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Next steps after election wins

Kansas City’s June 23 general election brought some new and familiar faces to the Kansas City Council.

Among them are first-time council member Jolie Justus, who won the 4th District seat; former council member Katheryn Shields, who took the 4th District at-large seat; and incumbent Jermaine Reed, the 3rd District representative.

The three council members spoke with Kansas City Hispanic News on what comes next for them as they prepare for their new or subsequent terms, which will start Aug. 1. The candidates were asked to list their priority and were quizzed on issues important to Hispanic residents.

Much of what affects Hispanics and other residents, Justus said, involves “neighborhoods and opportunities for economic development.”
“I want to make sure that everybody, no matter where they live and what their native language is, (has) representation at City Hall,” she said. “I want to work with community members to get them on boards and commissions to make sure we have complete representation for the city.”

Justus said that she’d spoken with John Fierro, her opponent for the 4th District seat, after the election, and that they both expressed the desire to move the district forward, and to work together to do so.

“I look forward to working with John and the Westside, and the Northeast area, which also has a large Hispanic population,” she said.

Justus said she also wants to work with Mayor Sly James to advocate for potential appointees to boards and committees, and she praised Fierro for his longstanding involvement in such positions.

“If it weren’t for our civic volunteers, this city would not work the way it does, and I think John has been doing that for 20 years,” she said.
Justus also emphasized the importance of “making sure we have a transportation system that addresses all the ways people get from point A to point B in the city, whether it’s bus services, roads and bridges, the streetcar system or walking and bicycling.”

“We need to expand the bus system,” she said. “I feel like we do a better job of moving people north and south than we do east and west.”
Reed said he saw issues that faced the Hispanic community as “very much similar (to) needs that impact all citizens in our city.” Shields agreed.

“First of all, when we do development and offer tax incentives, we need to make sure it’s good for the whole city and not just the developers,” Shields said. “We also need to spend our dollars wisely on maintaining our basic infrastructure. One dollar for maintenance compares with nine or 10 dollars on replacement. If you spend the money on maintaining infrastructure, you’ll expand your ability to spend money on other projects. Our public works people know that, but they haven’t really had someone on the city council to push for that.”

Reed said he would continue his emphasis on increasing economic development, eliminating dangerous buildings and blight, improving public transportation – especially the Prospect Avenue MAX bus line – and increasing jobs and the minimum wage. He recently introduced an ordinance that would increase the city’s minimum wage from the current $7.65 an hour to $10 an hour on Sept. 1 and implement incremental increases to $15 by September 2020.

Justus, when asked about her to-do list immediately following the election, said she’d be “going through a whole lot of orientation through meetings with all the departments, and getting to know the inner workings of City Hall and continuing community meetings.”

“I want to make sure that I get an office set up for the 4th district at City Hall where I’ll hire an assistant and we’ll come up with a system to efficiently respond to community requests,” she said. “And then committee assignments. There’ll be a lot of housekeeping issues. I’ll be meeting with current and former council members to get their advice, and with community leaders. It’s a time to become a sponge and soak up a lot of information.”

Justus plans to continue conversations with residents and neighborhood leaders “to find out what their needs and interests are.”

“It’s one thing to come in as a candidate and say what I want to do, and it’s another thing to know what (residents) really are interested in,” she said. “Then I want to do an inventory of what is in place that’s working and what’s not, and then meet with community leaders to figure out what needs to be addressed first.”

Shields said she also would first “spend time getting acclimated.”

“I’ve known Sly for a number of years, but I’ll get to know him better, and learn about the other council members,” she said. “I’m very concerned about budgeting in certain areas. I’ll certainly be studying the budget and getting ready for the fall hearings on the budget and the final budget process in the spring. I want to work with the preservation community to make that a priority. I think we can have meaningful development in the city without tearing everything down.”

Shields said she decided to run for the seat because of her experience running the Westside Housing Organization from roughly 2008 through 2011, after she’d finished her term as Jackson County executive, and because of other efforts she’d taken part in that brought her back into contact with the city.

“I realized that the city did not have representation on the council for historic preservation,” she said. “I wanted to be a voice for preservation, if the community wanted me to.”

She said her prior experience on the city council would make it easier for her to adjust to her new term.
“I’m very familiar with city government and how it’s worked in the past, so I won’t have the learning curve that a new person would have,” she said. “And I have experience putting budgets together.”

The candidates said they hadn’t been surprised at the election’s low voter turnout. Of all registered voters in the Jackson County portion of the city, 13 percent cast votes. In each of Clay and Platte counties, 8 percent voted.

“I suspected it would be low,” Reed said. “I know there’s voter apathy and folks who don’t necessarily take municipal elections seriously.”
Justus said she was “saddened” by the turnout.

“The predictions were that it would be that low, so it didn’t surprise me,” she said. “I want to work with anyone who will work with me to figure out how to increase that participation moving forward.”

The low voter turnout didn’t stop the increase of women council members from four to five.
“I think it’s great,” Justus said. “It’s good representation for the city.”

Asked what excited and scared her about having won the city council seat, Justus said the answer was exactly the same for both.

“I have a huge learning curve, and I want to make sure I’m knowledgeable and accessible,” she said. “The issues are just as tough (as those she worked on in the Missouri Legislature). (The city council involves) a different style of lawmaking.”

Shields said she thought the 4th District’s greatest strength was its residents.

“We have citizens who are very interested in the city and volunteer their time on many different fronts that make this city a great place to live,” she said. “And the diversity of (the district) – racial, ethnic and economic. Being at large, I focus on the bigger picture of the city. It doesn’t mean you don’t drill down, but it’s mainly the bigger picture, and that’s going to help the city as a whole.”