Wichita will choose its next mayor on Nov. 7, but first voters must narrow the field of candidates from nine to two in the primary on Aug. 1.
Seven of those nine mayoral candidates shared their views on how to strengthen neighborhoods, engage citizens in advisory boards and tackle such problems as homelessness and police officer shortages at a two-hour forum hosted by Wichita Independent Neighborhoods and The Wichita Beacon. The forum attracted a standing-room-only crowd of about 250 people in the multipurpose room of Woodland United Methodist Church.
The forum was livestreamed on Facebook and can be watched in its entirety here. What follows are abridged highlights. Not every candidate’s answer to each question is listed. Selected answers were chosen subjectively, but The Beacon attempted to ensure each candidate similar representation.
The first three questions were written by WIN and The Beacon and provided to candidates in advance. The rest were submitted by people in the audience.
Do you want to increase citizen engagement in the planning process? If so, how? Where do you see Places for People fitting into this?
Places for People is a plan adopted in 2019 intended to focus development on Wichita’s central core to create a walkable city with stronger neighborhoods.
Celeste Racette: “It’s a great idea because Wichita’s density has decreased by 50%. And where has our growth been? It’s been east to Andover and west to Maize. … The problem with Places for People is there’s not transparency.” Racette said she could not find info on the city’s website. “So the hard part is how do we find out what’s going on?”
Bryan Frye: “We had workshops, visualization, surveys, data, policymaking decisions. All of those things are the right way to do civic planning… to involve people from the get-go … listening to what people want. I think the Places for People campaign is the best way to continue to do the planning process.”
Jared Cerullo: “I’m currently not a fan of the entire Places for People plan. If I remember correctly, it actually lessens the notification process for making sure people are notified when the zoning request changes come forward. And I think we need to actually bring more people involved, not fewer.”
Do you want to increase city government transparency? If so, please give examples of failures and how you would work to correct these as a city government official?
Brandon Whipple: “Transparency actually means more than just getting information out. … you’ve got to have a two-way conversation with folks so that people can first understand what we’re trying to do, so that they can give us feedback. … In today’s world, we have more opportunity to get information out at the speed of the internet than we ever have. We need to take advantage of that technology so that that communication will come back to us as well. For example, I’ll tell you that the city of Wichita.. we actually have the technology where if you find a pothole, you actually don’t have to call my cellphone.”
Celeste Racette: “I love this topic. Transparency is not evident in Wichita. … I went to the City Council asking for transparency and held up a beer I had bought for 16 bucks (at the ballpark) and said, ‘Why were we paying this much?’ And they said, ‘Well, it’s privately managed. We can’t do anything.’ So I filed with the district attorney’s office and got that fee refunded.”
Julie Stroud: “Transparency is pretty important. If we don’t know what they’re doing, if we cannot communicate back with the city … and let them know what concerns us, what pains us, what challenges that we have, then the city government does no good for us as a community and therefore has no purpose. Am I wrong? Am I wrong?”
Lily Wu: “What we need is clear, concise and ongoing communication. One of those examples where we have blocked communication is the 29th and Grove environmental spill. What I’ve seen is that in those community meetings, I can hear the frustration, I can feel the pain, because of that lack of communication that came from governmental agencies.”
How would you as a Wichita elected leader support establishing and strengthening Wichita neighborhood associations?
Jared Cerullo: “I believe neighborhood associations are vital (but) … the honest truth is, when I visit neighborhood association meetings, I see the same eight to 10 people there every week. … We have to continue knocking doors, we have to continue trying to engage our citizens.”
Celeste Racette: How can we support our neighborhood associations when we don’t even tell them the truth about what is going on with their neighborhood? When we don’t even tell them that there’s a problem with the houses they have bought, and good luck getting the sales price on your house that you’re paying property tax for, because … your well is contaminated. That’s horrendous, folks.”
Brandon Whipple: “I served on the board of my neighborhood association for years before I was elected… I think that the important thing when it comes to neighborhood associations is to actually not only actively recruit folks so that we can get some of these associations back on their feet … but also making sure that we can actually put value into the association is by funding some of the neighbor projects … that serve that neighborhood.”
Lily Wu: “We need to get back to that is the simplest form of civic engagement, engaging your neighbor. Do you know who lives to your left and to your right? … I do know the young professionals who are in this room want to be at the table with you. They want to be part of the solution, too. The problem is we sometimes forget to ask them.”
Bryan Frye: “Simple. You strengthen (neighborhoods) by making them safer. We have a crisis right now in our communities, violence that we’re seeing day in and day out in the headlines. … We strengthen our neighborhoods by … making sure that we’re retaining the police officers we have right now… they’re doing their best, but they’re strapped, they’re overworked. There’s not enough of them to do the job.”
Shelia Davis: “I think we need a family center on each side of town, where the police, families and community can get together, like once a month, to discuss things but also have fun – sing, dance, cook out and just get to get to know the community. Dance and cook out and just get to know the community better and what’s going on.”
Julie Stroud: “Neighborhood associations: What are they? Why are they? Who are they? Great questions to ask. When I came up we didn’t have a neighborhood association. There were people who were in a neighborhood and we associated, but there were no legal neighborhood associations. … Would I support them? Yes. Would I require them? No.”
What are your views on community policing?
Shelia Davis: “My feelings on community policing are I think they should have some medical training, like CNA training or something so when they get a call they go out on.”
Jared Cerullo: “I think community policing is a great tool to use in the toolbox for the Wichita Police Department. The problem is because of the staffing shortage, WPD is literally in a crisis mode right now. … we’ve been forced to eliminate community policing positions. To get back to supporting community policing, we have to raise the pay of our Wichita police officers (to help fill the vacancies).”
Julie Stroud: “Community policing is important. But we have to get the police officers obviously, in those positions, we have to increase the funds that go there.”
Brandon Whipple: “The reality is every single year that I’ve been mayor, we have had more officers at the beginning of the year than every single year before I’ve been mayor. So we got to put this into context. The reason why we have so many open positions is because we added… $30 million more (on public safety) and we said yes, we’re going to have an aspirational goal of actually filling all of these.”
How can the city of Wichita ensure that district advisory boards are utilized effectively, to positively impact neighborhoods?
Lily Wu: “District advisory boards have a proper place in our community. .. but we also need to increase the participation from young professionals, we need to increase the diversity of experiences … because it’s imperative that those district advisory boards represent all of us.”
Jared Cerullo: “I’ve led by example. When I served on the council in 2021, the District 3 advisory board had four vacancies. I was proud to have diversified my district advisory board, inviting people of all political persuasions, people of all walks of life.”
Bryan Frye: “I mentioned earlier that I got my start in civic government by serving on a district advisory board. I had made it a priority during my eight years (on the council) to make sure that (his DAB) is well diversified … You’re as good as what you hear and having a group of people that weigh in and give you advice is so critical.”
Brandon Whipple: “I’m gonna say something radical. … Some people do a great job making sure that (their district advisory boards) are diverse and represent the community. But also I kind of like a throwback idea where they actually used to be elected… which means it didn’t matter if they conflicted with the person or appointed.”
Celeste Racette: “I absolutely love district advisory boards. But I’m gonna go back to one problem I see with the entire city government right now. And that’s why 72% of the people don’t trust City Hall. What happened to the district advisory board when it was found out that Evergy was gonna put big poles in neighborhood yards? Were they informed? No. When was the district advisory board informed they had groundwater contamination at 29th and Grove? We need to work on communication, transparency and honesty, and then perhaps our district advisory boards will get the information they need.”
What plans do you have to address the homeless problem?
Bryan Frye: “Unfortunately, no city has the answer. … Earlier this year, in January, I took part in the point-in-time count administered by the United Way to find out why people are homeless. Why aren’t they taking shelter? … What we found out, most of them have mental health issues or substance abuse issues, and they don’t want to get off the street, because it’s too lucrative for them to be panhandling and living on whatever means they can and they don’t feel safe (in shelters).”
Julie Stroud: “I grew up born and raised right by the river in downtown Wichita. I’ve seen a lot of homeless people. And I’ve had a lot of conversations with them. …They are human. They have lives. They have hearts.” Stroud suggested a focus on prevention by providing more mental health support to children in school.
Brandon Whipple: “I’m proud to say that we actually do have a plan to address homelessness. … And if we do it right, then we can actually reach functional zero… which means we have less people a year going into homelessness than coming out of homelessness. And we just met with our partners over at the United Way and over at the county, and we said that we will have functional zero for veterans by this time next year.”
Celeste Racette: “… We saw a man and he had a knife and he was kneeling on the ground and stabbing the ground over and over and over again… We called the (Homeless Outreach Team) and the HOT team said, ‘Well, is he hurting anybody?’ And I said, well … he’s not stabbing anybody yet, but he’s obviously mentally disturbed. And the HOT team said we have 23 encampments. We cannot help you unless he’s hurting someone. … That’s the extent of our homeless problem is, we can’t even deal with the ones we currently have on the street.”
Shelia Davis: “We need a homeless family center with a basketball court and classes… job training where they could work on their business skills. And even if they won’t work on that, they will go to what we call the outside room, but they will be inside.”
Lily Wu: “Our community members who are experiencing homelessness require us to show compassion. But it also requires us to hold them accountable for their actions. As a reporter, I’ve had to tell stories of homeless individuals who have stolen vehicles, that that vehicle is the only means to get to work for those individuals. And so that’s causing harm to our community. It’s a public safety issue.”
What are you wanting to do to make Wichita a more inclusive city?
Jared Cerullo: “When I ran for my council seat in 2021, the average age of the person who cast a ballot in the primary election for that year for my district was 66 and a half. We’ve got to lower that number. … So we have to figure out a way to get our younger people more involved.”
Bryan Frye: “I have a 21-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son, and I talked to them and their friends and they’re like, ‘Hey, we can’t wait to get out of Wichita.’ Why? (Wichita) needs to be as inviting as possible… We do that by having a safe community. You do that by keeping your taxes low. Do that by pushing back on the power company who wants to raise your utility rates. These are all things that affect your quality of life.”
Julie Stroud: “We must remove language barriers within the community so that everyone has access to public places, and a voice to let their ideas and thoughts be heard. … (And) I am pro union and for protecting the rights of the workers within our city.”
Lily Wu: “I’m an Asian American immigrant woman. … I have faced discrimination in this community. So that’s bad. But I’m going to tell you the good is that this community welcomed this immigrant family … I know this community to be one that wants to do the right thing.”
Brandon Whipple: “When I first started … We looked at the data. And we actually found that our number one export wasn’t airplane parts. It was actually young people under the age of 40 … the majority (were) either women or people who fell into some type of minority group. … We had to close that opportunity gap. My first year as mayor we created the diversity, inclusion and civil rights board so that we can actually bring people to the table who were traditionally left outside the room.”
Given the great financial dependence the city has on the state, why do you feel you are capable as mayor to deal with the conflicts that might affect Wichita?
Lily Wu: “We have problems here … that’s what local government should be focusing on… And yes, advocating for ourselves to get more of our fair share to be brought down to Wichita, but I believe that that is what career politicians would want you to see and want. You do need someone that is looking at things differently … so that we can find better solutions than just asking for more handouts.”
Bryan Frye: “I have been on the City Council for eight years. And I have built relationships in DC and Topeka, and with our county representatives. Collaboration is the key. It takes civility, it takes communication, and it takes teamwork. We have a Democratic governor, but we have a Republican majority here in the state and right here in Sedgwick County… So you have to be bipartisan.”
Celeste Racette: “I’m the only candidate who has an accounting degree and an MBA at WSU. …City finances and state finances are extremely complicated. And one thing I’ve discovered is that even the City Council doesn’t understand finances. … I get it. I understand complexities.”
Jared Cerullo: “I believe this question is geared toward a city ordinance that deals with marijuana. The City Council… took the right step last year in moving to erase penalties for small possession of small amounts of marijuana. That doesn’t align with state law at this point in time. … It’s still illegal to possess marijuana, the city of Wichita is just not enforcing that. … Our municipal courts are already clogged enough. And I think it would be extremely wasteful to begin prosecuting people for small amounts of marijuana again.”
Shelia Davis: “You can give people more opportunity … let them know about grants and loans and give them information about how to start a certain business, like a lawnmower business or real estate. Let them know where they are able to start.”
Julie Stroud: “‘Hey, Julie, you can hang next to the public officials and get the job done?’ That’s how I read the question. My professional career is as an environmental health and safety quality manager. … for the past seven years, I’ve had direct experience with federal state laws and regulations, including municipal code. I’m also a poet and a writer, so interpreting laws is one of my fortes.”