keep Overland Park moving forward.

Farassati: We have developed a visionary plan, named as OP2025 (farisforop.com), based on my interactions with the people of Overland Park during the last four years and consultation with academic references and experts. OP2025has three major initiatives:

1-FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY Redirecting Tax dollars to city services and amenities such as public schools, parks, libraries, community college and first responders by preventing Tax giveaways to undeserving private corporations.

2-ENHANCING THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE by stablishing following people-based commissions within the Overland Park government:

A-Resident Advisory Commission on budget. B-Resident Advisory Commission on Aging and Heritage. C-Resident Advisory Commission on workforce housing. D-Resident Advisory Commission on public safety. E-Resident Advisory Commission on quality of life and inclusivity.

3- PROMOTING EVIDENCE-BASED GOVERNMENT AND TRANSPARENCY by establishing following offices:

A-Office of Media Relations B-Office of Research & Development C-A Free standing Economic Development Council

Q:  In April, the Overland Park Police Department released the investigation report of the officer involved shooting that killed 17-year-old John Albers in 2018. Do you feel the police department appropriately handled the issue? If not, what plans do you have to improve transparency and accountability within the Overland Park Police Department?

Czinege: John Albers death is truly a tragic situation. I believe the city needs to be transparent and accountable for all its actions, both law enforcement and financial. I do not know whether the culpability lies with the city council, the police department, or the investigating unit, but the Albers family should have been able to more easily and more quickly had information presented to them on the events surrounding the death of their son. 

The city organizations responsible should have been much more forthcoming about the facts and findings of the investigation. The Albers should not have had to anguish for months and years without having feedback, and eventually had to bring a suit to determine the facts.  The city organizations and agencies need to be responsive to the community with transparency and accountability. The mayor and the city council need to set the tone for transparency in every interaction with the community and its residents. As mayor, I would be clear with all departments that the city is to serve its residents and be transparent in our interactions.  I would personally be involved in any situations that require attention to ensure transparency and accountability are achieved.  

Clay Norkey Overland Park Mayoral candidate

Norkey: The officer-involved shooting of John Albers was a heartbreaking tragedy for his family and a tragedy for our entire community. John was killed during a welfare check while backing the family minivan out of his garage by an officer who shot 13 times into the van’s side before even identifying the driver. I have followed this case closely because of my personal friendship with the Albers family. I was the baseball coach for one of John’s little brothers.

I have been deeply troubled by the slow trickle of details and the city’s unwillingness to provide information up front over the last three and a half years. The fact that current city leadership feels it has been a transparent process should be concerning to all of us. The truth has not come out because of any demands by city officials — it has slowly been revealed because of a mother’s persistence and community outrage.

We must insist that our leaders take responsibility and face challenges head on. It should not have taken three lawsuits, countless document requests, an ongoing FBI investigation, the empaneling of a federal grand jury and the tireless efforts of community advocates and the Albers family for leaders to be transparent about this case. The Johnson County Officer-Involved Shooting Investigation Team report (OISIT Report), the concealed severance agreement, the $70,000 payout to the officer, and candid answers to questions should have been disclosed immediately. As mayor, I will cultivate a culture of prompt transparency and accountability, which is vital to maintaining public trust.

We must also overhaul OISIT investigations to remove bias, eliminate victim-shaming, and take a fair and balanced approach. I’ve read the OISIT manual and the OISIT Report created after John was killed. I’ve reviewed the pictures, the recordings, the dashcam videos, the interviews, and other materials related to the investigation. There are problems that must be addressed. For example, the OISIT Report consistently referred to John as “the suspect” — and the manual directs the team to do so. John was not a suspect. He was being checked on as part of a welfare check. That alone reveals inherent bias. Further, the report included large amounts irrelevant information about John’s struggles during his life, even though the shooting officer was not aware of any of it. Substantive information about the officer’s state of mind, background, performance, or the like, however, was barely mentioned. The report was also incomplete and we are still today waiting for additional information to be released. 

These reports must be fair, unbiased, thorough, and complete. We must do better.

Finally, it’s time to rethink our response to welfare checks and mental-health crises. We ask much of our police officers and must support them. Successful models of modern policing are Denver’s STAR program and San Antonio’s mental-health unit. We should be exploring those programs collaboratively, because showing up in a bullet-proof vest with a taser and side arm for a teenager having a mental-health crisis is not what the future of policing should be.

Skoog: January 20, 2018 was a tragic day for the Albers family and the entire City of Overland Park.  17-year-old John Albers was killed by an Overland Park Police Officer.  Like many of you I watched the publicly released videos of this terrible event and was shocked and heartbroken for the family. 

Within hours the Johnson County Multi-Jurisdictional Officer Involved Shooting Investigative Team (OISIT) was activated by the District Attorney’s office to investigate.  No Overland Park police officers participated in this investigation.  The OISIT report was provided to the District Attorney for review. The District Attorney determined there would not be any criminal charges against the officer.

The Office of Professional Standards within the Overland Park Police Department reviewed the incident and reported to the Chief of Police that no violation of department policy had occurred.

The City Manager is responsible for hiring and firing city employees determined that he had no legal cause to fire the officer involved.  Believing that the officer should not continue as an Overland Park Police Officer, a severance agreement was negotiated with his attorney for his departure.

A second independent investigation of the officer involved shooting was completed by the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training (CPOST).  CPOST presented its investigation to the Commission Investigative Committee who closed the matter with no action or recommendation.  Currently the FBI Civil Rights Division is reviewing the incident.  I look forward to their report.

As the former Chair of the Overland Park Public Safety Committee of the City Council, I directed and supported many improvements to the Overland Park Police Department. These included:

  • Change to the police policy that increased restrictions on shooting at moving vehicles
  • Providing body worn cameras to all police officers in the field
  • Expansion of Crisis Intervention Team training to all officers
  • Expansion of Mental Health Co-responders
  • (Pending budget approval) Creation of a 11-member Behavioral Health Unit within the police department that will be focused on assisting residents with mental health challenges.

It is my hope that these actions will prevent a repeat of this tragic incident in the future. Public confidence in our police department is vital to the community’s success. As Mayor I will lead the council to create a citizen oversight process that will assure confidence in the people who protect and serve the residents of Overland Park. 

Farassati: The shooting death of John Albers was a tragedy for all of us and a clear example of lack of transparency and accountability of the status quo in the OP government. I met with Mrs. Albers in a one-to-one meeting and listened to her concerns and grievances in 2019. I was also fully supportive of Albers family efforts during 2019 and 2020 as a member of the public safety committee when I was trying to establish a citizen advisory commission on public safety. The boiling point for these efforts were reached when I and another councilmember were the ONLY two councilors who demanded a fact-finding session about the administrative outcome of this tragedy in July/2020. Our efforts were covered in articles by Shawnee mission post, Kansas City Star, and the Washington Post.

“Council member Scott Hamblin said Friday that he and member Faris Farassati asked for the session because “the public demands and deserves transparency, and as leaders we need to be ready and willing to provide it (The Washington Post, July 03/2020)

“Councilmembers Scott Hamblin and Faris Farassati have asked for more details on the severance payment to be able to provide a better explanation to the public, Hamblin said (SMP, July/06/2020)

No other current mayoral candidates supported our efforts or were even heard of at that time. Consequently, over 500 pages of documents were released resulting in a cascade of events which led to lawsuits by the media and FBI investigation.

I believe policy makers including the status quo at OP government are mainly responsible for this lack of transparency. In my plan, OP2025, (farisforop.com) I have proposed a Resident Advisory Commission on Public Safety which will bring the community, experts, and police force together to resolve such issues without politicians’ involvement. I also propose implementation of “evidence-based policing (EBP)”. A wealth of knowledge exists in this regard from academic centers such as George Mason university. EBP focuses on what works to prevent crime and improve citizen trust and confidence in the police. It also studies how police can incorporate research into their daily practice to improve efficiency, accuracy, transparency, and accountability. I have been in communications with this center and plan to hold a symposium in this regard. The leadership of our police force and the staff are very enthusiastic about the possibility of interaction with experts in this field. 

Q:What initiatives would you support to improve affordable housing options in Overland Park? How can Overland Park offer a range of housing options for residents of different income levels throughout the city? 

Mike Czinege Overland Park Mayoral candidate

Czinege: Affordable housing in this case is defined as housing for people that work in Overland Park being able to afford to live in Overland Park. Overland Park currently has a wide variety of housing at price points ranging from entry level housing to moderate to luxury to estate. Housing types include single family residential homes, condos, attached homes, and apartments. In discussions on affordable housing, forums have generally used fire fighters, law enforcement, and teachers as examples of professionals for whom we need to have ample housing available. 

Overland Park was founded primarily as a residential community of single family homes and planned neighborhoods with a high quality of life because of the quality of our schools, economy, and neighborhoods. Our objective should be to continue to be able to provide that standard of housing for new and existing residents. Affordability is a function of hard work and savings over time through personal initiative. It’s how our city has grown from its inception.  My daughter is a perfect example.  She is a Catholic School teacher. Teachers are paid less than the firefighters and police officers, and Catholic teachers are paid substantially less than even public school teachers. Four years after completing college she was able to purchase her first residence, a condo on 103rd.  She did it by working and saving and living within her means. Overland Park has affordable housing and we should encourage developers to continue to build communities of all price ranges and various types of home ownership.  I am not in favor of continuing the trend of overdevelopment of apartment complexes throughout Overland Park and the resulting over density of streets, highways, and schools. We have a housing model that has worked in the past and can work in the future.

Norkey: If you work in Overland Park, you should be able to afford to live in Overland Park. Access to affordable homes is a top issue. We want our teachers, firefighters, police officers, essential workers, and others to live in the communities they serve. Lack of affordable housing also affects our seniors. We must find ways to allow us to age in place as we advance in years, whether that be in our own homes or in affordable alternatives within the same community, close to family, friends, and familiar surroundings.

Accomplishing this will require a multi-faceted approach and working with the state and the county to be effective. Fortunately, United Community Services of Johnson County has recently completed a comprehensive housing study and created a Housing Toolkit to help our communities tackle this rising problem. We must use this toolkit as a guide as we navigate our way to finding attainable solutions. One of the highlights of the study that reflects my consistent message throughout this campaign is that we must address the full cost of home affordability and the impediments to obtaining a home. That includes transportation issues; rising costs of utilities, taxes, insurance, and maintenance; and a whole host of interconnected issues.

I also support public engagement in coming up with well-thought-out changes to our zoning policies and other ordinances. That will help set expectations for residents and developers alike and lower development costs. 

My focus is on the “missing middle.” The lack of adequate housing options in the middle-density range is a serious problem, which also contributes to our current staffing crisis locally. Rather than more luxury, high-rise apartment towers, we should preserve and expand our supply of middle-density housing types that transition well with our existing neighborhoods and new developments. Some examples include homes on smaller lots, attached homes, or pocket neighborhoods centered on a community space. This will allow us to meet our housing needs with options that are appealing at different stages of our lives, while still maintaining the character of our neighborhoods.

We need to get creative, so I have already met with community advocates, housing developers, and other leaders to address these issues directly. As mayor, we will engage in effective public engagement to bring together experts and local voices from throughout the city to chart a path forward. Using resources such as UCS’s Housing Toolkit as a guide, we will tackle this issue head on. It is critical that we make real progress on the accessibility and affordability of homes, because it is the only way that we can meet our growing demand and maintain Overland Park’s status as one of the country’s best places to live.

Skoog: I am proud to say that new attainable housing is being built in Overland Park.  The conversion of a former motel and two former extended stay hotels into attainable housing is a first step in expanding these housing options.  Repurposing existing structures allows for significantly lower upfront costs that is then reflected in lower monthly rent.  In addition, at 87th and Farley I worked with neighbors to gain support for a project that will provide attainable housing at a higher density.

As a Ward 2 council member, I have been focused on reducing the barriers to building attainable housing in Overland Park. The largest barrier has been the cost of land.  As a successful and popular place to live, land is in demand.  The second barrier is the cost of construction.  New construction is expensive and needs a business model that is profitable.  The next barrier is city development standards.  The recently completed Small Scale Development study suggested changes. As Mayor I am committed to updating the development standards that enable more small-scale attainable housing to be constructed.

 Faris Farassati Overland Park Mayoral candidate

Progress towards more attainable housing has been made in multiple ways. The adoption of the Vision Metcalf plan, which I proposed and was created with extensive public input calls for density to be placed along Metcalf as old commercial centers become obsolete. In the last few years, we have seen new housing return to north Overland Park for the first time in over 30 years. Additional new housing projects are expected, and I will advocate for a significant portion to be attainable.

Starting next year, I have secured funding for Overland Park to update its comprehensive plan. The plan will provide a road map with goals and objectives for the next 10 to 15 years. It has been decades since it was last thoroughly reviewed. For the first time, it will involve an extensive public process. One of the work groups will be focused on housing. As Mayor I will lead this important community discussion on housing needs and find a consensus to keep moving Overland Park forward.

Farassati: Housing affordability is a major issue across the nation. According to a study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, even families with moderate level of income now feel burdened by housing costs. This is a scientific topic and needs to be treated in an evidence-based manner.

I will explain my answers in three sections:

1-Mechanisms: What can be done? Municipalities can employ a range of mechanisms to promote affordable housing including:

  • House Finance Authority (e.g. Los Angeles, Austin),
  • Private Partnerships (e.g. Bay area),
  • Establishing Acceleration Funds to help workforce housing projects (such as San Francisco, Dallas).
  • Establishing a linkage fee (e.g. Seattle) where a per-square-foot fee is on developers which will be used to support workforce housing.     

Other possibilities include lease-to-own programs(Cleveland), models that promote environmental sustainability as a path to long-term affordability (Minneapolis), and projects that connect community resources (such as day cares) to housing. Recently Johnson county has also completed a study on this topic resulting in a tool kit. Overland Park has employed NONE of these mechanisms.

2-Policy change needed: Where do we find the money for it?

I have always voiced my opinion against the current fiscally irresponsible policies of OP government (TIFs) resulting in handing over half a billion dollars of taxpayer’s money to luxury unaffordable apartment developers. Such policies worsen the current situation with work force housing that our next generation needs. The only legitimate place for TIFs is removal of the verified blight. These tax dollars can be used to promote affordable housing.             

In our plan, OP2025, we have suggested a commission on workforce housing to provide specific aims and milestones (farisforop.com).

3-Zoning and density: Overland Park municipal codes allows for a range of densities. The current problem is that the related zonings are constantly ignored due to the pressure of lobbyists. Higher density zones can be used as a tool to provide workforce housing but they need to be in harmony with their surroundings. The change in density needs to follow the municipal code as shown in the figure here.

We also need to plan for all public amenities and services (schools, streets, public safety, parks, libraries etc.) in support of the quality of life for residents in these areas. This necessity, once again, highlights the importance of preserving tax dollars to finance such services.

Finally, on April 21  we had a zoom session with experts about this issue available on faroisforop.com.

Q: City Manager Bill Ebel has recommended increasing Overland Park’s mill levy from 13.582 to 14.582 in the 2022 budget. Would you support an increase to the Overland Park mill levy? Please explain why or why not.

Czinege: I would not support the increase in the mill levy.  A one mill increase is actually a 10.7% increase over the Revenue Neutral Rate of 13.174.  The proposed 2022 budget has substantial increases in several departments over estimated 2021 spending, including a 11.9% increase in Strategic Planning, and a 11.4% increase in Finance & Administration.  These two categories represent approximately $3,000,000 of increases over projected 2021 spend, and if captured as savings, could cover most of the requested increase in spend for Mental Health support for Law Enforcement. Additionally, the budget accounts for an increase of 53 new city employees. The city is also scheduled to receive additional substantial funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that should be considered before tax increases are proposed. Not all of these savings may be realized, but while residents and businesses are recovering from the negative financial impacts of COVID shutdowns, I believe this is a time the city should tighten its belt as the community has had to do. I propose examining the budget for savings in all areas.

Norkey:The proposed 2022 city budget for Overland Park includes a one-mill increase to the city’s portion of property taxes, which is currently the lowest of any First-Class City in our area by nearly half and would remain so. These funds would be used to bolster public safety by funding upgrades to our cybersecurity infrastructure, hiring necessary additional firefighters, and allowing for the expansion of the police department’s mental-health crisis response unit, as recommended by the Mental Health Task Force. 

For the average homeowner in Overland Park, this increase amounts to an average of about $40 per year.

If we want to support our police officers and first responders, as well as truly take on the mental-health issues we face in our community today, then we must follow the Mental Health Task Force’s recommendations. I have been vocal about the need for our city to improve its response to welfare checks and mental-health crises, so $40 to advance our commitment to address the mental-health needs of our community, support our first responders, protect our technological infrastructure through cybersecurity, and hire more firefighters and officers sounds like a good deal. As mayor, I will ensure that these funds are used to address the crucial need to improve the wellbeing of our community and bring our crisis response practices up to the standard our residents expect. 

Skoog: Public safety is a high priority for me as well as the residents of Overland Park.  I support the change in mill levy for the important items:

  1. The addition of 11 positions to the police department to staff the new Behavioral Health Unit.
  2. Additional firefighters to staff the new fire station on 175th.
  3. Improvements in the city’s Cyber security capabilities

The behavioral health unit was a recommendation of the Overland Park Mental Health Task Force that spent over a year studying the mental health needs of the Overland Park community.  These specially trained officers and mental health professionals will assist those most in need in our community.  

The Overland Park Fire Department will be merging with the county fire district to staff the new fire station on 175th.  The merger will save on future expenses for Overland Park taxpayers, today it requires adding new positions.

Cyber-attacks are the newest threat to Overland Park’s ability to provide high quality services to its residents.  The additional resources will enable the Information Technology group to better protect the city’s data and operations systems. Overland Park will maintain its unique position as having the lowest city property tax in the state.  Less than half of the city of Leawood.

Farassati: Overland Park government functions on ~300 million dollars budget. My first approach to the fiscal policies has always been focused on stopping wasteful tax giveaways and redirecting those tax dollars to public services and amenities such as schools, parks, libraries, street maintenance (banning Chipseal) and public safety in order to prevent increase in property tax (mill levy). I believe Overland Park is very manageable with current level of funds once a more updated fiscal policy based on conservancy is implemented. One solution to this a strategic move to zero-based budgeting. A concept that mandates justification of each expense in each new period budgeting.

Regarding the current proposed increased in mill levy, until all alternatives have been researched and a clear need is justified, the necessity of such increase is questionable for me. The conversation will continue in following months and I encourage all people of Overland Park to participate in the period of Public Comments (30 minutes before each city council meeting) that I established in 2020 after over one year of efforts and express their views about the budget and other matters.       

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