About this time three years ago, there was quite a bit of nervousness in the city's traditional political circles.
Voters in the 2003 City Commission election had delivered what was being billed as a historic change by electing Mike Rundle, Boog Highberger and David Schauner to the three open seats on the five-member commission.
The candidates had campaigned together as part of the city's first political action committee: the Progressive Lawrence Campaign. The election results also ensured the PLC candidates would control the mayoral position for at least the next two years.
Rumblings from the business community were that the PLC candidates - who campaigned on a platform of Smart Growth, the need for new development to pay for more of its costs, and protecting neighborhoods from negative development consequences - would run roughshod over development interests and seriously hamper the community's growth.
Now as the city prepares Tuesday night to install its first mayor since the election not affiliated with PLC - probably Commissioner Mike Amyx - the trio of PLC candidates are pointing out that the doom and gloom predictions haven't materialized.
"There was the thought that we were going to be very divisive, ruthless and some sort of monolithic voting bloc," Rundle said. "That hasn't been borne out at all. I do think we had a long period of time where there was an undue or disproportionate amount of influence that the development community had over public decisions. That has begun to change."
In the dark
The three years of a PLC majority, though, haven't been enjoyed by all. Mike Keeney, vice president of the engineering firm The Peridian Group, said his company had transferred 40 of its 60 employees out of Lawrence to a Kansas City metro office. He said developers simply were less interested in doing business in Lawrence these days.
- 6News video: Lawrence Mayor expected to pass gavel
- Coalition members up for re-election
- Mayor proposes big-scale annexing (11-24-05)
- Chat transcript with Mayor Boog Highberger (09-08-05)
- Chat transcript with Mayor Boog Highberger (04-14-05)
- 'Progressive' candidates win majority on City Commission (04-07-05)
- City candidates value balance in office (03-10-05)
- PACs likely to affect upcoming city elections (11-21-04)
- Chat with City Commissioner Boog Highberger (05-12-04)
- Progressives denied sweep but go 1-2 in city elections (04-02-03)
- Progressive trio skips city forum (03-28-03)
A big reason, Keeney said, is because the PLC has made every policy decision a political decision. The result is city staff members are scared to make decisions. And when they do, they often are overruled by commissioners, which creates a situation where developers are always trying to figure out what rules they must follow.
"There is no predictability," Keeney said. "It is close your eyes and walk around in the dark. That is what doing business in Lawrence is like.
"And nobody really wants to solve the problem because that would make development too easy. The saying is make it as impossible as possible."
The city's largest business organization - the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce - has taken a more moderate view of the last three years. Pat Flavin, the chamber's chairman and managing broker for Lawrence Realty Associates, said there both progress and disappointment had occurred over the last three years.
"We have had growth, but the (South Lawrence) Trafficway is an example of a disappointment," Flavin said. "It isn't done, and it really needs to be done for the benefit of the community. I don't know how much more conversation we need to have on that issue."
The three PLC commissioners have made it a point to lobby for a new route for the uncompleted SLT that wouldn't run through the Baker Wetlands, though state funding issues have delayed the project during the last three years as well.
Restoring the balance
PLC commissioners cringe when Keeney or others suggest that they're anti-growth.
"Just because I have a sense that growth doesn't pay for itself, doesn't mean I think we should stop growing," Schauner said. "It just means we need to properly allocate its costs.
"I absolutely believe good things happen when growth occurs. I do believe if you stop growing you do just die."
The PLC commissioners point to how they've worked together with the chamber to develop a workable living wage ordinance that requires companies who receive tax abatements to pay a wage that is at least 130 percent above the poverty level for a family of three. Highberger and Schauner also point to the fact that they voted to approve a tax abatement to Berry Plastics, which was the largest tax abatement in the city's history and was strongly supported by the business community.
"I think there is a community understanding that we're not going to use public money to subsidize poverty-level jobs," Highberger said. "But we are going to build a community partnership to create jobs that will allow people to live in Lawrence."
The commissioners also point to the recently approved Development Code, which replaces the city's 40-year-old zoning code, as a major effort to address the issue of providing a clear set of rules for developers to follow.
The efforts of the PLC have been met with enthusiasm by many neighborhood organizations. Alan Cowles, president of the West Lawrence Neighborhood Assn. - which has been fighting plans for a new Wal-Mart to be built at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive - said neighbors had a strong voice in city government now.
"I think they have restored the balance considerably," Cowles said. "I think prior to that there was undue influence by builders and developers. The situation was out of balance.
"But I find this a well-balanced and centrist commission. I don't think we could characterize them as being radical or extreme in any way."
The PLC majority certainly will be under scrutiny during the coming month. City commissioners have begun searching for a new city manager after longtime executive Mike Wildgen resigned under pressure in March.
Many people consider the selection of a new city manager one of the more important tasks the commission will undertake. And there have been murmurs of concern that a philosophical split will emerge between PLC and non-PLC commissioners, and that the commission won't be united in selecting the next city manager.
Schauner said he didn't think that would happen.
"I would have given you a different answer in 2003," Schauner said. "Back then I would have said it is going to be a pretty rough journey. But I think it is different in 2006. I think we have been working well together as a cohesive group."
A decision that may test the cohesiveness even more, though, is what actions the commission will take following the release of a long-awaited cost-of-growth study. That report is expected out in a matter of weeks. It is widely expected the report will recommend the city create additional fees that new development must pay.
The idea that new growth must pay for more of its costs is a bedrock philosophy of the PLC. It also is a controversial one. The Lawrence Home Builders Assn. previously has conducted a study that says residential growth does pay for itself. There are already signs that the clash of the two reports could create sparks.
Rundle has said people who believe residential growth pays for itself were making a "knee-jerk reaction."
"That opinion doesn't come out of an individual's thoughtful review of the evidence," Rundle said.
But despite potential controversies, Highberger said, he believed the community would get a lot of good work done and would come together to create a shared vision of how to operate in the years to come.
"I know there is talk of a lack of vision, but I see a lot of vision in this community," Highberger said. "The key thing is tying it all together."