The six candidates in this year’s race for city commission had the opportunity to share their views with members of the public Tuesday evening during a forum held at Flint Hills Technical College.
Among them were incumbents Rob Gilligan and Becky Smith, Emporia Public Schools Board Member Susan Brinkman and political newcomers Joni Austenfeld, Todd Maddox and Lisa Brittain. In vying for the commission’s three open seats, each candidate had the opportunity to respond to a wide variety of pre-written and audience-submitted questions which covered topics ranging from their plans if elected to issues of affordable housing, street maintenance and Emporia’s most pressing problems.
“As a city and as a commission, we can do a better job engaging diverse voices at the table,” Brinkman said. “I’m not exactly sure what that looks like, but I can tell you we’re represented by folks who all live north of 12th Avenue. Perhaps it’s time to have a conversation about city councils and wards rather than commissions. There are only 10 incorporated cities left in Kansas that use this at-large commission system.”
“One of the things we’ll need to make sure we focus our energy on is how we continue to modernize workplace opportunities and economic drivers for our community,” Gilligan said. “As industry changes, and as the United States changes and new opportunities — including technical and mobile work opportunities — continue to present themselves, we have to continue to develop a community that is open to serving and provides the resources needed there.”
Although many of the questions involved issues to fix rather than areas to maintain, candidates still had plenty of positives to cite about aspects of the community in which they believed the city had been excelling.
“We do have a very successful small business here in town,” Brittain said. “We had a small business in Kansas City, then came here. It was much better starting out here. People were friendly, and you felt like everyone really wanted to help. So many people were willing to help, and we didn’t see that in Kansas City … If you’re opening a new business and people are welcoming you in, that’s just going to bring in more and more instead of a situation where you’re fought every inch of the way.”
“Right now, we’ve become the pet food center of the country,” Smith said. “In already having to build on that, it’ll make it easy to keep building. To go along with that, you get those skilled workers, you get those wonderful people, and a lot of them are married to someone who maybe wants to start their own business ... Emporia has a real entrepreneurial spirit, so those kind of go hand-in-hand. You bring people in for the great jobs, and then somebody thinks, ‘I’m tired of working for someone else, I want to work to try my own thing.’ Emporia has always been very good at supporting local businesses.”
In listing their qualifications for the position, some candidates cited their research and involvement with past commission functions, while others pointed to their roots in the area.
“I’ve prepared myself by making sure I’m well aware — by reading through the agendas and meeting minutes throughout the last several years,” Maddox said. “Some of those are quite long, some of them are boring, and some are more juicy, but it is where important decisions and everything is recorded … I’ve spoken with other constituents, I’ve researched the different departments and resources that are available. If I were elected, I certainly wouldn’t stop my learning there.”
“My family goes way back,” Austenfeld said. “The original Austenfeld immigrant from Germany settled on a farm just outside of Olpe. My grandfather was a county commissioner and my father was a businessman and real estate developer here in the community. He was also the Lyon County Fair commissioner, and I can’t tell you how wonderful that was when I was a kid. It’s kind of the legacy of my family to serve this community. I’m proud of that, and I just feel like I’ve entered a phase of my life where I’m fully available to devote my time to this community and this commission.”
Those wishing to learn more on candidates can visit emporiakschamber.org/2019-city-commission-school-board-candidates for short video profiles and mission statements by each. A full stream of Tuesday evening’s forum can also be accessed at www.citylinktv.com/channel/emporia-kvoe.