City commissioners elect Lisa Larsen to fill vacant seat

Lisa Larsen smiles after she was voted to fill the empty seat on the Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday night at City Hall. Larsen is pictured with her father, Robert Larsen, of Lawrence.

City commissioners elected Lisa Larsen on Tuesday to Lawrence’s governing body, filling the vacancy created when former Mayor Jeremy Farmer resigned in August.

Larsen was sworn in and seated as the fifth commissioner during Tuesday evening’s City Commission meeting at City Hall. She will serve the remainder of Farmer’s unexpired term, which ends in January 2018.

At the meeting, commissioners Stuart Boley, Matthew Herbert and Leslie Soden and Mayor Mike Amyx chose between Larsen, a geologist who sold her environmental consulting firm in 2014, and Scott Morgan, a former school board member who sold a small publishing business in 2007.

The final vote was made after each commissioner stated the candidate for whom they’d vote.

First, Herbert said his vote was for Morgan.

Morgan received the highest scores of all candidates when members of a commissioner-appointed advisory committee used a points system to narrow the pool of applicants from 14 to 12, and then again from 12 to six.

Larsen ranked just under Morgan in both instances.

“People of this community want to make this choice,” Herbert said. “There’s anger a special election wasn’t held. To me it comes down to this: I think we selected that committee; that it was made up of truly intelligent people. Tonight, I would recommend we follow what they recommended both times.”

Lisa Larsen smiles after she was voted to fill the empty seat on the Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday night at City Hall. Larsen is pictured with her father, Robert Larsen, of Lawrence.

Soden named Larsen as her pick, noting that Larsen was on all four commissioners’ ballots when they ranked their top three choices at an Oct. 1 meeting.

At that meeting — during which commissioners named Larsen and Morgan as the final two candidates — Amyx, Boley and Herbert listed both Morgan and Larsen on their ballots. Amyx and Herbert ranked Morgan above Larsen, and Boley listed Larsen as his top pick.

Larsen was also Soden’s top pick during that vote. Soden did not list Morgan among her top three.

Boley named Larsen, saying she would make the commission “more complete.”

“Her experience as a scientist and her analytical processes and her clear talk have convinced me to support Lisa Larsen,” Boley said.

Amyx, the last commissioner to speak, reiterated the difficulty of making a decision and noted the importance that the commissioners make a clear choice. Had they not, city codes mandate the final decision be made by the city attorney.

“I know because of the split we have in our commission, I can send this to the city attorney for a final decision, but I believe that I was elected by the folks in this community to make decisions on their behalf,” Amyx said. “That being said, I believe Lisa Larsen should fill the vacant City Commission position.”

There was applause after Amyx’s comments, which made clear the commission would elect Larsen. Larsen walked up to the podium and thanked the City Commission, her friends and family.

Morgan also stood to speak.

“I wish you all and Lisa all the best,” Morgan said. “The community is ready for you to get back to work, and I’m sure you’re very excited about it. It’s with mixed emotions, but it’s not the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

Commissioners then held a formal vote, unanimously electing Larsen to the position.

“Let’s get to work,” Larsen after being formally seated.

‘Opportunity to give back’

This is Larsen’s first experience in public office.

In an earlier interview with the Journal-World, Larsen said she first felt called to public office in the mid-2000s, when she was operating her business, Larsen & Associates Inc., and didn’t have enough time to spare.

With her business sold and time freed, she saw the open City Commission position as a way “to give back” to the community, she said.

“It was a great place to run a business, and then also a great place to live because of the diversity and forward thinking,” Larsen said. “This is my opportunity to give back, and I have the time to do it.”

With Larsen’s election, it is the first time in almost 20 years that two women hold Lawrence City Commission seats at the same time.

According to city records, the last time this happened was the 1995-96 and 1996-97 terms, when Bonnie (Augustine) Lowe and F. Jolene Anderson were commissioners.

Prior to that, Marci Francisco served as mayor and Nancy Shontz as vice mayor in 1982-83. Francisco was also mayor in the 1981-82 term, during which Shontz served as a commissioner.

The process to elect a new commissioner started soon after Farmer resigned from the City Commission on Aug. 12, two days after stepping down as executive director of local food bank Just Food amid allegations of financial mismanagement.

City codes gave the commission broad authority to fill a vacant seat by a majority vote. The steps to fill this particular vacancy were outlined in a resolution approved by the City Commission in late August.

Filling his position comprised several rounds of elimination over the past month.

“I think, I feel, I hope transparency was achieved through the process we utilized,” Herbert said.

In discussion at the end of Tuesday’s meeting about future agenda items, interim City Manager Diane Stoddard said there were “quite a few items to be determined.”

“I’ll be working with you, now that we have a full commission, and getting those scheduled,” Stoddard said.

In other business, commissioners:

• Agreed to reconsider at their next meeting their approval Sept. 22 of the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department’s request for an additional $78,650 to use concrete for the new trail between Constant and Burcham parks. Three people spoke during a public comment period Tuesday about the need to study the possibility of flooding and erosion in the area before the project moves forward.

Mark Hecker, assistant director of Parks and Recreation, said the contractor was on schedule to start pouring concrete next week.

At the Sept. 22 meeting, the request, which was listed on the consent agenda, was approved without discussion.

• Unanimously approved an amended grant application the Lawrence Arts Center — with the city’s support — plans to submit to help fund the 2017 and 2018 Free State Festival. At a September meeting, commissioners asked that the Arts Center revise its application for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant before the commission would support it. Commissioner Leslie Soden and Mayor Mike Amyx said the original application gave the impression the East Ninth Project would be complete and that the plan for the project had already been fully developed.