In packed Overland Park election, council candidates debate development, transparency

·12 min read

With the mayor’s retirement and two open council seats, Overland Park is packed with candidates this summer — all of whom feel they are best suited to guide the booming suburb and address transparency concerns at City Hall.

Residents citywide can cast a vote for mayor in the Aug. 3 primary, which has drawn four candidates looking to fill the seat held by Mayor Carl Gerlach for 16 years. And most city wards also will have a council race on the ballot Tuesday.

Four council races will be narrowed down in the primary, with the top two vote-getters in each contest advancing to the November election. The final result will include at least two new council members, as incumbent 5th Ward Councilman John Thompson retires and 2nd Ward Councilman Curt Skoog gives up his seat to run for mayor.

The election has drawn a wide-ranging slate of candidates in each race. They include some newcomers who say they have felt slighted by city leaders and are now campaigning on the need to improve communication between the council and residents — like Scott Mosher.

The father of Overland Park police officer Mike Mosher, who was killed in a shootout with a suspect last year, Scott Mosher argued that council members refused to give him an opportunity to voice concerns about first responders’ pay during the pandemic. Before his death, his son fought against pay freezes for officers, but his family felt ignored by city officials.

There are also a few younger, millennial candidates like Melissa Cheatham, a regular at city meetings, who has pushed for environmental reforms throughout the Kansas City metro. And there are incumbent Logan Heley and newcomer Ty Gardner, who feel they can best represent Overland Park’s growing population of renters, new homebuyers and younger families starting out.

One of Heley’s three opponents is a familiar challenger, Michael Czerniewski. Heley crushed him in a 2016 Democratic primary for a Kansas state senate seat, but lost the general election — then won a council post the following year. Czerniewski said he wanted to ensure Heley did not run unopposed for a second term.

The new council will be sworn in as the city continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of affordable housing in an increasingly pricey suburb, and the best way to support redevelopment as the population continues to grow.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

Advance mail-in and in-person voting has already begun. There also are eight ballot drop-off boxes available throughout the county. For more information, visit jocoelection.org.

Here are the races:

Ward 1

Heley, 28, community engagement manager for Harvesters Community Food Network in Kansas City, is seeking another term representing northern Overland Park.

He said his voting record speaks for itself, touting his efforts to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting the LGBTQ community from job and housing discrimination. He also supported initiatives to improve transparency by livestreaming city meetings and offering a public comment period for residents.

A recent first-time homebuyer, Heley has been a strong advocate for affordable housing, improved public transportation and climate action.

“We need to continue to push for transparency and involvement in the City Council so residents have a say in city decisions,” he said. “We need to ensure tax policies are focused on residents and not wealthy developers. We need to prioritize sustainable development and infrastructure. And we need to fight for equality for everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexuality and religion.”

Opponent Czerniewski has a history of criticizing Heley, and has argued in this race that the incumbent has not done enough to listen to residents. The 42-year-old is a podcaster, part-time chess instructor and restaurant delivery driver.

He also ran unsuccessfully for Overland Park City Council in 2007, he said. Czerniewski has challenged Heley’s approval of express toll lanes on U.S. 69, for example, saying he would have voted against them. And he said he would be more critical of proposed development agreements.

“I would actually listen to people before I would make any decisions. I would certainly listen to people over developers, because I think that’s a big problem right now. They’re listening to the developers more than average citizens,” Czerniewski said.

Also in the race is Carol Merritt, a realtor, longtime educator and community advocate, who said she has worked to revitalize neighborhoods and reduce crime on both sides of the state line. In the nonpartisan race, she has labeled herself as a “conservative voice for Overland Park.”

Merritt, 76, said she’s campaigning to prevent crime from spiking, to curb the development of new luxury apartment complexes, and to push the city to offer elderly residents relief on property taxes.

“I want to protect the elderly, who have paid taxes for years and still pay high property taxes. That’s not right,” she said. “I want to give them a break. We can do it.”

The fourth candidate in the race is Ryan Spencer, a payroll specialist with a background in business and the hospitality industry. While Spencer did not respond to The Star’s request for comment, he largely has campaigned on the need to curb tax incentives for private development, especially high-rise apartment complexes.

“The city should be a primary player in bringing economic development to the area. But that should not be at the expense of pulling budgeted money from other services due to tax incentives,” he said in a candidate survey.

Ward 2

Three newcomers are competing for an open City Council seat in the 2nd Ward, north of Interstate 435 and south of 87th Street. Skoog, who has represented the ward for 16 years, is giving up the seat to run for mayor.

Cheatham, 37, has been active in Johnson County for years, campaigning for school board members, and pushing for environmental protections as a member of Overland Park’s Environmental Advisory Council and Climate Action KC. She previously worked in Washington, D.C., where she lobbied for clean energy and environmental policies.

She successfully helped push for efficient energy standards to be added to Overland Park’s building code, and is an advocate for more sustainable development. Cheatham said another top priority is increasing access to affordable housing in the city.

“I am an experienced problem solver for families in Overland Park. I’ve been solving problems in my neighborhood, in my kids’ schools, through the city’s Environmental Advisory Council,” she said. “I’ll be bringing that experience, and working together collaboratively with neighbors.”

She faces Roger Tarbutton, 70, an attorney who worked in Johnson County government for 30 years. He served as legal counsel for Johnson County Med-Act and other county agencies before retiring in 2018. He also ran for City Council in 2019.

Tarbutton said he is running, in part, to “protect our neighborhoods from the encroachment of incompatible high-rise apartments and mixed-use developments.” And he said the city needs to curb a decade-long overuse of tax incentives that are “eroding the tax base.”

“Tax incentives should be reserved for truly exceptional projects or to rehabilitate distressed properties, not run of the mill high-rise apartments and mixed-use developments,” he said.

The third candidate in the race is Tony Medina, 48, who helped organize neighbors to oppose a rezoning plan for a $55 million apartment complex at the Ranch Mart South shopping center, which the council rejected. He said that effort drove him to become more involved in city business.

“I’m running because I’ve been frustrated with the city. But on the other hand, I’m not angry or upset. I love Overland Park. We have a fantastic city. I just want to make it better,” Medina said. “We hear often that we need more transparency from the City Council, and I tend to agree with that. Everyone should be open and honest with how decisions are being made.”

Medina also said the council needs to reexamine zoning laws to better plan for future growth, plus ensure that proposed developments, such as the apartments that were planned for Ranch Mart, fit with the existing neighborhoods.

Ward 4

Incumbent Stacie Gram is seeking a full term after being appointed to fill a vacancy last year in the 4th Ward, which covers a portion of the western half of the city, from 119th Street south to 151st Street.

Gram, 54, is vice president of health care claims for CNA insurance in Overland Park. She also has a long background volunteering with the Blue Valley school district, and served on the board of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce.

The councilwoman has pushed for the police and fire departments to have better access to mental health resources — a major topic this past year — and part of the new proposed city budget. And she said council members need to continue listening to residents with concerns about racial equity and government accountability, which have become top issues amid Black Lives Matter protests and the 2018 shooting death of 17-year-old John Albers by a former police officer.

She faces newcomer Scott Mosher, 66, who said his son inspired him to run, especially after watching him fight for stronger city support of the police department in the last year of his life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mosher is a firearms instructor and former reserve police officer in Nevada. He’s also worked for McDonald’s Corp. and in other executive roles in the restaurant industry.

He is mostly campaigning on the city improving transparency and communication with residents, arguing that his family has not felt welcome to voice their concerns at City Hall.

And also in the race is Gardner, 31, a business executive-turned-law student, who is father to a newborn. Gardner believes he would bring a fresh perspective to Overland Park, which he said needs to focus on retaining its workforce and engaging younger residents.

He said that while offering a time for public comments at council meetings is a necessary step toward improving transparency, younger residents demand more of their leaders. He said he wants to “raise expectations” for how open the City Council should be.

“As a first-generation Overland Park resident I’ve been in this position, and we need leadership to come in and invite my generation into the civic process,” Gardner said. “We have to have local leaders who understand this generation. This is not a generation who sees a public comment forum as the definition of transparency and accountability. We need to meet them where they’re at.”

Ward 5

Voters in Overland Park’s 5th Ward also will elect a new council member this year to represent the east-central part of the city, south of I-435 and east of Antioch Road.

Thompson is not seeking reelection. Three candidates are on the ballot, including Sam Passer, 48, vice president of client experience with TouchNet, a software company in Lenexa. Passer said that there is a reason Overland Park frequently makes the top of lists ranking the best cities to raise a family, but that there also is room for improvement.

He said the city needs to follow its strategic plans to help guide growth, by maintaining green space and helping to redevelop aging office buildings and infrastructure. He said his business experience has given him a gift for getting to the heart of an issue, and that he would bring that to the council.

He said he would like to emulate Thompson, an attorney who served on the council in the early 2000s before returning in 2013.

“Part of the role of a council member is to educate and share,” Passer said. “I’m not some pencil pusher. I’m for facts. I’m for doing what’s right. I’m not for sensationalism, and I’m not for the status quo.”

He faces opponent Amy Goodman-Long, 46, a licensed social worker who feels she could bring unique experience to the city. She is focused on mental health awareness, community engagement, diversity and inclusion.

Goodman-Long said she offers a moderate viewpoint, and argued that extremism and partisan politics have made their way into city business in recent years.

“I think my background as a social worker will bring a new perspective to what has traditionally been a more business-oriented council,” she said. “I believe that my moderate views will help to continue to make Overland Park a strong city, and a place where people want to live and enjoy their lives.”

Goodman-Long said that while the city needs to maintain a mix of residential and commercial development, Overland Park has generally been headed in the right direction. But she said the city needs to fight negative stereotypes often associated with rental properties, and work to expand affordable housing throughout the entire city by adjusting zoning codes and investing in the right projects.

The final candidate is Sheila Rodriguez, 52, an executive at T-Mobile headquarters. While Rodriguez did respond to The Star in text messages, she did not return calls for an interview. Of the candidates in this race, she is the most critical of the city’s use of tax incentives for private development.

In a candidate survey, Rodriguez said she would push back against an “overabundance of new commercial development over the last few years.”

“I believe most commercial development will happen organically and without the gift of a tax incentive or making a capital investment,” she wrote. “I’m not against tax incentives if they are part of a larger strategic plan to revitalize an area of the city that needs revitalization, but I am against making capital investments when it’s at the expense of our residents and basic needs.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting