Voters, candidates and elected officials heard panelists discuss what they believe to be the most pressing issues in Johnson County at a forum Wednesday.
Organizations from across the county came together to host a countywide, nonpartisan election forum where citizens and candidates for the November ballot engaged in discussions to learn more about the issues facing the region. The forum was held Wednesday night at Grace United Methodist Church in Franklin.
The event was sponsored by Bridges Alliance of Johnson County, Daily Journal, League of Women Voters of Johnson County, Franklin College Department of Political Science, Home Bank and Horizon Bank. It has been described as a “reverse” forum, where voters and community members can talk about the issues that matter most to them while the candidates listen.
All federal, state and local candidates from all political parties appearing on Johnson County ballots this fall have been invited. In the end, 21 candidates participated in the forum — eight nonpartisan school board candidates, six Republicans, six Democrats and one Libertarian.
In 2020, Indiana was ranked 41st out of 50 states for voter turnout in the presidential election, meaning only 8% of eligible Hoosiers voted. In the last midterm elections in 2018, 47% of eligible voters in the Ninth Congressional District actually voted, said Randall Smith, professor of political science at Franklin College.
“This means that the majority of our neighbors did not vote. It’s a concern folks,” he said. “It also calls us to action; it stimulates action.
Unmet basic needs
Panelists discussed some of the community’s most pressing issues and how they have been affected by them.
Nancy Phelps, a Bridges Alliance circle leader, spoke about her difficulty finding affordable housing. When she moved into an apartment in 2019, she was later told her rent would go up to the median rent of around $1,000. Phelps was on Social Security at the time, and later joined the Circles program to learn more about resources and housing issues.
“Now I have a job, and another thing, I got a raise,” Phelps said. “I’m always faced with the question, ‘How am I going to handle all of this? I always need answers. Then, once I get my answers, I will commit to the circles to always champion the new circle leaders we have coming. »
Steve Saunders, a pastor at Mount Pleasant Christian Church’s Impact Center, has heard stories like Phelps’s before. He saw people struggle not only for affordable housing, but also for housing stability.
Earlier this year, Saunders helped two women bring food from the church pantry because of a problem with their commute. The women lived in a motel and one of them was happy to tell him how the owner had worked to clean up the place.
“She was very, very proud to say that now they don’t have a problem with cockroaches; that they come twice a week and spray,” he said. “I was so moved to hear that statement (about) things that I take so easily, and I think a lot of us in this room, take for granted.”
Local jobs not for everyone
Circle leader Sean Wallace spoke of his experience trying to get a well-paying job with transportation issues. After moving to New Whiteland from Mississippi six years ago, he tried to find a job in information technology. However, he couldn’t find anything in Johnson County, so he decided to look for a job in a warehouse.
He was trying to find a job at a local warehouse that paid better than the county minimum wage, but was unable to do so at the time. He eventually started working at a warehouse in Indianapolis, and getting to his job took a two-hour bus ride from New Whiteland to Indianapolis, he said. Now he works in insurance, which gives him the opportunity to work from home.
Even today, the base salary for the jobs he sought in Johnson County is lower than what can be found on the North Side, Wallace said.
Laura Segundo, another circle leader, spoke about her experiences working from home and the importance of internet access. She and her 12-year-old daughter were diagnosed with COVID-19 in December 2020, and although her daughter recovered quickly, she did not.
At the time she caught COVID, she was working full time from home. However, now she only works part-time because she is still dealing with long COVID and is looking for a full-time job that can address her issues, she said.
She moved to Franklin from Greenwood earlier this year, and the area she now lives in doesn’t have a reliable, wired internet connection. Right now, she has to use an internet company that only uses Wi-Fi, but that’s not enough for many remote jobs, including the one she had before, she said.
Problems all related
Kathleen Ratliff, director of Upstream Prevention, said her organization is largely focused on public health and needed system-level changes that relate to housing, income and transportation. About 50% of a person’s health can be linked to quality of life, with the other half being what people traditionally think of as health, she said.
Johnson County is one of the healthiest counties in the state, however, that achievement pales in comparison to Indiana ranking among the worst in the nation for mental health care. This is partly due to access to care. If individuals don’t have access to the resources they need, they sometimes self-medicate, which leads to addiction, she said.
All of these issues are interconnected, she said.
“I could sit here and tell you that if we had housing for everyone it would solve a lot of problems and it would, but if we don’t have jobs for them we don’t have coding skills or access to care, we’re only solving part of the problem,” Ratliff said.
Ali Sever, an 8th grade science teacher at Franklin Community Middle School, spoke about the challenges students face. All of the housing, employment, health, and internet issues that their parents face affect the children and make it harder for them to succeed in school.
Sever has been teaching since 1999, and the last three years of teaching have been the toughest of all. There are more behavioral issues, like fewer students turning in homework and fewer students respecting teachers, she said.
There are also a significant number of students who are homeless or in precarious accommodation, and who receive free and reduced lunch, including some of his own students, Sever said.
Candidates and voters explain why they came
Candidates and voters came to learn from each other, they said.
Les Tabeling, a Franklin constituent who attended the forum, said the panel shared a lot of information about issues lesser known to some people, he said.
“I thought it was really good to educate the public about what’s going on in Franklin and Johnson County,” Tabeling said.
Michelle Waugh Dahl, a Democrat running for the Franklin Township seat on the Franklin Union Needham Township Board of Directors, or FUN, said the panel really spoke to issues important to the county and city of Franklin. The panel was a microcosm of the county as a whole, and the issues had been studied for a few years, they said.
“I used to help Bridges Alliance so knowing that this materialized to be presented to candidates and elected officials today is a huge problem because we can only have these problems if we don’t present it to the people who are tasked with making the calls and making those changes, it’s kind of like an echo chamber,” said Waugh Dahl.
Jeannie Barnett, Republican incumbent of the Franklin Township seat on the FUN Township Council, said she attended the forum to hear about voter issues.
“That’s pretty much what we’re already dealing with in the admins (office), so we understand where they’re coming from,” she said. “I just wanted to see if we were all on the same page.”
Becky Nelson, Union Township seat holder of the Franklin School Board, said the forum was a good opportunity for her to hear constituent concerns.
“Having something like that – it’s intentional – they can come forward and talk about their concerns, it helps us know what people are thinking and how we need to make decisions for them,” Nelson said.
First-time Greenwood School Board nominee Chad Shaffer’s campaign platform is about community and open communication, so being able to meet voters at a forum is a good way to start this process, he said.
“For organizations in Johnson County, bringing things like this together, opening up access to voters, seems to be one of the biggest needs in our area,” he said. “I’m glad they did this and I’m more hopeful that more candidates can join in this effort.”
Voters have the right to choose who they want to serve them and participating in a forum, or debate, allows them to see their options side by side, said Jeff Mauer, the Libertarian nominee for secretary of state.
“It’s the hard work we have to do to serve our state and serve our neighbors because we have to be there, we have to be responsible,” Mauer said. “We have to be available to make comparative purchases. »
With voter turnout generally low, people really need to show up to vote, said Suzanne Fortenberry, Democratic candidate for White River Township Trustee.
“We need everyone to show up and let their vote count because for these positions, from school board to secretary of state, it’s important that candidates hear what’s important to voters so that we can work for the people,” Fortenberry said.
Bridges Alliance of Johnson County is seeking input for its first voter forum. Hearing many different points of view helps strengthen communities and gives community members opportunities to grow and learn together, the organization says.
Because this was the first event, officials say they know there are parts of the evening that could be improved.
To send comments by e-mail [email protected] Feedback will be kept within the event planning committee.