Topeka’s governing body has approved every proposal it has considered to move forward with the city’s proposed purchase of Heartland Park Topeka.
But a 40 percent turnover that body will see when four new members are sworn in Tuesday could threaten the move’s chances for approval.
The governing body plans to discuss the topic next week, though no vote has been scheduled whether to finalize the transaction. The purchase would need six votes from the 10-member governing body to pass.
Seven members voted in favor Dec. 2 as the governing body authorized steps to market and sell bonds for the purchase.
That vote saw:
■ “No” votes being cast by council members Elaine Schwartz, Richard Harmon and Chad Manspeaker.
■ “Yes” votes being cast by Mayor Larry Wolgast and council members Karen Hiller, Michelle De La Isla, Denise Everhart, TJ Brown, Nathan Schmidt and Sylvia Ortiz.
Among the “yes” votes, Everhart, Brown and Schmidt are leaving the council Tuesday while Ortiz indicated in an email Monday she opposes the purchase.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Ortiz wrote.
That leaves Wolgast, Hiller and De La Isla as the only “yes” votes from Dec. 2 who remain on the council and haven’t withdrawn support for the purchase.
The Topeka Capital-Journal emailed city governing body members Monday asking them to share their perspectives regarding the potential upcoming vote.
Schwartz responded in an email she wouldn’t be ready to vote in favor of the purchase if it were considered next week but left open the possibility she could eventually vote in favor of it. She wrote she had told city manager Jim Colson he needs to do more to educate voters and get the entire community behind the decision to purchase the track and expand its STAR Bond district.
Schwartz added while most of the input she has received in her district has been against the purchase, her constituents are more inclined to agree the purchase is a good idea when she notes the proposed arrangement calls for state sales tax from the track’s expanded STAR Bond District to go to pay off the Heartland Park STAR Bonds rather than go to the state.
The new governing body members who take office Tuesday were each asked their thoughts regarding Heartland Park for a Voter’s Guide The Capital-Journal published March 28.
One, Brendan Jensen, appeared to support the Heartland Park purchase. The others — Jonathan Schumm, Jeff Coen and Sandra Clear — were less enthusiastic.
■ Jensen responded: “HPT is a difficult situation, from what I understand there were a number of decisions made years ago that set up the current situation. HPT is a city property we are in danger of losing unless we take swift action to protect it. I believe with the right management and expanded events and activities calendar, it has the opportunity to become an asset to our community. I think the city has made the best of a not-so-good situation, though I wish they would have been much more open about what led up to this issue and the process of trying to solve it.”
■ Schumm responded: “I am not in favor of the city running a racetrack when we have street and infrastructure issues that have been unresolved for years. The vast majority of the voters I have spoken with in District 4 have expressed to me their desire to not have the city involved in a project that a private owner could not make profitable. Our City’s focus needs to be on jobs and infrastructure. The recent news that the City kept quiet for five months on an additional $7 million of needed improvements has further eroded our citizens’ trust in our local government.”
■ Coen responded: “The people who live in my district aren’t very happy with how the City has handled the Heartland Park situation. The communication from the City Leadership has been below average on keeping the community informed. It’s definitely on the minds of a lot of people I have spoken to. They are concerned that their tax dollars are being wasted, and I am also concerned.”
■ Clear responded: “The City’s approach has turned a ‘problem’ into a ‘fiasco.’ Because of wheeling and dealing behind closed doors and a process of excluding the public from the discussion before committing millions, we are now facing paying a failed businessman $2 million, rescuing a large bank from their decision to make an ill advised loan, subjecting Topeka taxpayers to a $1.8 million guarantee of a race that may never be held, and to another $7 million of improvements to a facility that has already had over $20 million of public monies infused into its existence the last 12 years. As a government, if you wish to have the support of the public in the decisions you make, this ordeal is a lesson in how not handle the matter.
“Probably the worst move the Council has made, in the whole affair, is their vote to not even have a discussion on the public’s right to vote on the matter. After voting with the majority to deny that debate and discussion, my opponent now has the audacity to state in his campaign material that he ‘Supports a binding public vote on Heartland Park that counts.’ I believe voters are tired of politicians who treat them as ignorant.”