City commission race 2007
City commission race
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Sharp differences and a few sharp words between City Commission candidates emerged Thursday night at the campaign's first true forum of the season.
The seven candidates who participated in a debate sponsored by Grassroots Action expressed clear differences on community growth issues, but the most charged part of the evening came after Commissioner David Schauner suggested that members of the development community were expecting favorable treatment in return for donations made to candidates Mike Dever and Rob Chestnut.
"I want to know what those folks think they will get in return for their investment," Schauner asked of Dever and Chestnut supporters. Dever and Chestnut were the top two fundraisers in the race when campaign finance reports were last filed in late January. Both received several donations from members of the development community.
Dever and Chestnut said campaign contributions would never sway their votes on an issue, and said they had a wide base of supporters that extended beyond the development community. But Dever took particular offense and suggested that Schauner had been irresponsible in his comments.
"I'm not a negative person," Dever told the crowd of about 100 people at Lawrence High School. "I would never point at a person's character and assassinate it in front of other people."
Candidate James Bush - although not mentioned by name by Schauner - also suggested that he was disappointed in Schauner's comments.
"I didn't want to get in an arm-wrestling match of 'my supporters are better than the people who support you,'" Bush told the crowd during his closing comments.
Focus on growth
Much of the nearly two-hour debate, though, focused on growth-related issues. The issue of whether the community has allowed its retail market to become overbuilt created a division among candidates.
Both Schauner and Commissioner Boog Highberger said they had seen statistics that indicate the Lawrence retail market may be adding space at a quicker pace than the community can absorb.
Highberger said he had seen figures that indicate that sales per retail square foot in the community are lower than average.
"I think that means there are businesses out there who are struggling," Highberger said. "I think it is also important to remember that the quality of our downtown today is in part because we have in the past successfully resisted inappropriate retail on our edges."
Dever and Chestnut both said they had seen statistics - specifically sales tax receipts and vacancy rates - that suggested the community was not overbuilding its retail market.
"I think it is clear that we're losing a lot of our sales tax revenue to other communities," Chestnut said.
Carey Maynard-Moody, Jake Davis and Bush all said that if the retail market was overbuilt, the free-market system eventually would correct the situation.
"I have a lot of faith in the market to take care of itself," Maynard-Moody said.
Candidates also disagreed on fiscal issues. Both Schauner and Highberger said they would push for new impact fees that would be charged to newly constructed homes and apartments to ensure that residential growth is paying its fair share for city services.
Other candidates, though, stopped short of specifically endorsing impact fees to shore up the city's finances. Dever said the community needed to be "more welcoming" to new people and that the community's job growth had slowed considerably during the last five years.
Bush - as all the candidates did - said new jobs were important, but residential growth also added to the city's economy. He told the crowd of how when he and his family bought their Lawrence home that on the very first day in town he did business with a builder, a banker, a real estate agent, a hardware store, a wireless phone store and a pizza shop.
"My one family touched five-plus businesses in that one day," Bush said.
Chestnut said the community needed to add industrial land so that it was in a position to accommodate good businesses that are interested in moving here.
Maynard-Moody said the city should take a hard look at all its infrastructure and determine whether some of it could be phased out, which would create a savings in maintenance.
"I'm not going to name it now, but it is out there," Maynard-Moody said of nonessential infrastructure that the city was maintaining.
Davis said the city needed to focus more on tourism, especially promoting the downtown area as a unique destination. He also said the city should adopt more environmentally friendly policies, such as requiring commercial buildings to make use of solar roof panels that look like shingles.
"If we put policies in place that make us function like a green community, that will attract attention from green companies that want to do business here," Davis said.
Candidates Michael Limburg and Sam Fields did not participate in the forum, which was hosted by the Grassroots Action group, a new Lawrence-based advocacy organization that studies local environmental and economic issues.
The field will be narrowed to six candidates during the Feb. 27 primary. Voters will elect candidates to fill three at-large seats on the five-member City Commission when they go to the polls in the general election April 3.