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Originally published July 11, 2011 at 9:41 p.m., updated July 12, 2011 at 2:40 p.m.
LAWRENCE Six pastors from several denominations greeted the 700 or so people who came here to Plymouth Congregational Church on a hot Monday night to talk about state government and social services.
But by the time someone in the crowd with a pass-around microphone said Gov. Sam Brownback should be recalled and throaty cheers rang from the choir loft to the sanctuary, it was clear this gathering was not what the governor or Rob Siedlecki, his welfare chief, had in mind when they started talking a few months ago about launching "faith-based" initiatives.
The gathering was the second well-attended protest event in Lawrence since the Brownback administration on July 1 announced it was closing nine local offices of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, the state welfare agency.
The Lawrence office, which has about 87 employees and serves between 8,000 and 10,000 needy people a month, was the largest marked for closure. On Saturday, local Democrats sponsored a meeting at the public library featuring former SRS Secretary Bob Harder. That meeting drew about 150 people, none of whom seemed happy about the announcement or the way things have been going at SRS since Siedlecki moved to Kansas from Florida to head it.
The meeting at Plymouth church outdid the Saturday event for turnout. Pastor Peter Luckey said his church could hold about 800 people and except for a few seats at the back of the choir loft, the pews were full.
"We're here tonight because we understand the welfare of our community is in peril," Luckey said during opening remarks. "What kind of society are we becoming? Are we becoming a society with no heart?"
Then, one after the other, for an hour and a half, people raised their hands, were handed a microphone and given two minutes each to say their piece.
Seated at tables facing the crowd was a line of officials, including Reps. Paul Davis and Barbara Ballard, both Lawrence Democrats; State Sen. Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, State Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat; and Rep. TerriLois Gregory, a freshman Baldwin City Republican. Also seated at the official tables were Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern, Police Chief Tarik Khatib, and three Lawrence city commissioners. Except for introductions and farewells, the officials mostly kept quiet and let the people in the pews vent their frustrations. Some of the officials smiled wryly from time to time, perhaps from the small joy of hearing that the heat was pointed at others than themselves. But for the most part their demeanors were grave or solemn, as befits those reminded of next elections by angry voters.
Pat Newton, principal of St. John's Catholic School, said she worried what the SRS office closing would mean for abused and neglected children.
"Closing SRS in Lawrence is a huge step backwards," she said. "I'm very sad."
George Wanke, a psychologist, called the decision to close the Lawrence office, "insensitive at best, mean at worst."
"Why couldn't they just downsize the (SRS) central office," he said. "Keep it (Lawrence) open."
That drew wild applause.
Patricia Roach Smith, chief operating officer for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said closing the SRS office would put more pressure on Bert Nash case managers.
"This decision provides vulnerable people with nothing and adds burden to an already overburdened mental health system," she said.
Retired Douglas County District Court Judge Jean Shepherd, well respected in Lawrence for her long career working with family issues and foster children, used her two minutes to talk about the relationships among the city's social service providers that would be fractured as SRS workers are moved to Kansas City, Ottawa or other locations.
"I worry about the loss of relationships," she said, "which is what makes all the systems work."
Shepherd said Lawrence social service agencies had worked well together for years because everyone knew one another and what resources were available where to help someone who needed them.
"I worry there will be some new social worker from Wyandotte County who doesn't know our services," she said, "and some kid will go into foster care who doesn't need to. I'm just very concerned we won't be able to recover these relationships."
A point raised by several speakers was that many who need social services are unable to drive or use the Internet. The governor and Siedlecki had noted that Lawrence was closed, in part, because it was close to other SRS offices accessible via major highways. They also said many services would be made available online.
One young woman asked why the state had money to build highways but not enough to keep open the Lawrence SRS office.
No one appeared at the forum on behalf of the Brownback administration, a fact several members of the audience remarked upon.
Siedlecki and aide Gary Haulmark stopped earlier in the afternoon at the offices of the Lawrence Journal-World where Siedlecki told reporters that he would not change his mind about closing the Lawrence office. But he also said there would be some sort of continued SRS presence in Lawrence, perhaps part time.
Several times during the meeting, audience members made overtly political remarks that Holland, the meeting moderator, discouraged, saying the point of the forum was to talk about the SRS office closure.
For example, psychologist Wes Crenshaw told the crowd, "I think there needs to be a little more general anger. There need to be, like Wisconsin, protests at the Statehouse. They know what they're taking out of our community. Until we're over there, making them feel it, nothing's going to happen."
Lawrence and Douglas County, home of the University of Kansas, is known as the most liberal place in the state. When the rest of Kansas votes red, Douglas County goes blue. Several members of the audience saw wider implications in the Brownback administration's decision.
"In my view," said one man, "this is a concerted attack against Lawrence for the way we vote."
"The heart of the issue is taxes," said a woman. "Some parts of the Republican Party want to cut the corporate income tax. If they do that, the pain will never go away."
Kansas Public Radio report