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RCPD hosts police interaction course for people with autism

The Riley County Police Department hosted a police interaction course for teens and adults with autism to learn how to act in police situations, such as traffic stops, Saturday morning at Westview Community Church.

“I think it’s good for us as individuals to learn how the police respond to things,” Allison Rood, a participant in the course, said.

Rood said it was also a good teaching opportunity for officers to learn that people with autism might behave differently at a stop, but that does not necessarily mean they’re acting suspicious.

“Both sides benefitted,” RCPD Capt. Erin Freidline said. “I think the officers getting to do the stops and interacting with these individuals took a whole lot away from it, and I think the student drivers did too.”

Freidline said the participants got to experience what it was like being pulled over so they could recognize how they might feel in the moment at a real traffic stop.

Kansas legislators make laws, but they don't make much money

Even though it’s the offseason, Kansas Rep. Rui Xu says being a legislator is a full-time job.

Over the course of a week, on top of his part-time gig as a freelance marketer, the Democrat spends 20 to 30 hours meeting with constituents in Johnson County, going to events, working on legislation or helping city council candidates run for office.

Xu isn’t paid for that work. Like every other member of the Kansas Legislature, he only draws a salary from the state during the legislative session, from about January to May. This year, his first in office, he got $19,300.

The typical Kansas legislator makes about $21,900 during session, according to a report from the legislature’s audit division. That’s less than what lawmakers make in many other states. Oklahoma and Missouri pay more than $35,000 a year, plus living expenses.

It’s not easy to convince voters that legislators need a pay raise. But some legislators and citizens argue Kansas lawmakers’ pay isn’t enough to compensate for what they do year-round, and it could impact who runs for office and what he or she does after winning a seat.

“The makeup of our legislature … does not reflect where Kansas is as a whole,” Xu said. “A House of Representatives should be fairly representative of the population.”

How the pay breaks down

Kansas bases lawmaker pay on a daily rate while the legislature is in session: $88.66 a day, plus a per-diem allowance of $149 to cover food and housing. The state report added those numbers and multiplied them by 92 days, the average length of a session since 2000.

In reality, many lawmakers make more or less than the estimated $21,900. Some lawmakers get reimbursed for mileage, some are taxed on their per diems and some pay into their pensions — which are tied to what legislators would make if they worked for the state year-round. Plus, representatives and senators who lead their party or chair committees are paid thousands of dollars extra.

All of those factors affect the baseline salary. Data from the state employee salary website shows that some representatives made less than $10,000, while some senators made more than $40,000 in fiscal year 2018.

Age, wealth gap

Some legislators and observers say low pay discourages middle- and low-income people from running for office and instead favors wealthier, older people who are retired or have jobs that allow them to take off for several months of the year.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 66% of Kansas legislators were baby boomers in 2016, compared to 29% of the state population. Only 22% of Kansas lawmakers were millennials or Gen X, even though those age groups made up 58% of the state.

In 2015, according to NCSL data, 21% of Kansas lawmakers were business owners, 11% were retired, 10% were attorneys and 7% worked in agriculture. Eighty-nine percent of lawmakers that year were white, compared to 85% of all Kansans.

At 30 years old, Xu is one of the younger lawmakers in Topeka. He and his wife are expecting their first child later this month. He’s said been planning around his extra family responsibilities, but the instability of his salary has made that harder.

“I don’t want to get rich doing this, but I don’t want to have to think about, what’s the next couple of years going to look like?” Xu said. “I don’t know what to budget for next year, I honestly don’t.”

He also doesn’t want to complain too much about a job he loves.

“There’s a lot of people out there,” he said, “who work much harder for less.”

A former Republican state representative believes voters would benefit from a wider variety of candidates to choose from.

“When you get more people, you increase the pool of ability and fresh ideas that are coming into the legislature,” said Virgil Peck, who lives in rural southeast Kansas. “I believe that some legislators would feel a greater responsibility to invest more time.”

In 2014, Peck introduced a bill to increase lawmakers’ pay by about $10,000 a year and reduce the amount that they could put into their pensions. It wasn’t met with much support from his peers.

“Almost nobody was willing to publicly take a stand and say, ‘Yep, increase my pay,’” Peck said.

The bill wasn’t popular with the public, either.

“I had people call me a liar,” Peck said, “when I told them that I only earned $15,000 a year.”

Making a difference

A raise doesn’t necessarily equate to changing the legislature’s economic diversity, according to Duke University political scientist Nicholas Carnes.

In a 2016 study, Carnes and co-author Eric Hansen looked at data about state legislator salaries and the economic class of people in those offices. They found that raising the salary of those politicians didn’t make a significant impact on middle- and lower-income people joining their ranks. Instead, it encouraged more career politicians to run and win.

The biggest obstacle to running, Carnes said, is not the eventual salary, but the cost and time required for a campaign. Wealthier people tend to seek office. Others avoid it because they don’t have the time or money, he said.

“When people run, they make huge personal sacrifices,” Carnes said. “No matter what we pay our legislators, we don’t pay our candidates anything.”

To encourage more economic diversity among political candidates, Carnes suggested that organizations should conduct trainings tailored for working-class people who want to run for office.

“It’s a model that actually has a lot of potential,” he said, “and a lot of groups have used successfully.”

Ultimately, he supports raising legislators’ salaries, but for a different reason: getting paid more would encourage more dedication to the job.

“Research has generally supported the idea that if you pay a politician a higher salary, they’re more likely to behave,” he said. “They show up, they don’t miss votes, they represent their constituents’ interests.”

The national landscape

Increasing pay is a perennial proposal — and an unpopular one — in statehouses, said John Mahoney, a policy specialist at the NCSL.

“It’s always been an issue,” Mahoney said. “I don’t think it’s going to go away anytime soon.”

In 2008, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed a bill that would have doubled the salary of the state’s lawmakers after a public outcry. Last year, New York passed the first raise for its statehouse in 20 years, also drawing criticism.

Other states determine compensation differently than Kansas, Mahoney said. Some, like Maine and Maryland, have compensation commissions that study pay on a regular basis. Others, like Alabama and South Dakota, tie legislative pay to median household income.

“It’s always around,” Mahoney said. “The question is, how do we address it in a healthy way that allows legislators and citizens to have some input?”

City to stay abreast of nudity law changes

The Manhattan City Commission on Tuesday will consider changing the ordinance that bans women from being topless.

Commissioners will discuss the city code related to public nudity at a 7 p.m. legislative session.

Current city code makes it “unlawful for a person to knowingly appear in a state of nudity in public.” According to the current code, nudity is defined to include male and female genitals and buttocks, and female toplessness (except while breastfeeding).

The push for the change comes because of a civil suit in Fort Collins, Colorado, in which a woman said the city’s ordinance banning female toplessness was unconstitutional because it was a violation of women’s equal rights.

The city settled the case, but not before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals entered a preliminary injunction against the city, saying that it likely would find the ordinance unconstitutional.

The 10th Circuit also covers Kansas.

City attorney Katie Jackson wrote in a memo that the case does not make Manhattan’s ordinance unconstitutional, but her office is recommending that the city amend the ordinance to decriminalize female toplessness, at least until the issue makes it to the Supreme Court.

Commissioners can decline a change to the code or amend it to generally “decriminalize general female toplessness.”

The amended ordinance would still criminalize the revealing of male or female genitalia or buttocks. A woman not wearing a shirt could still be prosecuted in some cases under the state, officials said.

According to city officials, Manhattan has prosecuted 51 cases of public nudity since 2003. Of those, 37 defendants were males exposing their genitalia. Of the 14 female defendants, six were cited for toplessness, which occurred between 2004 and 2010.

The commission also will host a public hearing Tuesday to discuss the levee project.

The project aims to improve the levee to combat flooding from nearby rivers such as the Kansas and Big Blue. The plan replaces gate wells and relief wells as well as build new portions of the levee along the two rivers.

The project’s estimated cost is $33 million with the city fronting $13.4 million of it. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers will pay the remaining balance, city officials said.

After the public hearing, the commission looks to adopt the ordinance setting forth the steps for the improvement plan.

And city commissioners will contemplate a city/state agreement with the Kansas Department of Transportation to expand a pedestrian sidewalk from 6-feet wide to 10-feet wide at the Wildcat Creek bridge on Highway K-18.

The project cost is approximately $69,000 and the city has to pay all of that amount through the trail sales tax fund, officials said.

The commission is also examining 2020 service fees for the downtown business and Aggieville districts. The fees are staying the same in 2020, but there is a 25% late fee. The fee prices depends on the size and type of business.

Nickolas Oatley / Staff photo by Nickolas Oatley  

Kourtney Williams throws a cornhole bag in front of Tyler Teske Saturday while competing in the Cornhole for a Cause tournament, hosted by Sunflower CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). The event was at Blue Earth Plaza, near the Flint Hills Discovery Center. Courtney’s teammate was Jana Armfield, and her team’s name is Bagnificent.

At Riley Fall Festival, residents take their time and enjoy the slow Saturday

RILEY — Hanging off the ladder of the volunteer fire department’s truck, the stars and stripes flapped in the chilly breeze Saturday. On the other end of Riley’s Broadway Street, the town’s water tower stood out brilliantly in the cloudless October sky.

It was a perfect autumn day, residents agreed, and between the flag and the tower, they came together on the closed-off street for the 10th annual Riley Fall Festival.

Dozens of vintage and decked-out cars lined the car show on the north end of the street, and on the south end, vendors and barbecue contest entrants set up in front of the town’s storefronts while a barrel-car train full of kids weaved through the ebbing crowds.

Midway down the street, Miah Howe and her dog Koda sat casually beside a trailer loaded with pumpkins from Howe’s dad’s Fall Color Farms. Howe lounged back with her shoes off and feet kicked up in her chair and listened while Jake Johnson hung off a tailgate and riffed quietly on his guitar.

As patiently trained as Koda was, there were few strangers for her to bark at in the crowd of community members, and she didn’t stray far from Howe as neighbors came to say hi and buy pumpkins.

“I enjoy sitting and soaking the sun,” Howe said. “That’s my favorite thing about days like today. I’m born and raised in Riley, and I’ve always liked the people. Events like this are all about community, and I appreciate that.”

While the barbecue contestants smoked their meats, Valerie Visser, owner of Fork in the Road with her husband Justin, grilled hot dogs and pork burgers on a bespoke pink charcoal grill trailer for people to snack on throughout the morning.

The couple operates a produce and bierock stand at the end of their driveway just east of town, and even though they recently developed the stand into a storefront, it still runs on an honor system built on the trust that small towns encourage.

At the car show, brothers Randy and Rod Etienne showed off their decommissioned Kansas Highway Patrol car. It was strewn with Hostess Donettes and empty cups of Dunkin Donuts, and a dummy wearing sunglasses and stuffed into a police uniform sat at the wheel.

Rod propped a dummy jailbird in the backseat. The dummy was in for trying to get away from Kansas Highway Patrol, Rod explained. The brothers joked that they themselves were on the run from state troopers for taking the car, but it was actually their father, a former Pottawatomie County deputy sheriff who served for 30 years, who bought the decommissioned cruiser back in the ’90s.

Nearby, Sheridan Van Sickle set up her booth in front of the building which also houses her second-floor apartment. Like many of the other festival attendees, Van Sickle has lived in Riley her entire life, moving briefly to go to school at Highland Community College but moving back to start handlettering and photography businesses.

“I love Riley, and I know most everyone here,” Van Sickle said. “I think the festival is so wholesome. It’s one of my favorite days in Riley when everyone just comes together and supports each other. It’s an awesome day.”

Planning the event takes months, said Mallory Bohnenblust, a member of Riley PRIDE, which organized the event. But the work is worth it to bring people together.

“There’s something to do all day long and it gets our community together in something that doesn’t have to be school related,” Bohnenblust said. “You get the chance to meet some really cool people and eat some really cool food. It’s a great day to have with the family.

“It’s almost like a reunion,” she continued. “You might see people who you haven’t seen in months, or it might be people you saw at the football game the night before. I just love seeing everyone coming out and supporting each other.”

Pie judging, barbecue competitions, and even a parade filled out the festival’s schedule, but it was a no-hurry, take-your-time kind of day at the festival as the attendees strolled around and enjoyed the atmosphere.

“It’s slow, but it’s a good slow,” Howe said. “You can get out of the city and just hang out.”