Absences at recent Lawrence City Commission candidate forums are creating debate on the campaign trail.
One of the top three candidates in the primary election, Dustin Stumblingbear, has missed five candidate forums. Stumblingbear has provided written statements to inform attendees he had other events scheduled, but some candidates are publicly criticizing his absences.
Incumbent candidate Matthew Herbert recently posted about Stumblingbear’s absences on social media. Herbert told the Journal-World his main concern is making sure voters actually have an opportunity to engage with all the candidates.
“It’s very difficult to have a candidate forum — where voters are there to figure out what the fundamental differences are between the candidates — when we don’t have all the candidates present,” Herbert said. “For me, as a candidate, it becomes an issue of engagement.”
There have been at least eight candidate forums since the primary election Aug. 1. Groups such as the League of Women Voters, Downtown Lawrence Inc., the NAACP and the Lawrence Home Builders Association have hosted forums.
Herbert said all the candidates have a lot of things going on, but that if they are seeking a job on the City Commission, he thinks the forum is their interview. He also said he wanted to make sure that candidates are committed to the responsibilities of being a commissioner.
“If re-elected, I will end up having to serve with the two other people who are elected,” Herbert said. “I want to make sure we’re putting together a City Commission of people who are actually going to be dedicated to attending meetings and committed to being there. We have to have a City Commission present every Tuesday night.”
Stumblingbear told the Journal-World he hadn’t seen Herbert’s social media posts about his absences and that he’d rather have such conversations in person.
“I think it’s silly that we’re having this discussion about social media posts,” Stumblingbear said. “And I think we can have more mature conversations face to face if someone has a beef, rather than running around and talking behind people’s backs.”
Stumblingbear also said he is committed to his campaign and to voters, and explained in more detail the reason for his absences.
Stumblingbear said he knocks on doors six days per week as part of his campaign and has talked to thousands of residents. He said he is often invited to small voter group meetings or other events, and he schedules these appearances on a first-come, first-served basis. He said three of his absences were due to such scheduling conflicts, including a powwow at Haskell Indian Nations University.
“I’m not going to apologize because I got more contacts through knocking doors,” Stumblingbear said. “I’ve worked hard to talk to the citizens of Lawrence and to get to know them and their issues. I then get invited to events all throughout the city. Just because some people get to my time first doesn’t mean I’m disrespecting other voters.”
Stumblingbear, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, said the other two forum absences were because they were on Sunday. Herbert noted his argument was not about the Sunday absences but about the general pattern.
Stumblingbear said that though he attended one Sunday forum during the primary season, he decided afterward that he was not comfortable attending others.
The six City Commission candidates are competing for three open commission seats in the Nov. 7 election. The other candidates are Lisa Larsen, Jennifer Ananda, Mike Anderson and Bassem Chahine.
• VOTER GUIDE: Lawrence City Commission election