KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Mayor Joe Reardon has been one of the biggest champions of this community’s nationally recognized effort to improve the relatively poor health of its residents.
As he prepares to step aside after two terms as the leader of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., the two candidates vying to succeed him in Tuesday’s election both contend they are best suited to build upon the groundwork he helped lay.
The candidates are Mark Holland and Ann Murguia, both in their second terms as Unified Government commissioners.
Local officials have made wellness a priority ever since Wyandotte finished last among 105 Kansas counties in health rankings issued by the Kansas Health Institute in 2009. Community leaders responded the next year by starting the Healthy Communities Wyandotte initiative.
The initiative has earned accolades and funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted to public health.
“When we got the Kansas Health Institute report,” Holland said, “we immediately moved to action and Joe Reardon and myself and Commissioner John Mendez, the three of us immediately took up the mantel to say, ‘What can we do?’”
He said he has been much more involved with Healthy Communities Wyandotte than his opponent.
“I think that has been a significant difference,” Holland said, “because I have been on the ground doing it.”
But Murguia said her commitment to community health predated the efforts spurred by that last place finish among Kansas counties in 2009. Her work dates back to her earliest days on the commission six years ago, she said.
“I came in and hit the ground running, literally,” she said, “and started working on a grocery store and started doing curbs and sidewalks and started looking for more ways to create healthy amenities for people in my community, before it was even a thought in the mind of Mayor Joe Reardon or Mark Holland to create this healthy task force.”
As District 3 commissioner, Murguia, 44, represents the southeast part of the community. She works as the executive director of the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association.
Holland, 43, is an at-large representative. He is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Kan.
The two candidates were the top vote-getters in a five-way primary held in February.
Holland has earned endorsements from Reardon and former Mayor Carol Marinovich.
Murguia’s endorsements include fellow commissioner Nathan Barnes, who finished third in the mayoral primary, and former Mayor Joe Steineger.
Started in June 2010, Healthy Communities Wyandotte brought together a number of community leaders to serve on it steering committee and its five action teams. The effort has also included Joe Connor, public health director.
Leaders of the initiative issued an action plan in October 2011.
Wyandotte County ranked 99th in health outcomes of 102 Kansas counties evaluated in the latest rankings, issued last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Connor said it seemed unlikely Healthy Communities Wyandotte would get as much attention from the next mayor as it did from Reardon.
“That is not a negative against the candidates,” he said. “It’s just that he spent an ungodly amount of time with us.”
Holland said he has demonstrated his commitment to the health of the community by pledging his entire allotment of $440,000, an amount each commissioner receives through a neighborhood improvement program, to parks and recreation needs.
He also said as a commissioner he has promoted the use of pools, parks, playgrounds, and paths for exercise.
As mayor, he said, he would continue the government’s aggressive efforts to place grocery stores in underserved areas, so residents have access to healthy foods. He’d also like to see movement toward construction of a community center.
Murguia pointed to the Save-A-Lot grocery store under construction in her district as evidence of her effectiveness in meeting the health needs of the community.
The $3.2 million development, she said, only came about through her persistence in contacting grocery store chains and raising philanthropic dollars to aid in the financing of the deal. She also noted the “millions of dollars” in curbs and sidewalk replacement she has secured for the district.
One of her priorities as mayor, she said, would be adding bike lanes to streets in the community.
She said she has pushed for specific improvements as a commissioner, including on a stretch of Metropolitan Avenue between 18th and 24th streets, but that she has made no headway with the public works department.
Holland said that continuing the work of Healthy Communities Wyandotte as mayor would be a “natural fit” for him because of the “common ground with (Reardon) on this issue since Day One.”
Murguia expressed support for continuing with Healthy Communities Wyandotte. But, she called for an expansion beyond the “very small, select group of people making decisions for the broader community.”
Her first order of business in office, she said, would be to survey residents in each commission district to learn their top priorities.
Both candidates said they would continue to seek philanthropic dollars to help support the initiative.
They also agreed that health initiatives could perhaps be funded with some of the unrestricted money coming to the Unified Government from the new Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway.
Holland said it was time to move Healthy Communities Wyandotte from the planning phase into the implementation phase.
“I think what we are looking at now is sustainability in the Healthy Communities initiative,” he said. “We just need to embrace that and move forward with it.”
But Murguia said her approach to Healthy Communities Wyandotte reflected the differing governing styles of the two candidates.
She said she has heard Holland state many times that his constituents put him in office for his judgment, and she said that reflects a top-down approach that is too prevalent at City Hall.
“I’m not really into convincing my constituents about anything in their best interest,” Murguia said. “I think, in general, the people in Wyandotte County want to be healthy people and I think if they are given the opportunity they will make those healthy choices.”
But Holland said that when he talks about judgment he does not mean substituting his views for those of his constituents. He said his point is just the opposite, in that he weighs all voices before making up his mind.
“If you don’t listen to the grassroots,” he said, “that is not good judgment.”