Throughout this pandemic, we've gotten used to waiting on, listening to, and then either criticizing or thanking our elected leaders much more than usual. The reasons for this are obvious: during a public emergency we all, like it or not, depend upon those with governing authority who impose restrictions, provide support, and make decisions regarding public health.

What many Kansans have discovered, however, is that such authority isn't always located where they thought it was. A lot of it, in fact, lies in the hands of Kansas's 105 county commissions, probably the most often overlooked of all the state’s governing institutions.

To be fair, the same can be said for counties all across the United States. It's common, in the political science literature, for scholars to admit that our knowledge of how county commissions make public decisions is sorely lacking.

There's no good reason for this, of course: county commissions adhere to the same public meeting requirements as other governing bodies. And yet, unlike the contentious fights that occur in city halls or the grandstanding that takes place in state legislatures, to say nothing of the constant attention focused on Washington D.C., the day-to-day administrative work of counties often goes unnoticed by scholars and the media alike. Until, that is, a pandemic forces commissioners directly into the spotlight.

With few exceptions it is American counties, not cities, which have the ground-level responsibility for collecting data on health, overseeing the distribution of welfare, conducting the electoral business of democracy, and much more. But since county lines were historically drawn by state governments, dividing up their rural space without attention to the urban communities that later grew within them, it’s not unusual for those who seek and win county elections, and the officials they subsequently appoint, to become disconnected from the contentious, pluralistic reality they oversee.

There are, of course, plenty of contrary examples. In Johnson County, Public Health Director Sanmi Areola and his team have fought to communicate clearly across a complicated metropolitan area with many rival jurisdictions, as they have addressed Governor Kelly’s stay-at-home orders. In Shawnee County, the commission has mostly responded to County Health Officer Gianfranco Pezzino concerns positively, even contemplating, in the face of worrisome infection numbers, an unpopular extension of local lock-down orders as he recommends.

Still, examples of the occasional disconnect between Kansas’s citizens and those who run our counties aren’t hard to find. It’s not just a commissioner in Riley county attributing Manhattan’s low COVID-19 numbers to its lack of Chinese residents or commissioners in Sedgwick county joking about needing to talk more about the pandemic to justify the money they’ve received from the federal government. It’s simply the fact that in counties across Kansas, from Finney to Leavenworth, it has too often been the commissioners themselves criticizing state–or even their own county–health experts, playing to business or suburban communities that appear unaware of or unconcerned about what is happening in the downtown hospitals they depend upon.

The very shape of political institutions help form the beliefs of those who work within them. Consequently, as Kansas attempts to rebuild a new normal beyond the pandemic, thinking more seriously about home rule, and the way cities, counties, and the state share governing authority, should be near the top of every elected official’s list.

 

Professor Russell Arben Fox runs the history and politics major and the Honors program at Friends University in Wichita.

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