A splinter group has became a thorn in the side of the city's tax abatement task force.
Many of the 19 task force members seemed furious Tuesday when they learned that five co-members had met Sunday as an ad hoc subcommittee without the full committee's knowledge.
Task force member Larry Kipp, an unsuccessful county commission candidate on the Democrat slate, reported he met Sunday at Lawrence Memorial Hospital with fellow task force members Shelley Barnhill, Janet Gerstner, Richard Gutierrez and Alan Zimmerman. There they discussed their goals for the task force and outlined information they said the task force needed to do its work.
Melinda Henderson, a "smart growth" proponent who is not a member of the city's task force, also attended the Sunday meeting.
Kipp's report on the Sunday meeting seemed to startle task force members not involved with it.
"Who set this meeting up?" asked Ernest Angino, a former city commissioner. "I didn't know about this meeting. Is this a rump session of a few people to have an ax to grind?"
"To be honest, I'm offended," Douglas County Commission Chairman Bob Johnson said. "These questions should have been addressed by the entire group."
Kipp said he had checked with Lawrence City Commissioner Jim Henry, who formed the task force, and with Assistant City Manager Dave Corliss to ensure the meeting was proper. Kipp said he promised Henry he would report on the meeting to the broader task force.
Henry said Kipp had asked to meet independently with an outside consultant, possibly with other members of the committee. Corliss told Kipp that convening more than five members of the 19-person task force would trigger the state's open meetings law requirements.
The subgroup's members said they weren't trying to subvert the process, only improve their understanding of the tax abatement issue.
"I don't think anybody attended this group with malice in mind," Gutierrez said.
"This is the history of divisiveness in this town," Angino said. "If this group is going to have any trust with each other, then damn it, I want to know when the meetings are."
"There was absolutely no attempt to hide anything," he said. "We were trying to be above-board."
"It's above-board factionalism," said Steven Maynard-Moody, another task force member and director of Kansas University's Policy Research Institute.
Johnson indicated the meeting could taint the task force process.
"I'm sorry this happened," he said. "I don't feel nearly as good about this as I did."
Still, conversation went forward Tuesday on the tax abatement issue. Task force members said they don't want to end abatements, but do want to refine the city's current policy.
Some revisions to the policy suggested Tuesday:
Starting a system for post-abatement cost-benefit analysis.
Shortening the maximum time abatements are given, now 10 years.
Use of a sliding scale on abatements so that withdrawal is gradual.
Maynard-Moody said no policy will be completely objective.
"I think the idea of making this nonpolitical is unrealistic," he said. "This is a government process and ultimately it lands on this (city commission) desk."