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District 5 board candidates discuss issues

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District 5

John Smaus (left) and John Wonka (right)

WAHOO – The District 5 seat on the Saunders County Board of Supervisors is up for grabs during the May 10 primary election, and it’s a two-way race between incumbent John Smaus, a farmer from Prague, and John Wonka, a business-owner from Weston. 

The Wahoo Newspaper asked the two candidates the same series of questions, about their priority issues, their district’s biggest needs, COVID-19 relief funds, urban and rural interests, the AltEn situation and government transparency.

District 5 includes Prague, Malmo, Colon and Weston in the west and central portions of the county. It includes the Bohemia, Chester, Elk, Newman, Douglas, Mariposa and Chapman townships, as well as parts of the Morse Bluff, Center, Stocking and Marietta townships.

Below are the two candidates’ responses, in their own words, listed in alphabetical order of the candidates. 

As a supervisor, what will be your priority issues?

John Smaus: Safety for District 5 and Saunders County as a whole is a top priority. We need to ensure we are equipping our local fire, rescue and police departments with the tools they need to perform their jobs safely and effectively. These are the people who care for our families at our weakest moments, we need to be sure we are doing our part in supporting their efforts. When it comes to our roads, we need to be proactive and take care of their usual maintenance, but we also need to fix the issues they have within a timely manner. We need more reliable and affordable options for rural broadband. Broadband in District 5 looks a bit like Swiss cheese with few areas of towns and rural homes with both reliable and affordable internet. We need to find creative ways to keep our property taxes at a rate which still allows us to be profitable from the farm ground and does not create a hardship for post-retirement community members on fixed incomes. 

John Wonka: Safety, infrastructure, communications, a balanced, fair budget and tax levy. 

What are the biggest needs of District 5 that need to be addressed?

John Smaus: The biggest needs of District 5 are outlined above, which is how I developed my personal focus on my priority issues. 

John Wonka: Infrastructure. Whether it’s roads that need widening, bridges that need replaced, culverts that need extended, or signage that needs updated. While you still see a small tractor pulling a grain cart down the road, more often we are starting to see large grain trucks and semis that are driving up and down our roads. While there are many acreages and communities in District 5 that would benefit, the majority of the 290 square miles is agriculture. Our infrastructure needs to not only be available and safe for all, but also needs to hold up to 80- to 90-thousand-pound vehicles and the ever-growing size of machinery.

The Board of Supervisors is working to decide how to allocate its American Rescue Plan Act funds of about $4 million. If elected, where will you advocate these funds be directed?

John Smaus: There are many options that the county can choose from. I think we need to allocate these funds to areas where the entire county can see a benefit; I have been pushing for a chunk of the funding to go to the new radio system for the police and fire/rescue.

John Wonka: If elected I would advocate for the funds to be used to update the county’s emergency radio system. This is utilized by the sheriff’s office, fire departments and emergency management. If the radio system was to be updated using a different avenue of funding, either before or after the allocation of ARPA funds, I would favor the money being used for one of its original intended uses; clean drinking water, and acceptable infrastructure to be delivered in. There are many communities in the county that, while still within the acceptable safety level now, as far as nitrates and coliforms, may not be in the near future. Some of these communities still make use of lead pipes, which this money was intended to remediate. 

Saunders County is experiencing significant growth as the Lincoln and Omaha areas encroach on the county’s borders. As a member of the board, how will you balance urban interests with the county’s rural and agricultural roots?

John Smaus: As a farmer I have to keep an open mind about this issue. But when it comes to this issue, there is a delicate line to walk between positive growth for the county and holding onto that which makes our county great – farm ground. There are areas of Saunders County that are allocated for growth like this, we need to utilize those areas because once you lose the farm ground, you will never get it back. 

John Wonka: As the population of the county grows, so does the tax base. Growth and development is of great importance to the future of our county. To accomplish sustainable growth and development, we have to be willing to invest in the future of our county with schools, roads and social services, but also balancing the need to lessen the burden on our local landowners and local taxpayers. 

In your opinion, how should the county continue its response to the AltEn situation, and how can the county avoid environmental disasters in the future?

John Smaus: This is a unique and frustrating issue as this is out of the scope of the county’s control, and as a board member, it feels like my hands are tied. We need to push for a cleanup of the contaminants instead of testing for what it is doing. We can do the testing after the cleanup is done. No more dragging this on, no more discussions about testing while the issue is still laying out on the ground. There needs to be a plan designed immediately for clean up, it needs to be executed this year and then testing should resume. For problems in the future, we need to stay on top of the conditional use permits and make sure they are abiding by the permit. If we find they are not, that needs to be addressed quickly even up to the point of revoking the permit.

John Wonka: It is my understanding that the situation is in the hands of the State of Nebraska, NDEE, and hopefully soon, the EPA. If elected I plan to assist these agencies with any and all means deemed necessary to help remediate the situation. In the future I would like to see if a situation similar, or any situation that has the ability to have environmental effects, once deemed a potential hazard, it is dealt with in a just and timely manner. As to not let it spiral out into a situation we see today. 

How will you ensure that all of your constituents’ opinions, even those with which you may not agree, are being heard?

John Smaus: This is a hard thing for a supervisor to control, that is why I push for every constituent to call me personally to either talk over the phone or meet in person. Show me what the issue is, why you believe it is an issue, why you are concerned, how does this affect you or your family. As a supervisor I like to personally look at the issue to get a better understanding. You have to be open-minded and able to walk in other people’s shoes even if you don’t agree with them. Even if I don’t agree with the severity of an issue brought to me by a constituent, it doesn’t mean it won’t receive the same amount of attention and driving force as one that I share an opinion on.

John Wonka: If elected, I will be elected to represent not only my district but ensure the betterment of the county as a whole. While I will have my opinion on many matters, I will listen to, weigh and consider everyone’s opinions equally. I have always considered myself somewhat of a devil’s advocate, and will have no problem bringing an opposing opinion to the board for consideration and discussion.

Sam Crisler is a reporter for the Wahoo Newspaper. Reach him via email at samuel.crisler@wahoonewspaper.com.

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