Commissioners seek immunity for testimony

Filing would exempt comments regarding growth at Wal-Mart site

During this spring’s Lawrence City Commission election, each of the three winning candidates was critical of plans to build a Wal-Mart at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.

But those commissioners don’t want to be forced to repeat their stump speeches under oath on the witness stand today in court.

Attorneys on Monday asked Douglas County District Judge Michael Malone to prohibit commissioners being questioned about their “mental processes” in the lawsuit challenging the city’s moratorium on building at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive — where Wal-Mart wants to build a 132,000-square-foot store.

Gerald Cooley, the city’s attorney, said Kansas law exempted commissioners from questions about their beliefs and philosophies when administrative issues were at stake.

But he acknowledged: “During the last city elections, growth and development in the city was (a) pivotal issue of the campaign. Several of the present commissioners … ran on platforms extolling certain philosophies regarding growth and development.”

Monday’s filings came on the eve of the hearing in the lawsuit by 6Wak Land Investments LLC, the landowner. 6Wak wants Malone to order the city to furnish a building permit for a restaurant on the site. The city is asking Malone to dismiss the suit immediately.

6Wak’s attorneys have called each member of the City Commission as witnesses for today’s hearing.

During the campaign leading up to the April 1 general election, the Progressive Lawrence Campaign trio of Boog Highberger, Mike Rundle and David Schauner criticized Wal-Mart’s plans. Schauner even had a news conference at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive to tout his “smart-growth” agenda.

Wal-Mart’s proposal “will be, in my view, the poster child for bad planning in Lawrence,” Schauner said during a televised campaign forum in March.

The three candidates were elected and, along with Mayor David Dunfield and Commissioner Sue Hack, voted unanimously for the moratorium. Hack later said the moratorium ordinance should be delayed.

Today’s hearing is likely to center on the definition of the term “department store.”

6Wak contends Wal-Mart is a “variety store” under city codes. City commissioners, however, have declared that Wal-Mart meets their definition of “department store” — which is prohibited at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.

The city’s zoning codes online do not define variety store. They define a department store as a store of more than 20,000 square feet selling a variety of goods and services, with at least 60 percent of the sales space devoted to non-food items.

The hearing starts at 9 a.m. today and is expected to run all day. The City Commission meets at 6:45 tonight and is expected to give final approval to the moratorium ordinance.