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With Emporia facing population declines, commission candidates look for pathways to improve growth, infrastructure

The number of people living in Emporia has been on the decline over the past two decades, and the trend is on the mind of some candidates seeking a spot on the City Commission in the Nov. 5 general election.

Since the 2000 census, candidate Susan Brinkman notes, Emporia has lost 7% of its population. And yearly estimates point to an additional loss after the next year’s Census. Brinkman, presently a school board member, isn’t the only candidate thinking about growth issues. Candidate Todd Maddox also lists growth as his top issue.

Incumbents Becky Smith and Rob Gilligan, meanwhile, say they would be focused on improving infrastructure. Smith wants to help build public understanding of what it takes to maintain infrastructure. Gilligan plans to focus on continuing infrastructure improvements and devote attention to issues that limit growth, such as a lack of housing and employment opportunities.

A fifth candidate, Joni Austenfeld, wants to  provide “a more direct route for our citizens to be heard by the Commission and other city leaders.” The Journal did not receive survey responses from one candidate, Lisa Hudson-Brittain.

The top-three vote getters in the race will join an Emporia City Commission that has five members in total.

Read more about each of the candidates in their own words below or click on the jump link to read the survey responses of school board candidates.

Update: Click here for Tuesday’s unofficial final election results.

Editor’s note: To help readers make their voting choices in the Nov. 5 general election for local offices, The Journal, the Kansas Leadership Center’s quarterly magazine, sent out a survey to more than 250 candidates in communities where our magazine’s readership is the largest. What follows is information from your local candidates, in their own words.

Click here to view survey responses of candidates for the Emporia USD 253 Board of Education

Emporia City Commission

Becky Jaggard Smith, candidate for Emporia City Commission

Please provide a brief introduction and a description of why you are running for office.

I have multiple generations of family from Emporia and I’d like to make the city a better place for generations to come.

Should you be elected, what is the single most important issue that you would like to see improvement on during your term in office? Please write a few sentences explaining your choice.

Infrastructure. A city must have good bones to build upon.

As an office holder, how would you try to mobilize efforts to address the important issue you identified above? If you have a sense of specific steps you might take, please share those.

Help people understand how much it takes to maintain infrastructure. Water, streets, buildings, each has its own set of issues.

Rob Gilligan, candidate for Emporia City Commission

Please provide a brief introduction and a description of why you are running for office.

I have served the City of Emporia as a commissioner for the last eight years. In that time, we have worked together to develop a plan of action to improve our Community both structurally and in opportunity. I feel we have been successful and I want to help continue the process of improving the City as an organization and a community.

Should you be elected, what is the single most important issue that you would like to see improvement on during your term in office? Please write a few sentences explaining your choice.

A continued focus on supporting infrastructure improvements and a focus on issues that limit growth such as housing and employment opportunities.

As an office holder, how would you try to mobilize efforts to address the important issue you identified above? If you have a sense of specific steps you might take, please share those.

The City Commission should continue to outline goals with action steps and serve as the leading organization in these community development efforts.

Joni Austenfeld, candidate for Emporia City Commission

Please provide a brief introduction and a description of why you are running for office.

I am running to bring a fresh and broad-based perspective after being self-employed in the home building business in Dallas/Ft. Worth, and being the President of the Kennedale, Texas, Chamber of Commerce, to my hometown of Emporia.

Should you be elected, what is the single most important issue that you would like to see improvement on during your term in office? Please write a few sentences explaining your choice.

Provide a more direct route for our citizens be heard by the Commission and other city leaders. To bring a common sense attitude along with a significant depth of knowledge in helping to govern locally and flourish and prosper in the community.

As an office holder, how would you try to mobilize efforts to address the important issue you identified above? If you have a sense of specific steps you might take, please share those.

(1) Improve accessibility by attending and supporting a broad base of community organizations and events. 

(2) Improve the social media presence and provide easier access of information of the city and its commission.

(3) Actively encourage and improve monitoring and following up with contractors seeking to do business with the city to improve the competitive environment.

Susan Brinkman, candidate for Emporia City Commission

Please provide a brief introduction and a description of why you are running for office.

My name is Susan Brinkman. I am running for City Commissioner in Emporia, Kansas.

I am a fifth-generation Kansan and was born in Kansas City, Kansas to working-class parents. My father, Max, was a fireman for the Union Pacific Railroad and my mother, Donna, was a secretary in the county clerk’s office in Johnson County.

From an early age, I was interested in issues of equity and fairness. It is so important for our communities to have diverse role models and leaders. One of my early memories of just such a role model was Johnna Lingle, the first woman mayor of Lenexa. I was only in the first grade but the memory stands out in my mind today. I just thought, wow, I don’t know any “moms” doing anything like this. I want to be a part of it.

The other thing I want is equal access for leadership. When I look at my community, I see that all of our commissioners live north of 12th Avenue and west of Merchant Street. Of the 652 incorporated cities in Kansas, only 10 use a commission system such as ours. Would our community benefit from wards or districts where representatives come from a variety of neighborhoods?

I am completing my eighth year on the USD 253 Emporia School Board and in 2016 I opened a small business in downtown Emporia. Additionally, I’ve worked for Emporia State University for 20 years. Sharing my experiences in education, private business, and looking at issues of equity and access are among the many reasons I am running for office.

Should you be elected, what is the single most important issue that you would like to see improvement on during your term in office? Please write a few sentences explaining your choice.

Since the 2000 census, Emporia has lost 7% of its population and yearly estimates point to an additional loss with the 2020 census. We are quite literally in a chicken-and-egg situation. Without a solid workforce, it is difficult to recruit new business and industry. Without new and expanding businesses, it is difficult to grow the population. This situation is placing too great a fiscal burden on our residents. The single most important issue I would like to see improved during my term in office is to bring good-fit jobs, through careful and smart use of incentives, to our community.

As an office holder, how would you try to mobilize efforts to address the important issue you identified above? If you have a sense of specific steps you might take, please share those.

It is important for elected officials to remember they are but one voice. My ability to mobilize begins with developing relationships with the other commissioners, with community members, and with city leaders; learning about their priorities. Listening is always the first step. I would advocate for a very focused business recruitment plan. I would ask colleagues to closely scrutinize our incentive-to-benefit ratio when recruiting new businesses. Are we putting these dollars in the right places or are we giving away the farm? I would take a cautious approach to adjustments in tax and utility rates; being careful not to price the cost of living in Emporia out of business. Successful recruitment of new industry and manufacturing can lighten the fiscal burden on our residents. Jobs, good jobs with living wages and health benefits are a key to a thriving community. We already have a well-established education sector and infrastructure. There are many things to be excited about in Emporia and with the right voices at the table we are poised for growth.

Todd Maddox, candidate for Emporia City Commission

Please provide a brief introduction and a description of why you are running for office.

I’m Todd Maddox and running to become a member of the Emporia City Commission. As someone who was born and raised in Emporia, I have a genuine interest in seeing Emporia grow and prosper as a community.

Should you be elected, what is the single most important issue that you would like to see improvement on during your term in office? Please write a few sentences explaining your choice.

Growth, in a number of ways. As the Emporia population has stagnated over the years, so have the opportunities for those who live, work and are educated here.

As an office holder, how would you try to mobilize efforts to address the important issue you identified above? If you have a sense of specific steps you might take, please share those.

Coordinating with organizations both private and public are key to recruiting and retaining our residents into high-quality jobs and the opportunities of the future.

The Journal did not receive responses to its survey from Emporia City Commission candidate Lisa Hudson-Brittain.

Your Local Candidates: In Their Own Words Nov. 5 2019 Kansas local election

Emporia USD 253 Board of Education

Jeremy Dorsey, candidate for Emporia USD 253 Board of Education

Please provide a brief introduction and a description of why you are running for office.

I graduated from Lansing High School and obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, and I then went to Washburn University School of Law and received my Juris Doctor in 2015. I was very blessed to have employment lined up prior to graduation, which I was happy to accept. I then relocated to Emporia and now work in a field office for a statewide not-for-profit law firm that provides access to legal services for low to moderate income Kansans. I’ve been in practice since June of 2015, which primarily consists of family, juvenile, and criminal law. I also represent children, and sometimes parents, who are in state custody, and that experience has given me a very acute observation of what the home life is for our low income, special needs, or otherwise at-risk children.

I’m running for the school board because I believe in the value of our public education system. I recall teachers who went the extra mile for me growing up, staying late and working a little harder to make sure I got by the subjects I struggled with, and I want to be a support for the system that helped me to be successful. If elected to the board I will be an advocate for our employees, whether they are the bus driver or the schoolroom teacher, and I pledge to work hard to insure that every one of our children has a quality education no matter their needs or circumstances.

Should you be elected, what is the single most important issue that you would like to see improvement on during your term in office? Please write a few sentences explaining your choice.

School security is an issue that is deeply important to me. I recall growing up when the first school shooting happened in Columbine, and I remember the collective horror society felt in response, but more importantly that it was abnormal that something like that could occur. Now, I think the abnormal has become normal. USD 253 has led on this issue, so I do not bring this topic up to insinuate our School Board has not done enough. We have had great improvements to our security such as the new entry systems installed in some of our buildings. If elected to the School Board I pledge to invest myself in this particular matter and to be an advocate in support of the safety and security of our children and staff.

As an office holder, how would you try to mobilize efforts to address the important issue you identified above? If you have a sense of specific steps you might take, please share those.

The School Board has already had taskforces/teams that have reviewed the matter of school security and safety and have presented previous findings to the School Board. I would first want to review all that information, to include what may or not be publicly available, and to speak directly with the members that were part of those findings. Second, I would need to see what has been done and what hasn’t, and if not then why not? Furthermore, should the school bond pass, I would be keen to insure that we follow-through on utilizing those funds to secure each and everyone of our schools. If elected to the School Board I pledge to be available to our staff, students, and families, and to hear any concerns they may have, whether it be the topic of school security, equal access to education, or fair wages and benefits. I look forward to earning your vote, and the privilege of being able to serve on the USD 253 School Board.

Mallory Koci, candidate for Emporia USD 253 Board of Education

Please provide a brief introduction and a description of why you are running for office.

I have lived in Kansas my whole life, and my home is in Emporia. I have been married for over 10 years to my talented and supportive spouse, Adam, and we have a vibrant and kind kiddo named Zephram, who will be in the 3rd grade. I work at Emporia State University, where I am the Director of Ethnic and Gender Studies and where I teach in the Interdisciplinary Studies department. In September, I filled a vacated seat on the local Board of Education. Because of how rewarding my work has been on the board, I am seeking a full term on the board via an election. This is my first time running for any political office! I am running for office for three simple reasons: I believe passionately in the power of quality public education; I believe that strong schools equal strong communities; and I believe that it is my duty and an honor to serve in my community.

Should you be elected, what is the single most important issue that you would like to see improvement on during your term in office? Please write a few sentences explaining your choice.

The single most important issue I would like to see improvement on during my term in office is the just and equitable treatment for students, staff, and parents in our schools. With the many privileges I have, I experienced only a few struggles in public education mostly centered around my being from a working-class family and then later centered around my being a girl. Many students also struggle in school because they’re on the margins they are teased, isolated, and hurt because they’re “different” or because of who they are. This mistreatment can extend to staff and teachers as well. Schools should be a place where everyone can be comfortable in who they are. I believe in the just and equitable treatment of all students, staff, teachers, and parents in our schools and in policies that support a welcoming learning environment.

As an office holder, how would you try to mobilize efforts to address the important issue you identified above? If you have a sense of specific steps you might take, please share those.

One of the steps I will do is to gather information in the schools about how students, staff, and parents are treated I believe gathering this information (either by myself or by a task force) will ensure that I have a clear sense of the environments of our schools. Another step I will take is to get “buy in” from the stakeholders in this issue from administration, other board members, support staff, teachers, parents, and students. It is crucial for the success of this idea to have the people affected by it involved in the process. This could be done through town-hall type meetings, through large-scale anonymous surveys, and through educational events at the schools about why just, equitable treatment is important. An additional step I propose is to review our current policies to see where improvements could be made; although policies will not ensure change nor alone are a marker of progress, they will be a resource for people in the district and a specific way to address expectations for all.

Leslie Seeley, candidate for Emporia USD 253 Board of Education

Please provide a brief introduction and a description of why you are running for office.

I am an alum of USD 253 and Emporia State University. As a working mother of two and a passionate supporter of public education in my community, I am running for office to be an advocate for the students, families, & teachers of USD 253.

Should you be elected, what is the single most important issue that you would like to see improvement on during your term in office? Please write a few sentences explaining your choice.

Equity in education and learning spaces are integral to the success of our students and teachers. When kids take pride in their schools, absenteeism decreases, teacher morale increases, and students thrive! Our public school students should have equitable educational and extracurricular opportunities, no matter what neighborhood they live in.

As an office holder, how would you try to mobilize efforts to address the important issue you identified above? If you have a sense of specific steps you might take, please share those.

I would vote in favor of measures that support equitable education in my community.

Grant C. Riles, candidate for Emporia USD 253 Board of Education

Please provide a brief introduction and a description of why you are running for office.

I am retired from Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corp. after being employed there for over 30 years in corporate development, human resources and access screening. I am now employed at Emporia State Federal Credit Union. As an incumbent board of education member, I am running again as I am committed to providing quality education for our young people as it is vitally important for their future as well as our community and state. The positive benefits it provides both individually and for society are immeasurable and have proven to be an excellent return on the investment that it involves.

Should you be elected, what is the single most important issue that you would like to see improvement on during your term in office? Please write a few sentences explaining your choice.

While there are many important issues, I contend that continuing emphasis on the whole child is so important. We know academics are the backbone of education and always will be, but I strongly embrace the continued recent emphasis on the social emotional development and well being of our students. These endeavors better equip our young people to lead productive lives.

As an office holder, how would you try to mobilize efforts to address the important issue you identified above? If you have a sense of specific steps you might take, please share those.

Continued support and access for support services will be necessary to help students’ social emotional needs. Efforts to balance these needs with academic needs is necessary. The school setting needs to provide a safe and nurturing environment for all students. Our staff do an exemplary job in supporting our students, but it is important that the needed time and resources are available for them to accomplish this as this continues to be a challenge.

Jeremy Dorsey, candidate for Emporia USD 253 Board of Education

Please provide a brief introduction and a description of why you are running for office.

I graduated from Lansing High School and obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, and I then went to Washburn University School of Law and received my Juris Doctor in 2015. I was very blessed to have employment lined up prior to graduation, which I was happy to accept. I then relocated to Emporia and now work in a field office for a statewide not-for-profit law firm that provides access to legal services for low to moderate income Kansans. I’ve been in practice since June of 2015, which primarily consists of family, juvenile, and criminal law. I also represent children, and sometimes parents, who are in state custody, and that experience has given me a very acute observation of what the home life is for our low income, special needs, or otherwise at-risk children.

I’m running for the school board because I believe in the value of our public education system. I recall teachers who went the extra mile for me growing up, staying late and working a little harder to make sure I got by the subjects I struggled with, and I want to be a support for the system that helped me to be successful. If elected to the board I will be an advocate for our employees, whether they are the bus driver or the schoolroom teacher, and I pledge to work hard to insure that every one of our children has a quality education no matter their needs or circumstances.

Should you be elected, what is the single most important issue that you would like to see improvement on during your term in office? Please write a few sentences explaining your choice.

School security is an issue that is deeply important to me. I recall growing up when the first school shooting happened in Columbine, and I remember the collective horror society felt in response, but more importantly that it was abnormal that something like that could occur. Now, I think the abnormal has become normal. USD 253 has led on this issue, so I do not bring this topic up to insinuate our School Board has not done enough. We have had great improvements to our security such as the new entry systems installed in some of our buildings. If elected to the School Board I pledge to invest myself in this particular matter and to be an advocate in support of the safety and security of our children and staff.

As an office holder, how would you try to mobilize efforts to address the important issue you identified above? If you have a sense of specific steps you might take, please share those.

The School Board has already had taskforces/teams that have reviewed the matter of school security and safety and have presented previous findings to the School Board. I would first want to review all that information, to include what may or not be publicly available, and to speak directly with the members that were part of those findings. Second, I would need to see what has been done and what hasn’t, and if not then why not? Furthermore, should the school bond pass, I would be keen to insure that we follow-through on utilizing those funds to secure each and everyone of our schools. If elected to the School Board I pledge to be available to our staff, students, and families, and to hear any concerns they may have, whether it be the topic of school security, equal access to education, or fair wages and benefits. I look forward to earning your vote, and the privilege of being able to serve on the USD 253 School Board.

The Journal did not receive responses to its survey from Emporia USD 253 Board of Education candidates Jeff Lutes and Arthur Gutierrez Jr.