Three new Manhattan city commissioners to take office in January

Karen McCulloh plans to center her term around four main points: low-income housing, child care, mental health and transportation. (Photo courtesy of Karen McCulloh)

Editor’s note: The online version of this article is an extended version of the print article.

Manhattan voters elected three new city commissioners Nov. 7 and ballot counting concluded Thursday. New city commissioners Susan Adamchak, Karen McCulloh and Peter Oppelt begin their term Jan. 2. 

Susan Adamchak

Adamchak, former demographer, said she originally earned her doctorate in sociology and has a background in the field. 

“I began my career working for the U.S. government, but then I decided to marry a man who was a professor at Kansas State University,” Adamchak said. “Rather than move to Kansas right away from Washington, D.C., we spent two years living in Zimbabwe in southern Africa. Then in 1989 we returned to Manhattan and I continued to work as a freelance consultant, mainly on U.S. government-funded contracts. I specialized in population policy development, private sector involvement in providing family-planning services, adolescent reproductive health and integrative family-planning and HIV services.” 

Adamchak said her experience in professional research gave her unique skills to use on the city commission.

“I know how to look at data and interpret it,” Adamchak said. “I filled two-and-a-half notebooks with notes from interviews, open meetings that I attended, key informant interviews, just in the last three months as I was campaigning. I immersed myself in trying to learn what’s going on in Manhattan.” 

Adamchak said an issue she plans to address is affordable housing. 

“I think we’re going to see shifts in our population over the next several years,” McCulloh said. “I think we’re going to see an influx, both of young professionals, skilled workers in their 30s, 40s and 50s, but also once their parents come to visit we’re going to see an uptick in seniors coming to Manhattan.”

Adamchak said she appreciates Manhattan because of its government’s “conscious efforts to keep up with changing expectations.” 

“The university brings a very diverse population here, between kids coming from all over the country but also faculty,” Adamchak said. “We have so many international faculty. … I think there’s a certain prestige to the adversity.” 

Adamchak said listening to the people of Manhattan is her primary job as city commissioner.

“I have my ideas about what priorities might be but I’m one person out of 55,000, so I wanted to listen to other people,” Adamchak said. “I don’t think negotiation is a dirty word, so what I hope to bring to the table is an open mind and a willingness to yield to form consensus.” 

Karen McCulloh

Susan Adamchak spent many years working as a demographer. She said her background in research will aid her in her position as city commissioner. (Photo courtesy of Janis Galitzer)

McCulloh said she has an extensive history of working in an elected position.

“In ‘93 I found the Solid Waste Committee … and I ran for county commission having no clue what was involved, really, and I won,” McCulloh said. “I lost the next elections for county but I came back and won at the city, and then I was in the [city commission] for four years. … Then I ran for county again and I won. Then I ran for city again and I won.” 

McCulloh said she intended on retiring from politics in 2017 but changed her mind because she wanted to ensure there was a female voice on the city commission. 

“I tried very hard to get some younger women to run,” McCulloh said. “Quite frankly, the commission has been rather difficult almost, I would say toxic for women in the last few years. … It’s not been a place that women want to put their energy, so I decided I’d run again.” 

McCulloh said she focused her recent campaign on four points: low-income housing, childcare, mental health and transportation. 

“A lot of these are women’s issues,” McCulloh said. “You know, if women can’t find childcare they can’t get back in the workstream, and then when they do go back they’ve been out for five years or so. It’s hard to kind of get back, and women are still making 83 cents on the dollar. I just think those four things are really, really important for women.” 

McCulloh said during her term as city commissioner she hopes to help city officials consider the future of Manhattan in their planning. 

“I’d like to see Manhattan, the commission and other people, talk about what we’re going to look like in five years or 10 years,” McCulloh said. “I don’t know if we need all these parking structures. Are people in 10 years just going to tell their car to go home? … I’d really like to see us trying to figure out what we should be doing to make Manhattan great in 10 years.” 

McCulloh said a changing city creates the need for a government that is willing to change as well. 

“Think how much things have changed, how rapidly,” McCulloh said. “There’s people with ideas out there, and I’d like to capture those ideas and see if we can institutionalize some of them.”

McCulloh said she is optimistic she will enact change with the help of other city commission members.

“I really think the climate is going to be much more sanguine [than previous years], much more willing to listen to each other, that kind of thing,” McCulloh said. “It’s fantastic.”

Peter Oppelt

This is Peter Oppelt’s first time serving in an elected position. He said his age will bring a new perspective to the commission, as he is younger than most members. (Photo courtesy of Peter Oppelt)

Economist Oppelt said his love for Manhattan inspired him to run for city commission.

“I actually grew up in Colorado and joined the army right after high school,” Oppelt said. “I ended up being stationed at Fort Riley in 2012, and then I got out in 2015 and started going to school at K-State. I really liked Manhattan and so I wanted to stick around. … I have really been into serving my community and thought that this would be a good way to do it.”

Oppelt said running for an elected position was new for him, so fundraising was a crucial part of his campaign.

“Especially being a newer candidate, folks had no idea who I was, so I had to make sure I was able to get my name out,” Oppelt said. “I think we did that pretty well.”

Oppelt said he will address Manhattan’s “identity as a city” as city commissioner.

“I think a city, and even people, should evolve and grow over time, and we can continue to modernize without losing a lot of those feelings that people like,” Oppelt said. “We need to kind of think about how we want our city to be, how we want to move around our city, where we’re going to live, where we’re going to entertain ourselves.”

Oppelt said he is younger than most of the city commissioners, allowing him to offer a different perspective on city issues.

“There is certainly going to be quite the generational gap between me and most of the other commissioners,” Oppelt said. “I am 35 and I have a 7-year-old who’s still in school, and I just graduated five years ago from K-State, so I’m still very connected and closer to that than a lot of the other commissioners.”

Oppelt said he wants to promote open dialogue among commissioners and Manhattan residents during his term. 

“I think the most important thing is to remember that we’re all neighbors,” Oppelt said. “We all live in this community and everybody wants what they think is best for the community. That sometimes may cause conflict, but if we have dialogue with that in mind … then I think we will be able to find compromise when there is some conflict.”