The Dec 1, 2020, League of Women Voters Topeka-Shawnee County Tuesday Topics presentation was a panel discussion of Topeka and Shawnee County elected officials. We’ve included the recorded presentation of the virtual meeting and provided highlights below. The library is a partner with the League of Women Voters Topeka-Shawnee County in sharing non-partisan civic information.
What are the issues confronting your governing body today?
All City Council members and County Commissioners were invited to participate in this panel. Below are the responses from those who were able to attend. In addition to the question on issues, several panelists briefly discussed the reasons they ran for office.
Mayor Michelle De La Isla represents Topeka residents. She decided to run for office because of experiences bringing people together to talk through the destiny and the future of our community. Mayor Wolgast encouraged her to run for city council. De La Isla believes we need to unify our community. Our community is divided on issues of race, on science, and we’re divided on issues of how we are treating each other at the police level, the local level and the housing level. There are disparities that are being revealed by COVID. We have to look at the social determinants of health so we have health in all of the policies we are putting into place. We have budgets to take care of, pot holes we have to fill, and fire and police that continue to safeguard public safety. The issues we have are pretty significant and all of those issues are dealt with at the local levels. We have good leaders here who care about the community’s well being. Not just our health but our economic well being and how we leave for future generations a community they can be proud of.
City Councilman Neil Dobler represents District 7, and was appointed about a year ago by the rest of the council to fill the seat of Councilman Mays. He has a background in city government and infrastructure, which is always a huge issue for a municipality this size. An issue Dobler sees is growth and where growth occurs. We can’t afford to grow outside of our existing boundaries. We need to figure out how to redevelop those neighborhoods in the center of the city. The infrastructure is already there, but we need a good plan to address those opportunities.
City Councilman Spencer Duncan represents District 8 and grew up in the same district he represents now. COVID creates a spiderweb of other issues beyond health, eviction, small business and jobs issues.
City Councilwoman Karen Hiller represents District 1. She loves people, loves community and she’s challenged by problem solving. At the time Hiller first ran for city council she was involved in Heartland Visioning back in 2009. Police and community issues are big. We are steadily in the process of taking what people saw in the national news and pulling them down into what is happening locally. Asking how does it fit and what can we do. She serves on the special committee on police and community relations, and that’s important to rebuild a community. Even during COVID we need and continue revitalization and redevelopment. Many locations in our community are in various stages of redevelopment. We have infrastructure that is more than 100 years old, so we are watching dollars and strategies to replace infrastructure underground in the city.
City Councilwoman Hannah Naeger represents District 6. She ran because she is a born and raised Topekan. Naeger is the youngest governing body member currently. She grew up in a family that was always very involved in neighborhood associations and volunteering. City council was a natural extension of that. COVID has highlighted the inequalities that have always been present in our community. Naeger hopes we take the lessons from this year, learn from them, heal from them, and build a more equitable community.
City Councilwoman Sylvia Ortiz represents District 3. She was a Neighborhood Improvement Association (NIA) president of East Topeka South and felt like the people in her district needed someone to represent them. Ortiz understood the cracks in the sidewalks, the narrow streets, the challenges faced in her district. She also wanted more things for kids to do. Ortiz loves Topeka and wants to make youth love Topeka as well. She is concerned that cost is a barrier to things like swimming pools for families, and that we need to continue to look for ways to help our older people and our youth. Ortiz is concerned about hunger, including the working poor who are needing food boxes, and helping make connections to resources, and internet access for students using remote school.
City Councilman Michael Padilla represents District 5. A good friend encouraged him to run for city council. He came to this as a natural progression of his professional career. As a police officer, Padilla believed it’s one of the best jobs you can have, to see the city when it is shiny and when it needs some shining. He involved himself with the community through a variety of organizations, with the idea that he could use his knowledge of the city to help those organizations expand their services in an equitable way across the city. Padilla was not ready to retire, in the sense that he was not ready to give up on this city, he could still see the potential. He notices the improved relationship between city and county governing bodies, and believes it is important for both to collaborate.
City Councilwoman Christina Valdivia-Alcala represents District 2 and resides in the same community she went to school and grew up in. She wants to let people know their voice is pivotal, and wants to be a voice along with the constituents. COVID is getting closer in many parts of the community that were watching it from afar. The next three months are going to be very challenging for us all. The Affordable Housing Study states a need for more affordable housing in Topeka, and the first pages describe the impact of redlining in districts and the rate of black unemployment and eviction. We need to peer into what is creating this, including a need for a living wage.
County Commissioner Kevin Cook represents County District 2. He wants to give back to his community, get involved, and take local involvement to the next level with issues of mental health and economic disparity. Cook sees issues beyond COVID dealing with budgetary constraints and priorities, along with construction costs impacting infrastructure projects.
County Commissioner Aaron Mays represents County District 3. He was involved with the Heartland Visioning process back in 2017 and wanted to get more involved outside of the periphery, so he ran for city council and then county commission. The biggest issue is division of our citizens, which is something we can all work to fix, working together as a team rather than fighting with one another. That’s not unique to Topeka and Shawnee County but what’s unique about us is that we have the ability to do it.
County Commissioner Bill Riphahn represents County District 1. He ran because he had good experiences working with neighborhoods through Parks and Rec for 30 years. Riphahn grew up on a farm in western Kansas and that gave him a good feel for the farming communities we have here in Rossville, Dover and Silver Lake. He thought he could contribute, and this is his way of giving back. Issues Riphan sees with the county now are recruiting and retaining staff at our jail, and turning the corner on the virus. The county also took over the Great Overland Station and is planning a family park on the west side of town.
Question and Answer Session
A question and answer session followed the initial panel questions. You can view it on the video and also contact your council person or commissioner with your questions and concerns.
Topeka City Council
Find agendas, minutes, recorded and live meetings, committees, find your council district, or email the entire council at the Topeka City Council website.
Shawnee County Commission
Find agendas, minutes, archives, committees and a commission map at the Shawnee County Commission website.
January’s Tuesday Topics
Tue, Jan 5, 2021, at noon Dr. Pezzino, Shawnee County Health Officer (through Dec 2020) and Kansas Health Institute Senior Fellow will discuss Public Health Challenges: Coronavirus, Pandemic and Beyond. This virtual presentation is open to the public. League of Women Voters members will receive a link to the Zoom meeting in their email. The library coordinates the public registration to attend. The link to the Zoom meeting will be sent to everyone registered by 8am on Jan 5. Email email@example.com with any questions.
The recorded presentation will also be available on the library’s website in mid January.