Signs point to Amyx as next mayor; questions about whether commissioners need city credit cards; neighbors expressing safety concern near New York Elementary

photo by: Mike Yoder

Vice Mayor Leslie Soden and City Commissioner Mike Amyx greet each other before a special commission meeting Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of mayor.

It sure looks like Mike Amyx is going to once again be Lawrence’s mayor. City commissioners at their meeting tonight are expected to choose a new mayor to replace Jeremy Farmer, who resigned his seat on the commission last week amid financial questions.

I’ve chatted with Commissioner and Acting Mayor Leslie Soden, and she has indicated that she’s open to the idea of Amyx serving as mayor during these unusual times.

“I’m very much interested in doing what is best for the city,” Soden said. “Experience, continuity, predictability is what is best for the city right now.”

There have been some questions about who the next mayor would be. Soden, who is vice mayor, has been serving as acting mayor since Farmer’s resignation. City tradition says the vice mayor is next in line to be mayor. But no one was anticipating that it would be this soon. Soden was expected to take over as mayor in April, when Farmer’s term was scheduled to end. The issue that has been raised is that Soden has been on the commission for only about five months.

Then there is Amyx. The longtime owner of a downtown barber shop has served as Lawrence’s mayor five times, dating back to 1985. His latest stint as mayor was from April 2014 to April 2015. At the moment, Amyx is the only member of the commission who has more than five months of experience as a city commissioner.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Vice Mayor Leslie Soden and City Commissioner Mike Amyx greet each other before a special commission meeting Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of mayor.

I’ve spoken with Amyx, and he said he’s willing to serve as mayor.

“If my colleagues ask me to serve, I would be very proud to serve,” Amyx said. “It is a position I have been very proud to serve in, and it is a job that I take as serious as anything I do.”

Make no mistake, though, Soden is still interested in serving as mayor. She was the top vote winner in the April elections, which traditionally has been an assurance that you’ll get a chance to serve a one-year term as mayor. Soden, however, would rather have that term begin in April 2016 as originally planned.

“In the future, I’m interested in serving as mayor, and April would be a good time to start,” Soden said. “I think it is important to allow the process to work. Part of the process is serving a year as vice mayor to become prepared to be mayor.”

So, I expect picking Amyx as mayor won’t be too difficult at tonight’s meeting, which begins at 5:45 p.m. at City Hall. I suspect commissioners will agree to make his term run into April 2016.

At some point, though, commissioners will have to decide whether to change the traditional term of the mayor. The traditional starting date for a new mayor has long been April because it matches up with the city’s election cycle. Every two years, there is a citywide election to elect three city commissioners. Those commissioners take office in April, and the commission selects a new mayor as part of the first meeting of the new commission.

But state legislators — who are apparently the experts in good government — decided it would be better to change the time frame for local elections, hopefully to boost voter turnout. So, in the future, new city commissioners will take office in January. That process will begin in January 2018.

It is reasonable to think that the City Commission may want to change the term of mayor so that the term begins as new commissioners join the commission. If so, that would mean somebody is going to get a shortened term as mayor. That somebody could be Commissioner Stuart Boley who was the second place finisher in the April elections. By tradition, he would be in line to serve as vice mayor next year and then serve as mayor from April 2017 to April 2018.

But right now April 2017 seems like a long time away. Commissioners have plenty to figure out in the here and now.

• It will be interesting to see how much discussion commissioners have about the idea of credit cards for city commissioners. Part of the fallout from Farmer’s resignation has been his use of a city-issued credit card. He placed some personal expenses on the city credit card because he said his personal cards had become compromised. The personal expenses were discovered by city staff members, and interim City Manager Diane Stoddard questioned Farmer about the expenses. Farmer ended up reimbursing the city for about $1,100 worth of personal expenses.

When I talked to Amyx, he said he wasn’t sure why city commissioners were recently issued city credit cards.

“At least for myself, there does not need to be a credit card issued in my name,” Amyx said. “I’ll be honest with you, that doesn’t need to happen for me.”

photo by: Mike Yoder

City Commissioner Mike Amyx speaks during a special commission meeting Friday, Aug. 14, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of Mayor. From left are commissioners Leslie Soden, serving as vice mayor, Stuart Boley, Amyx and Matthew Herbert.

My understanding is the city in the past did not issue city credit cards to commissioners. Instead, there was a single city credit card that could be checked out to a commissioner to use in an emergency situation while traveling on city business. Before, I believe commissioners paid for expenses they incurred on city business, then sought reimbursement from City Hall.

Commissioners in April, though, were each given a city credit card with his or her name on it. Since this incident with Farmer, my understanding is that all the credit cards have been returned to City Hall. Stoddard has told me that Farmer was the only commissioner who had used a card since they had been issued in April. He also was the only commissioner who had done overnight travel for city business since April.

At the moment, I don’t think the credit card issue is one that is going to bloom into a controversy for city staff. What I’ve heard from commissioners thus far is that they have been pleased with how staff members handled the issue. They spotted questionable expenses on Farmer’s card, and Stoddard had the conviction to question him about it.

But the issue does seem like it may spark a review of what is included in the city of Lawrence’s travel policy. A look at some of Farmer’s expenses that weren’t personal in nature may raise some eyebrows. Farmer frequently used valet parking at Kansas City International Airport and at various hotels. There were times Farmer had a rental car but also had taxi expense on the same trip.

Based on the documents the city has released, it appears Farmer on at least two occasions took advantage of the fuel service program that rental car companies offered. You know the service: The rental car folks will fill the car up with gasoline so you don’t have to when you return. But that normally comes at a pretty good price. It appears the city paid $8.99 a gallon for gasoline as part of that service while Farmer was renting a car in San Antonio.

I don’t think using those types of services is particularly prohibited in the city’s travel policy — the policy says employees are “expected to use the most economical means available with reasonable consideration given to the time and distance involved.” Whether the policy needs to become more specific may get some consideration from commissioners.

“Most people would not spend that type of money on gasoline,” Amyx said. “Those are clearly things that are going to raise eyebrows, and probably should.”

But Amyx said he thinks the city’s staff has done a good job of handling the matter.

“I believe staff was right on top of this,” Amyx said. “I was made aware of the situation last week. They were doing what they needed to do to get the matter settled.”

• There is other city business to discuss, and commissioners will have a good, old-fashioned neighborhood concern to deal with at tonight’s meeting. I’m hearing from some residents near New York Elementary School that they plan to be at tonight’s meeting to express concern about the construction project the school district has underway at New York Elementary.

Area resident Eric Kirkendall tells me there are two concerns: 1. Neighbors don’t believe there has been adequate fencing placed around the construction site. 2. Neighbors don’t feel they had adequate notice about a portion of the district’s plans that calls for angled parking to be added along New Jersey Street near the school.

On the parking issue, Kirkendall — who lives near the new parking area — said he realizes it is probably too late to eliminate the parking from the plans. But he said neighbors are concerned the additional parking will create more traffic on New Jersey Street, and the nature of the parking could create some safety concerns with people backing out into traffic and such.

Neighbors want commissioners to consider making the 900 block of New Jersey Street one way, allowing only southbound traffic. Also the neighbors would like the city to add some traffic-calming devices — like speed bumps –additional landscaping along New Jersey Street and signs that designate the parking spaces for school parking only.

The construction fencing issue has an interesting twist. As we reported last week, an 8-year old was seriously injured after the child and a babysitter went onto the playground of the school, which is an active construction site. The child fell and suffered a traumatic head injury.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Contrary to city codes, no safety fencing was in place when an 8-year-old Lawrence boy was injured in an Aug. 13 fall at New York Elementary. It has since been installed.

Kirkendall said city code requires construction fencing around the site. But here’s the twist: The school district projects are not being built under the city’s building code. Instead, the city and the school district agreed to exempt the school from city building code requirements. Instead, the district is meeting state building standards for codes. That saved the school district considerable money on building-permit fees. In an email about the matter, Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning and development services, said issues related to the fencing were not in the city’s purview on this project.

“The city does not permit or inspect school building projects at this time,” McCullough wrote in an email that was forwarded to Kirkendall. “Any safety concerns related to the school district’s property should be directed to district officials.”

No word yet on whether the school district plans to put up additional fencing on the construction site. UPDATE: I’ve had a chance to check with neighbors at the site this morning, and there is additional fencing work underway at the site. UPDATE NO 2: Julie Boyle, communications director for Lawrence public schools, has told me that permanent fencing on the south side of the project site and temporary fencing on the north side of the project is scheduled to be completed by Wednesday.