Lawrence City Commission candidates give views on sidewalk repair, addressing violent crime, other issues

Six candidates are vying for Lawrence City Commission seats this fall. At top, from left: Lisa Larsen, Matthew Herbert and Dustin Stumblingbear. At bottom, from left: Jennifer Ananda, Mike Anderson and Bassem Chahine.

There are a lot of open questions on the City Commission campaign trail.

Whether the city should change its policy that requires property owners to pay for sidewalk repair has been a question for years. Recent discoveries of financial errors, such as unsent invoices, have raised the question of whether the city should do more financial oversight. Increases in violent crime have residents asking how public safety can improve.

And with the recent completion of a downtown parking study, commissioners will most certainly have to answer which of the recommendations — including increased rates and penalties — they should put in place.

Here’s a look at what City Commission candidates are saying.

Jennifer Ananda

Ananda said she thinks the city should pay for residential sidewalk repairs, but she said at this point the city doesn’t have the money to take on that financial responsibility. Although there is no simple solution, she said that shouldn’t stop the city from looking for an answer.

“I believe that should be the city’s ultimate goal, because we don’t expect someone to fix a pothole on the road in front of their home, so we should have the same expectation for sidewalks,” she said.

To address violent crime and public safety in Lawrence, Ananda said she thinks the city should consult with police officers and the new police chief about increasing the police presence. She also said any increases in police presence should be handled carefully.

“We have to balance that with careful consideration of how we go about that so that we aren’t targeting specific populations, or continuing to exacerbate the inequity that we see in the criminal justice system,” Ananda said.

Regarding oversight of the city’s financial practices, Ananda said more could be done. She said the city could consider increasing auditing, oversight through consultants or training for staff.

“We can’t ask our residents for more of their hard-earned money if we are not able to show that we are able to responsibly handle that and hold ourselves accountable,” Ananda said.

Ananda said that “more often than not,” tax increases should be put to a vote. She said those decisions should depend on whether there is a broad fiscal impact or a broad lifestyle impact to residents.

She said she supports the City Commission’s decision to move ahead on the police headquarters without a public vote because of the severity of the need. As an attorney, Ananda said she worked with defendants and victims who lacked a completely private space at the current building. Still, she said the city should better communicate why the improvement is needed because the decision has created public mistrust.

Ananda said she thinks the city needs to consider changing its parking requirements for new downtown developments, especially as density downtown increases. She said she only supports the idea of increasing parking rates, fines and penalties if it enables the city to modernize its parking system and add the ability to accept credit cards. Still, she said there is a balance.

“We don’t want to increase them so much that we are punishing people for using downtown,” Ananda said.

Mike Anderson

Anderson said residential sidewalk repairs should definitely continue to be the property owner’s responsibility, as the city cannot afford to take on 100 percent of those costs. However, he said the city should create a fund so property owners who are low-income, physically disabled or whose property is on an arterial, hospital, or school route can apply for financial assistance from the city.

“I understand that all sidewalks aren’t created equal,” Anderson said.

Regarding what the city should do to address violent crime and public safety in Lawrence, Anderson said he isn’t sure if an increased police presence would deter crime and would want to hear the police chief’s opinion. He said he does think there should be cameras downtown.

“I think not only would it help our police force, but I think cameras downtown would be used as a deterrent for crime,” Anderson said.

Anderson said he thinks more review of the city’s financial practices is needed, and that a review could be done internally or externally.

Anderson said he would not put most decisions up for a public vote, because he said residents have to trust in the decisions made by the five commissioners they elected. However, he said he is “very comfortable” with the property tax lid and is opposed to the City Commission’s decision to move ahead on the police headquarters without a public vote. He said the reasoning that this proposal costs less doesn’t sit well with him.

“I don’t like that fact that you put it up for a vote for the people one time and then you don’t another time,” Anderson said. “That sort of inconsistency is troublesome.”

Anderson said he is not sure about the idea of increasing parking rates, fines and penalties, and would want to hear arguments for both sides. When it comes to downtown parking, Anderson said he thinks the focus should be on the efficiency of metered parking. He said he is in favor of eliminating the 15-minute parking stalls and designating some of the two-hour lots as eight-hour lots.

Anderson said he agrees with the city’s current policies that don’t require downtown developers to provide off-street parking, as it encourages other characteristics.

“I want to encourage less cars, I want to encourage walkability, I want to encourage bike lanes, I want to encourage people being outdoors and health-conscious,” Anderson said.

Bassem Chahine

Chahine said that he thinks residential sidewalk repairs should have been brought up years ago and should be considered city infrastructure. He said an appropriate funding source would be existing property tax revenue.

“The whole city needs to look at this and be part of fixing the infrastructure and the sidewalks,” Chahine said.

Regarding recent incidents of violent crime, Chahine said “public safety is a must downtown.” Chahine, whose family owns the Hookah House in downtown Lawrence, said he has seen fewer people out at night following the recent triple homicide downtown. He said he thinks the city should increase the police presence in busy areas after midnight on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

“If there is an officer at every corner that has a bar or club open that night, I believe that will — guaranteed — make an impact on safety,” Chahine said.

Chahine said that given recent financial errors, additional review of the city’s financial practices is needed. He said the city hiring an outside auditor to review accounts receivable was the right approach, and that those reviews should continue.

“We did have an issue, so to correct it we need to do that, at least for the first few years, to make sure everything’s balanced out,” Chahine said.

Chahine said he agrees with the state property tax lid law that requires certain property tax increases to be put before voters. He said he also agrees with the City Commission’s decision to move ahead on the police headquarters without a public vote because he visited the current facility and found it to be too small and definitely in need of an upgrade.

“To me, it’s all about public safety and making sure our police have the proper tools,” Chahine said.

Chahine said he supports the idea of increasing parking rates, fines and penalties downtown if it goes to support modernization of the parking system. He said most of the time he gets a ticket because he doesn’t have change, and that he sees rates going up to provide better parking technology as “a good cause.”

Chahine said he doesn’t think there is currently a problem with the supply of parking downtown, but that future growth needs to be considered. He said he thinks the policies should be changed to require new developments downtown to provide off-street parking.

Lisa Larsen

Larsen said the current sidewalk repair ordinance is “obviously not working” and something needs to be done. She said the city would need a brand new funding source if it were to take over sidewalk repairs, and that voters should make that decision regardless of whether it be property tax or sales tax.

“It’s an expansion of government, therefore the citizens should have the opportunity to vote on that if that’s the route we go,” Larsen said.

Larsen said the homicides and other violent incidents in recent months have been a true tragedy. She said she believes that with the city’s new police chief on board, it’s an opportunity to sit down and review the city’s policing priorities and processes. She said she would like to consider having more officers on foot to “walk the beat” downtown, increasing contact with business owners and those who cause issues.

“I think that’s important,” Larsen said. “I think we need to get back to some sort of direct community policing.”

After the mistakes recently discovered in accounts receivable and the trust fund designated for cleanup of the Farmland fertilizer plant, Larsen said she thinks there should be more oversight of the city’s financial practices. She said she thinks the city should use outside auditors for financial review, and that the same auditing firm should not be used every time.

Regarding decisions that should be put up for a vote, Larsen said a vote would be appropriate any time the city looks at an expansion of government beyond its core services.

She said the City Commission’s decision to move ahead on the police headquarters without a public vote was appropriate, adding that the project was scaled down and will be built in phases. Larsen also said the current situation is horrendous, and that the police, victims of crimes and those accused of crimes need adequate facilities.

“Right now, it’s not efficient the way we are spread across the town, the way we store our equipment, the way we handle and store our evidence,” Larsen said. “They are working in what I believe to be extreme conditions that could cause issues if we have to take cases to court.”

Regarding the idea of increasing downtown parking rates, fines and penalties, Larsen said she’s undecided. She said the commission needs to have adequate data available to show how cost-effective it would be. She also said the commission needs to take “a serious look” at the policy that doesn’t require downtown developments to provide off-street parking.

Matthew Herbert

Herbert said if the city decides to take on residential sidewalk repair, it should be done in phases, beginning with the sidewalk ramps required by the Americans with Disabilities Act and repairs to sidewalks damaged by city street trees or infrastructure. The second phase would be sidewalks designated as Safe Routes to Schools, he said.

Herbert said taking full responsibility of repairs would be phase three, and should require a public vote. If so, he said voters should consider that the majority of residential properties in Lawrence are rental properties.

“If they want the city to pay for all sidewalks, what they’re saying is they want taxpayers to pay for all of the rental, all the apartment complex sidewalks,” Herbert said. “All of those things will suddenly become the taxpayer’s burden instead of the property (owner’s).”

Regarding violent crime, Herbert said he thinks where the department is lacking is not actually the frontline police but detectives. He said the shortage results in less serious crimes being put on the back burner.

“The reality is, a lot of this violent crime could probably be stopped before it becomes violent crime by having a greater presence actually investigating the more petty crimes,” Herbert said.

When asked if the city needs to do more to review its financial practices after recently discovered errors, Herbert said it’s important to note that those were discovered internally. He said he thinks the city is a lot stronger than it was 10 years ago, and praised City Manager Tom Markus and Finance Director Bryan Kidney for uncovering mistakes. Not all of the issues, though, happened during past administrations, as the uninvested Farmland funds was an issue that occurred last year.

“I have full confidence in our current finance director based upon what I’ve seen here recently, with his ability to catch these previous mistakes,” Herbert said.

Herbert said at its core, the role of the commission is public safety and infrastructure. He said decisions outside of that purview should go to a public vote. Regarding the decision not to put the police headquarters to a vote, Herbert said he thinks the headquarters is an example of both public safety and infrastructure and a direct core service that the commission must ensure is adequate.

Regarding downtown parking, Herbert said his priority is to make sure rates enable the program to be self-sufficient and cover expenses. However, he said rates, fines or penalties, like a boot and tow policy, shouldn’t be so punitive that they drive people away from downtown retailers.

Herbert said the commission needs to re-examine downtown parking requirements, but also consider the cost to developments to provide parking. While a big advocate of infill downtown, he said allowing projects with “80 apartments and eight parking spots” affects the neighborhood parking.

Dustin Stumblingbear

Stumblingbear said the city should step in and take over residential sidewalk repairs, but that work will have to be “done in bits.” He said he supports the city moving forward with a grant program to assist low-income homeowners, but that widespread repairs will have to be addressed gradually by making infrastructure maintenance more efficient across the board.

“(We need to) use our current budget and slowly work in that item within the budget, as we continue with our other, longer-term infrastructure projects, for our pipes, our sewers, our roadways,” Stumblingbear said.

Regarding violent crime, Stumblingbear said the city should continue to support communications among other nearby law enforcement agencies to address crime. He also said infill development downtown has brought more residents, and more officers could be needed to handle the influx.

“I think we will have to do it,” Stumblingbear said. “As we fill up more of downtown and make it more dense, you’re going to need more of a (police) presence there.”

When asked if the city needs to do more to review its financial practices after recently discovered errors, Stumblingbear emphasized that those errors were discovered internally. He said the city should continue streamlining its finances and calling for external audits.

“Our city staff are doing the very thing they are supposed to be doing, and our commission is listening to that staff,” Stumblingbear said.

Regarding when decisions should be put up for a public vote, Stumblingbear said “anytime we’re going to do any form of tax increase.” He said the commission should be able to work with what it has, but if an increase is needed, the commission should communicate how the increase would benefit residents and let them decide.

Stumblingbear said he is “not a fan” of the City Commission’s decision to move ahead on the police headquarters without a public vote. Had he been on the commission, he said he thinks he would have put it to a vote.

“When you present the information to voters of why it’s needed, they understand that and they’ll vote for it because they understand it is a public good,” Stumblingbear said. “But when we don’t tell people things, they feel left out, and so they vote against us.”

When it comes to the idea of increasing downtown parking rates, fines and penalties, Stumblingbear said he doesn’t see the need to do that right now. Stumblingbear also said he thinks city code needs to require future developments to have parking.