Sedgwick County commissioner District 4 candidates give stances on fentanyl, mental health and marijuana

The Wichita Beacon
The Wichita Beacon
Lacey Cruse and Ryan Baty are running for Sedgwick County commissioner. (Courtesy images)

Five commissioners serve on the Sedgwick County Commission, each elected to four-year terms. A county commissioner oversees county finances, including the levying of taxes and the annual budget, issuances of bonds and awarding of contracts. They also oversee zoning, maintenance of county roads and bridges, the county jail and district court and act as the local board of health.

Three of five seats are up for reelection on the Kansas November ballot, including District 4, which includes central Wichita bounded roughly by Douglas to the south, Oliver to the east and West to the west, then north to the county border, taking in Park City and Valley Center. The district also extends west along 29th Street toward 119th Street West, taking in Maize.

Lacey Cruse, a Democrat, is the current county commissioner representing District 4. She is being challenged by Ryan Baty, a Republican. Their biographical information can be found on their campaign websites and Ballotpedia pages listed below.

What follows are the answers provided by candidates to a list of survey questions asked by The Wichita Beacon. Answers have been edited for length and Beacon style.

Lacey Cruse, Democrat: Campaign website, Ballotpedia

Ryan Baty, Republican: Campaign website, Ballotpedia

What life experiences shape the perspectives you will bring to the commission?

Lacey Cruse: Throughout my life experience – professionally and personally – I’ve worn many hats, single mother, creative, caregiver, marketer, advertiser, communicator, musician, director and manager. Walking through life as a woman and single mother, I have had to adapt to change very quickly and find real-life practical ways to survive. I have come to embody the ideal of service to others above myself and lead with my heart. Whether caring for my children, my father or my community, I am empathic to the needs of others. By experiencing the paycheck-to-paycheck life, I know what it is like to struggle financially. I know what it’s like to need health care without any way to pay for it. I know what it’s like to have a mentally ill family member. I know what it’s like to have a family member addicted to substances. I have experienced the real challenges this community faces at some point in my life personally.

My experience brings a unique and creative perspective to county government and a system that needs a complete transformation. I am a change agent who is brave enough to ask questions that no one else is willing to ask, can recognize what needs to be done and will step up to complete the challenge. I know what it means to be flexible, and I understand how to embrace a new way of thinking and often be the one bringing new ideas to the table. Nevertheless, my big-picture way of thinking is needed. Desperately.

Ryan Baty: We are products of our experiences.  Most of my childhood was spent in the North End with both sides of my family and I am a product of USD 259 schools.  After an injury forced my retirement from professional baseball, I moved back to Wichita and started my first company at the age of 25.  We grew that company, The Mattress Hub, to a peak of 26 stores across three states. That experience in small business has taught me valuable lessons in running an organization, financial stewardship and the impact economic health can have on a community.  Aside from business, I have also been very involved in nonprofit work for initiatives related to foster care, public schools and second-chance transitional housing for men and women leaving correctional facilities.  Lastly, I spent 12 years volunteering in a variety of ministry roles. These roles focused primarily in youth development, teaching and counseling.These diverse experiences have shaped and prepared me to meet the growing, diverse needs of my district. 

How will you make yourself available to constituents throughout your term as a county commissioner?

Lacey Cruse: I have an open-door policy and it will remain that way in my next term. It’s also essential to be proximate and involved by attending many events and activities that happen in the district. I find the most incredible value in face-to-face conversations but understand the limitations, so I have made myself available for in-person discussion and online communication via email and social channels. I developed a Citizens Advisory Board, the first of its kind in District 4, where citizens could engage in person and via Zoom.

Ryan Baty: In order to build trust and relationships, there has to be clear and effective communication. We have incredible opportunities to utilize modern technology and social media to help bridge gaps and make sure that constituents feel connected to the elected officials that represent them. I will focus on appointing diversity to my advisory boards so that all people in my district have a seat at the table where key decisions are being discussed. Lastly, I will make proximity a priority. We will have routine events and be present at community events in our district to ensure that there are relationships being built and the people have opportunities to interact with decision makers. I am committed to building a strong, reliable line of communication with the people I’m elected to serve.

What two or three priorities will you pursue as a county commissioner?

Lacey Cruse: I will ensure the location of the county behavioral crisis center expansion is selected based on the research and data produced and presented by the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition. As the only commissioner who was an integral part of the development of this plan, I am the most qualified commissioner to help ensure the site for this $15 million asset doesn’t fall into the hands of developers with less than ideal motives. We can ensure equal access for all citizens by selecting an appropriate site. I will drive innovation in all departments. We saw how quickly the county government could adapt to a changing environment over the past two years. I will champion the idea that tremendous transformation is possible by focusing on an outcomes-based approach. We know that for every $1 spent on prevention services, we could see $4 in return. The ROI on prevention services will free tax dollars to increase employee wages and retention efforts.

Ryan Baty: 1) To bring stability and efficiency to Sedgwick County government, particularly in public safety functions such as EMS, fire and the jail, and public health departments like COMCARE. 2) To contend with the economic health and growth of our community. Many of the issues we are experiencing in budgets, to maintain current levels of service, can only be solved through revenue growth. I believe we can influence economic growth that expands our tax base while also giving property tax relief to individuals in Sedgwick County. 3) To bring modern, collaborative solutions to a growing mental health and substance abuse crisis. I am an advocate for rethinking COMCARE and reforming our approach to meeting the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.

With the city of Wichita decriminalizing marijuana, what if any role do you think Sedgwick County should take in response?

Lacey Cruse: The county needs to be good partners with our city leaders and do our best to communicate what this means in a way citizens can understand.

Ryan Baty: The recent situation with the city of Wichita and the decriminalization of marijuana highlights a bigger, more glaring issue with local government – the lack of collaboration.  When decisions are made that impact multiple cities, the county and the state, particularly in areas of criminal justice, there is a significant ripple effect.  I believe it’s fully in the purview of the city to do what they perceive is in their best interest, but my frustration is in the lack of prior communication to other parties that are influenced by the decision.  At this point, the county needs to have a study to understand what, if any, impact this will have on the sheriff’s office, county jail, district attorney and the courts.  The next step will be to engage in talks with the other 19 cities in Sedgwick County to get a feel for their needs and concerns.  From there, we can engage the city of Wichita with more information and take the appropriate actions to ensure county systems are able to adapt. 

What if any actionable steps would you like to see result from the report due next year from the county’s diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, addressing the county’s treatment of employees who are LGBTQ, women and people of color?

Lacey Cruse: Every member of county government, especially in management, needs to take routine and regular classes around unconscious and implicit bias, cultural awareness, anti-racism, anti-harassment, anti-sexism, LGBTQ and transgender inclusion, just to name a few. In addition to this regular training, the county needs to reevaluate how equity plays out in spending tax dollars. So, in my next term, I will drive action with tough, uncomfortable conversations because that is how to build an equitable and inclusive county government.

Ryan Baty: I’m pleased that the county has hired a position to focus on DEI oversight and initiatives.  My business and nonprofit organizations have been enriched by including people diverse in background, ethnicity, gender, geography and thought.  It’s also worth noting that future generations entering our workforce very much care about DEI and want to work for organizations that value and reflect the different segments of our community.  Secondly, I think it’s worth noting that the Sedgwick County government has already made significant strides in diversity and inclusion.  We elected our first Latina female commissioner in Sarah Lopez.  We also have other female elected officials currently serving as our register of deeds and treasurer as well as my opponent in District 4.  Angela Caudillo was appointed as our election commissioner.  County leadership is also very diverse and led by a significant number of women in prominent positions.  There is always room for improvement, but Sedgwick County government has a jump start on taking the necessary steps to be an attractive place to work and grow.  

Sedgwick County is unable to move forward on a number of mental health initiatives due to a shortage of available mental health care workers. What can/should the county do to address this problem?

Lacey Cruse: While staffing has been a challenge, we did see a few successes. The 988 suicide and crisis hotline went live, allowing citizens in mental health or suicidal crisis access to dial a simple number and receive appropriate care. This service helps to divert from involvement in the criminal justice system. In addition to deploying 988, COMCARE became a certified community behavioral health clinic. Switching to this model increases access to community-based mental health and substance use disorder services and is focused on serving people in their homes and via telehealth if possible. Additionally, in COMCARE, we created a “grow your own” program that will send employees for higher education to increase skill and retention rates.

Ryan Baty: As a matter of principle, I’m for any action that will make services more effective and efficient to our taxpayer. This is most pressing for COMCARE, our county mental health and substance abuse service provider.  The organization currently is 175-200 full-time employees (FTEs) short and is only operating at 60% staffing capacity.   The complex challenges at COMCARE range from wage competition, facility constraints and a lack of qualified personnel capacity currently in the market.  The latter poses the largest challenge.  The current approach is to focus on staffing COMCARE back up to 500 FTEs.  I don’t see this as a viable or practical strategy.  I believe it’s time to rethink COMCARE and creatively look at how we best service the incredible needs in a growing mental health and substance abuse crisis.  There are several other organizations in the community that are overlapping services to the same population of needs.  This provides an opportunity to collaborate to better meet community needs.  This streamlining allows for a refocus of structure at COMCARE and relieves some of the bottlenecks and pressures that are crippling the department.  

Long-term strategies must also consider the lack of a pipeline for future mental health and social work practitioners. There are opportunities to partner with both KU, WSU and WSU Tech for a new, centrally located health science school. That would be a dramatic step in the right direction.

How relevant is the private behavior of a county commissioner to their public role? What example do you intend to set?

Lacey Cruse: Private behavior is important. It’s also important that when leaders make mistakes or choices that impact those they serve, they take ownership, apologize and take steps to grow in their leadership walk. I hold firm to this philosophy because it’s my approach. As a leader, I have a responsibility to do my best to set a good example, but the reality is I am a human with flaws. I lean into my mistakes rather than running from them because I want the residents of our district to know I am just like them. Learning, growing and willing to humbly take constructive criticism with my head held high, not a lowered eyebrow.

Ryan Baty: The question is relevant considering the erosion of trust the general public has of our elected representatives. For many years, we have seen abuse of power, scandal, allegations and a general lack of civility. The result is stagnation on our most urgent issues and limited collaboration on community solutions. We can and should expect better. Those that hold elected office should maintain the highest degree of ethical and moral conduct, in public and private, and lead with a focus on transparency and clarity. We have seen a deterioration of relational health in our community, and I have already begun work to repair damaged relationships within the commission, staff, nonprofit and business communities. District 4 residents cannot afford to be put on an island with a commissioner that is not willing to do the work in building coalitions to advance our causes.

Fentanyl deaths are a growing problem. What if any steps should the county take? Should the county lobby the Kansas Legislature to decriminalize fentanyl test strips?

Lacey Cruse: The county can convene substance abuse professionals to strategize the best use of the opioid settlement monies and focus on harm reduction initiatives. The county should support Safe Streets and its initiatives to increase accessibility and utilization of naloxone, help to facilitate greater access to medication-assisted treatment after incarceration, increase access to fentanyl contamination testing, and improve syringe services programs.

Ryan Baty: As a parent of three school-age kids, this is one of the issues that keeps me up at night.  This is truly a crisis. There are a few direct actions that the county can do in response.  The first is a general awareness campaign, like “One Pill Can Kill,” and needs to continue in partnership with our area schools. The second action is clearly defining goals.  We need to ensure that people that want to get help have broad access. It’s significantly easier for people with insurance. They have more options for in-treatment programs and medical detox.  For those that don’t have insurance, the options are significantly more challenging. A third action is we need expanded access and care through COMCARE’s new crisis center and we need to lean more into the partnerships with other organizations already in the space doing substantial work, such as the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas. A fourth action is to ensure that the sheriff has the resources needed to run the county jail. Lastly, we need to continue pressuring our state partners to make progress with foster care reform. There are over 1,200 foster kids in Sedgwick County and nearly 70% of them will end up in our criminal justice system at some point in their lives.  In regard to fentanyl test strips, I see this as an issue of saving lives.  Every life is valuable and we can’t move people to rehabilitation opportunities if we can’t keep them alive. We need to consider all available options to counter the surge in overdose deaths.  

What if any further role should the county commission as the board of health play in addressing COVID-19 as a public health threat?

Lacey Cruse: We need to continue testing and vaccination efforts. As I stated in July of 2020, the board of health should be composed of actual health professionals. When I’m elected in November, I will continue the work of developing and reinstating the Advisory Board of Health because it’s vital that we hear and listen to health professionals when the next significant health challenge rears its ugly head.

Ryan Baty: The Board of County Commissioners needs to form an Advisory Board of Health so that we can access the subject matter experts in our community.  County commissioners are not health experts. We have boards for a significant number of issues involving local government and I was surprised to see that an advisory board on issues this fundamental was not already intact. In regards to COVID-19, specifically, the role of the BOCC has changed since the early days of the pandemic in 2020. The primary focus should now be maintaining community awareness and treatment access.  There is a related issue that is particularly relevant to District 4. It’s imperative that the BOCC understand the social determinants of health.  These are conditions in the places where people live, learn, work and play that affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes. As we contend for the health of a community, we need to also consider how factors such as economic stability, food security, affordable housing and education serve as key determinants that influence health.  

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