City Commission candidates debate health, wellness issues

A Lawrence City Commission candidate forum on health and wellness issues Monday produced a variety of ideas, including a candidate who said he thinks the community could benefit from a lower drinking age.

Candidate Stan Rasmussen told a crowd of about 100 at the Lawrence Public Library that a lower drinking age would make it easier for the university to promote responsible alcohol use.

“We need to work to teach our students more responsibility,” Rasmussen said.

He said the current system encourages too much sneaking around and binge drinking by underage students.

Rasmussen made his comments at a forum hosted by the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, LiveWell Lawrence, and WellCommons, the health website operated by the Journal-World.

None of the other candidates mentioned lowering the drinking age as a possible strategy to combat alcohol-related problems, but they all did have various suggestions.

Candidate Matthew Herbert said he wanted to ensure that establishments that receive tax incentives could have those incentives revoked or reduced if they are the site of frequent alcohol violations. Candidate Leslie Soden agreed, and said she thought the commission needed to work harder to de-emphasize downtown as an entertainment district. She said returning downtown to its roots as a place for small, independent retailers could help ease some alcohol pressures in the district.

Commissioner Bob Schumm and candidate Stuart Boley both said city officials need to have more individual conversations with bar operators before problems start to get out of hand. Schumm said he was part of a meeting where city officials threatened to ask the Alcohol Beverage Control division to revoke the license of The Cave — the bar inside The Oread hotel — if behavior doesn’t improve at the establishment. The Cave currently is receiving a tax break from City Hall.

City Commissioner Terry Riordan said he wants to continue to work with staff to find a middle ground on how to ensure that projects like The Oread and The Cave can continue to be built with the help of tax incentives, but done so in a way that gives the city leverage to force the owners of the business to address problems as they arise.

The six candidates seeking three at-large seats on the City Commission largely agreed on other health and wellness topics presented at the forum. Here’s a look at some of their comments:

• Both Herbert and Rasmussen advocated for an increase in the city’s guest tax that is charged to hotel customers. Rasmussen said the additional tax should be used to help fund an affordable housing trust program, while Herbert was more general and said it should be used to help on issues of jobs and poverty.

• All six candidates said they supported expanding the city’s smoking ban to include e-cigarettes.

• Candidates were mixed on how aggressive they would be in banning smoking in city parks. All candidates expressed some willingness to consider banning smoking in outdoor seating areas at athletic events on city-owned property. Boley, Soden, Riordan and Schumm said they would want additional information about a general ban on smoking in city parks. Rasmussen and Herbert, though, both said they could see some value in it.

“Let’s get rid of smoking in the park,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t want to ever see a cigarette butt in the parks again.”

• All six candidates supported the idea of a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week crisis stabilization center for people with a mental illness. Every candidate said working with the county on funding issues would be important.

The City Commission election will be held April 7. The top three vote-winners will receive seats on the five-member commission.

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