The adage “you get out what you put in” usually is attached to manual labor or building a business.
It’s also applicable to elected officials, both novices and veterans, as they carry out the duties of their public roles.
Kansans will go to the polls Nov. 7 to vote for their choices for city government, school boards and community college boards. These elections typically draw fewer voters than those for state and national offices, but the disruptions of the pandemic shifted the context of their roles. This year’s vote represents a return to normalcy of sorts.
No longer do city councils and school boards find themselves at the center of pandemic-related debates over such topics as mask ordinances and in-person school attendance. But the divides over those issues linger, as does the lesson that local officials – many of whom are paid little, if anything, for their service – aren’t immune from the consequences of being in the eye of a storm.
The reality of serving in a local public office can be eye-opening for both new officials and the public. There’s certainly power to influence the direction of a community, but the work is rarely glamorous and many crucial topics fly below the radar.
Veterans of the role say that the public might not always fully understand what the job entails. And newly elected officials might be surprised by the work they have to put in and the limitations they face.
Wichita City Councilman Brandon Johnson says he treats his office like a full-time job, even though it’s officially part-time.
“I wake up and take it seriously,” says Johnson, who is paid around $50,000 annually for the role. “I know I still have a lot of work to do, but to this point I’m satisfied.”
Johnson has until January 2026, the end of his second term, to get that work done. He represents District 1, which encompasses the neighborhoods surrounding Wichita State University, College Hill and portions of downtown. He knew he would have to reach the entire district to represent it well.
“When I got to office, I knew D1 wasn’t one certain thing,” he says. “That made it interesting when people asked me while I was campaigning what the biggest issue is. I say, it depends on which part of the district they’re talking about.”
Johnson recommends every public official continually speak to as many people in their district as possible, in person, about the issues that are important to them. One issue he’s noticed through his community interactions is a lack of people interested in running for local offices. He says they are reluctant to run because of the poor treatment public officials received during the pandemic.
“I think people decided to not sign up for that kind of abuse,” Johnson says. “A lot of people saw elected folks getting beat up for supporting mask mandates or whatnot.”
Death threats obviously don’t help either. Johnson and other elected officials in Wichita and around Kansas received threats to their safety at the height of the pandemic, which in turn led community members who might otherwise craft a campaign to reconsider.
“When I talk to some people about it now, they’re like, ‘Man, I don’t know, it takes a special kind of person,’” Johnson says. “Trying to convince them that they’re a special person as well has been difficult.”
It’s also tough to persuade people to run if they lack experience in public service or a specialized education.
“Especially people of color,” Johnson says. “We’re typically under more scrutiny, and it’s harder to find people of color willing to run and be representative in our government, even though we all know the need is there.”
The burden of public office
A diversity of people serving in public office is important, says State Sen. Usha Reddi, a Manhattan Democrat. She had served as a city commissioner and mayor from 2013 until January, when she was elected to fill former Sen. Tom Hawk’s seat. Hawk retired after representing District 22 for 11 years.
A career schoolteacher, Reddi’s service progressed from being a teachers union representative, to a city commissioner to a state lawmaker. During the legislative session, she commutes from Manhattan to Topeka daily, a drive that gives her a break from work – even though it invades her subconscious.
“I’ve gone to bed and woken up from dreams (about the Legislature),” Reddi says. “Sometimes you think about things so much, you dream about them, and you maybe feel you haven’t done enough.”
Reddi is adapting to the pace of the Legislature; as a city commissioner, she had more time to absorb information and to listen to public comments. That experience, she says, helped her adjust her expectations and hone her skills as a legislator.
In 2021, lifelong Topeka resident and City Council member Mike Padilla was forced to adjust what was expected of him when then-Mayor Michelle De La Isla fell ill with COVID-19. He says everyone had to shift into a different gear in her absence.
“We all became much more hands-on,” Padilla says. “(The pandemic) required the entire governing body to be more involved.”
Padilla was serving as deputy mayor when De La Isla became ill and has since become mayor. The stress of decision-making and dealing with public frustration during the pandemic led some officials to seek other work or retire early. Prior to the pandemic, Padilla observed officials who demonstrated little outward effort in their elected positions. Once the crisis hit, some realized just how heavy the burden of public office can be.
“I had people who told me, ‘Mike, I just feel overwhelmed,’” Padilla says. “‘How do you do this as a part-time job and get things done with due consideration?’ It’s a surprising realization once you sit in that seat.”
Indeed, there’s a realization that running for election to a position only partially prepares you for what awaits.
In Emporia, USD 253 Board President Jami Reever was surprised by the “steep learning curve” she experienced after she was elected in November 2021.
“It was quite the jolt from running for school board to getting into office,” she says.
Reever, whose professional background is in nonprofit leadership, serves on the board’s child care committee and the building and facilities committee. She also serves on committees with the Emporia Community Foundation and the Emporia Recreation Commission.
“It’s a lot of commitments on top of making sure we’re attending school events,” making ourselves available to the public, preparing and attending board meetings,” she says. “It took a little bit of adjustment.”
That adjustment can be particularly difficult for those who are newly elected and eager for immediate change. Reever says it’s important to be patient.
“Working through the process is so critical to making sure you reach a good decision at the end of the day. I’ve left some meetings thinking, ‘We did good today,’ and sometimes those kinds of decisions are few and far between, but that’s when you know you’ve served your community well.”
This story is part of the Fall 2023 coverage being provided by The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.