Lawrence’s former mayor has left a mess behind. Yes, I know, that is not exactly breaking news at this point. But I’m talking about a literal mess, as in a pile of trash strewn about the front yard of his former home.
Journal-World photographer Nick Krug took these photos a few days ago at Jeremy Farmer’s former residence at 1135 Randall Road after some neighbors had called us to complain about the mess.
In case you have forgotten, Farmer resigned his post as mayor of Lawrence in August after he resigned his job as the executive director of a local food bank where it was discovered he failed to pay more than $50,000 in payroll taxes. The food bank’s board later alleged that Farmer overpaid himself by more than $52,000 over a two-year period, and deceived the Just Food board on multiple financial matters. We all await whether Farmer will face criminal charges in the matter.
Farmer’s whereabouts have been unclear since his resignation, and he hasn’t returned phone calls. Looking at county property records for 1135 Randall, I reached out to the owner of the property. The man who answered the phone didn’t want to give his name but did say he was the landlord for the property. He told me Farmer moved out of the property on Oct. 31. The man said it was Farmer who left the trash in the yard, and he was disappointed when he saw the mess. The man called city sanitation crews, who picked up the trash, he said.
The man said Farmer didn’t say where he is living these days. Farmer didn't return a call for comment.
Certainly this isn’t the first time a mess has been left by a Lawrence renter leaving town. But I did find it noteworthy, in part, because Farmer once was an elected official who railed against such things. It would be hard for me to count the number of times Farmer climbed atop his soapbox to lecture about how we all needed to be better neighbors and about how we all needed to do more to build a community.
Hopefully, the soapbox is in that pile somewhere.
As for other updates on Farmer’s situation, we are kind of in wait-and-see mode. Charges haven’t been filed yet. As we’ve previously reported, it doesn’t sound like the type of case that local prosecutors are planning to deal with. Instead, my understanding is that federal investigators have taken the lead.
I don’t have great detail on the matter, but there could be numerous federal agencies that could be interested, with the IRS likely being near the top of the list. People who are familiar with such matters tell me federal investigations take their time. I think it could be months yet before we know whether criminal charges will be filed in the matter.
But there likely will be other opportunities for updates before then. As we previously have reported, the Just Food board has ordered an audit. My understanding is that audit is still in process. But when it is completed, we’ll seek to get a copy and report on its results.
The community has rallied around Just Food, and helped the nonprofit complete a fundraising drive to pay off its debt to taxing authorities. But, I think there is strong interest in the community about getting to the bottom of what happened at the organization. That interest likely will become stronger if Just Food seeks city or county funding in the future to help it keep its doors open.
Fallout from Farmer allegations may create questions at City Hall; process to find City Commission replacement gets going tonight
It arrived with a thud, but it wasn’t exactly unexpected. I’m talking about the other shoe dropping on Jeremy Farmer and his troubled tenure at Just Food.
I think for weeks now it has been clear to many folks in Lawrence that there was more bad news to come from Just Food and what it would find about its former executive director. After several weeks of seeking more information and records from Just Food, the the Journal-World learned Wednesday that Just Food’s investigation alleges that Farmer overpaid himself by more than $52,000 over a two-year period, among other misdeeds.
Now, the question becomes whether there are more shoes to drop. An organization that surely has that question on its mind is Lawrence City Hall. Farmer, of course, was a city commissioner and, at the time of his resignation in August, was the city’s mayor.
I asked Mayor Mike Amyx on Wednesday whether he thought the new allegations against Farmer should cause the city to conduct its own inquiry to assure everyone that Farmer was not misusing his public office. Amyx told me it was an issue he wanted to discuss with City Hall staff, but that he would provide me an answer.
It will be an interesting decision. The city already has reviewed Farmer’s city expense account and credit card information. It requested and received about $1,100 in reimbursements from Farmer for expenses that staff deemed were not part of city business. But is there more to look at? Let me be clear: I’m confident the financial checks and balances that exist at Lawrence City Hall are much more significant than what existed at Just Food. But are the worries about Jeremy Farmer confined to just how he deals with other people’s money? Should the city look at the much broader issue of whether there was an abuse of power by Farmer?
I don’t have any particular instances to report, but I think it is fair to raise the question at this point. If allegations made by Just Food are proven to be true — and that still needs to happen — then it is clear that Lawrence’s one-time mayor and city commissioner was devious and unscrupulous. Unfortunately you don’t have to look very far — see the vote buying scheme in Junction City — to see the damage devious and unscrupulous elected officials can do.
That will create concerns for Lawrence residents, who already made it clear that they believed the previous City Commission had broken some issues of trust as it related to the no-bid work at Rock Chalk Park, and with other issues.
What can the city feasibly examine at this point, though? That may be a tough one. The city could review all of Farmer’s official emails on his city account. Unfortunately, I believe a lot of city business is conducted on the private email accounts of commissioners.
The city could look at the point where Just Food came before the City Commission for items. Those instances weren’t numerous, but there were some.
Was Farmer unduly involved in the recommendation of any contracts awarded by the city? I’m not saying that he was, but the city awards a lot of contracts not through a straight-bid process but rather through a request-for-proposals process that gives the city leeway in what firms it chooses.
Perhaps the most important thing the city could do is to make it clear that it wants to know about any concerns related to Farmer and how he used his power as a city commissioner. I think it is particularly important to send that message to city employees. The rank-and-file employees who do the day-in-day-out work of running the city see an awful lot. I do believe city leaders try to promote a culture where employees are expected to come forward anytime they see something that raises a red flag. But, let’s face it, it can be difficult to tell that type of news to your boss. City officials may want to consider creating a system that makes that easier in this case. And, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention this: If city employees don’t feel comfortable telling their bosses, they can sure tell me.
There are probably other things the city can do to ensure that it knows the truth about Farmer and his tenure on the commission. The good news is the city has its own performance auditor. Auditors across the country have had to conduct these types of reviews in the past, so Lawrence wouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Perhaps city leaders will find that there is no reason to look further into Farmer and his time on the commission. But given that many of us have been burned by Farmer, it would be foolhardy to not have the conversation.
• A quick note to clear up a rumor. There certainly have been statements made on social media that the approximately $1,100 in checks that Farmer wrote to reimburse the city for his improper usage of city credit cards bounced. That’s not accurate.
I checked with interim City Manager Diane Stoddard about that topic in mid-August, shortly after Farmer resigned. She sent me an email on Aug. 18 confirming that the checks had cleared the bank and that the city had been reimbursed. Stoddard confirmed to me again today that the checks have cleared.
• The work to find a replacement for Farmer’s seat on the commission really gets rolling tonight. The advisory board that is helping the City Commission review the 14 applicants for the vacant position meets at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.
The city has released information about how that meeting will proceed. Basically, the 12-member committee will spend some time discussing any extra letters of reference that some candidates have submitted. Then, each committee member will be asked to disclose his or her top four to six applicants, then explain his or her rationale for the ratings.
Once that part of the process is done, the advisory board members will be asked to complete a written ballot where they will select up to 12 semi-finalists. That process means there could be fewer than 12 semi-finalists. City Attorney Toni Wheeler and Senior Assistant City Attorney Randy Larkin will tabulate the votes. State Rep. Boog Highberger, who also is a member of the advisory committee, will monitor the vote tabulation.
The semi-finalists then will be announced, and they will move on to a public forum that will be hosted by the advisory committee and the Voter Education Coalition on Sept. 24. At the conclusion of the Sept. 24 forum, the advisory committee will recommend six names for the City Commission to consider.
Ultimately, the successful candidate must win a majority vote from the City Commission. City commissioners will hold a special meeting on Oct. 1 to interview the finalists. Commissioners are scheduled to select a successor at their Oct. 6 meeting.
City commissioner says some travel expenses by former Mayor Jeremy Farmer have drawn questions; city expected to release details today; Soden talks about pending appointment
I’ve gotten word this morning that Lawrence City Hall will be releasing some information about some travel expenses from former Mayor Jeremy Farmer.
Commissioner Leslie Soden, who is serving as acting mayor for the city following Farmer’s resignation yesterday, told me she is directing City Hall to release information about some travel expenses of Farmer that have been called into question. I had received a tip that there may be some questions related to some travel expenses, and I was in the process of preparing an open records request to City Hall. Soden said after Farmer’s resignation and the mounting questions related to finances at Just Food — see our article about its 2014 tax return — she decided that the city needed to be proactive in addressing the travel expenses with the public.
I don’t yet have the full details related to the travel expenses, but Soden confirmed that Farmer has repaid the city for some travel expenses that previously were paid for through city funds. I don’t know what type of amounts we are talking about. Soden said City Hall staff members had been working on resolving the travel expense issues with Farmer for the last month or so. She said commissioners were just recently notified of the issue.
I put a call into Farmer this morning, but had no luck in contacting him.
I think it is important that we recognize where we are at with this story at the moment: Details are few, and we don’t yet understand the extent of what questions the expenses have created. But these are very unusual times at City Hall right now, and I felt it is important that you know that City Hall officials, in addition to Just Food leaders, are looking into financial matters related to Farmer.
Soden expects the city will release information at some point today, but she’s just now begun working with city staff on crafting a release.
I also had a chance to talk with Soden about her thoughts on the selection process of a new commissioner to fill the vacant term of Farmer. She said she very much favors a process that can be wrapped up in a relatively short period of time. We had an article yesterday where Commissioner Matthew Herbert speculated that it could take 60 to 90 days to fill the position. Soden said she thought that time period was too long.
“I think the sooner the better,” Soden said. “I don’t think drawing this out is going to help the situation. We just need to find someone who we all can like.”
Soden said it is important for the commission to find a candidate who can receive unanimous support from the remaining four commissioners.
“We don’t need a split vote on this,” Soden said. “That would put the new person in a terrible position.”
Soden offered no names for consideration during our conversation, but she said finding someone with experience would be important. That could be a past city commissioner, a past county commissioner, or maybe even someone who has served on key city boards, such as the Planning Commission.
Soden, however, said she doesn’t think it is feasible to consider anyone from the previous City Commission that left office in April.
“I’m not looking for anyone who had served on the most recent commission,” Soden said.
Mike Dever, Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm all left that commission following the April elections. Riordan and Schumm both sought re-election but lost. Dever did not seek a new term, which would have been his third.
It is not surprising that Soden has concerns about tapping someone from that commission. Those three commissioners all were supporters of the Rock Chalk Park project, while the three newly-elected commissioners — Soden, Herbert and Stuart Boley — all campaigned on a platform that change was needed following that controversial public-private partnership.
We’ll let you know what other details develop today.
Get ready for a night of pomp, circumstance and free cookies at Lawrence City Hall. This year we may want to add popcorn to the list as well because Tuesday’s installation of new commissioners and an election of a mayor seem to have more drama than usual.
Normally, the election of a city commissioner to serve a one-year term as mayor has been pretty routine stuff. It is based on tradition — more on that in a moment — and tradition calls for Jeremy Farmer to become the next mayor of the city. Usually at this point in the process, everyone has agreed and all that is left is the formality of a vote.
But within the last several days, emails have been floating around from constituents urging that Farmer be bypassed for mayor and that the current mayor, Mike Amyx, be elected to serve another one-year term.
Bottom line, I think odds are good that Farmer will be the next mayor, but it is noteworthy that some commissioners have still yet to commit to that idea. I talked with both Commissioners-elect Stuart Boley and Leslie Soden. Both of them stopped short of saying they were ready to support Farmer for mayor.
“I think we just need to wait and see,” said Boley on Monday morning.
Soden said she also was still weighing that decision.
“Tradition is definitely important,” Soden said. “But with this election it seemed pretty clear that the city is looking for a new attitude from the City Commission. I don’t know. This one is a tough one to balance.”
Soden said she thinks the commission could go one of three ways for mayor: Farmer, Amyx or herself.
“I’m weighing all those options right now,” she said.
I think Farmer is still likely to become the next mayor because Monday morning Amyx threw his support behind Farmer. It was not clear that was going to be the case, but Amyx on Monday morning said he wanted to end any speculation about his intentions.
“Tradition has served us very well,” Amyx said. “Jeremy has worked hard over the last couple of years. He has been somebody who has been involved with a great number of things. He has put in his time as a commissioner and vice mayor and also during the election two years ago. He deserves to be in the position of mayor.”
As for Farmer, he said he’s ready to serve.
“It would be a privilege to be able to serve my community in that capacity,” Farmer said.
In terms of what has caused this unusual episode of ‘guess the next mayor,’ part of it is just the general discomfort voters showed with the current commission, evidenced by the fact both of the incumbents seeking re-election — Commissioners Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm — failed in their bids. But Farmer said he understands that part of it is likely because he has irritated some constituents with a fairly aggressive style that sometimes has led to heated discussions with members of the public during City Commission meetings.
Farmer said he is working to change that demeanor.
“I’ve been trying to have a bigger ear than a bigger mouth,” Farmer said. “I want people to understand that I will be receptive. I’m going to be committed to transparency, openness and communication.”
In case you are confused about all this mayoral elections stuff, don’t feel bad. We did just have an election, so it is natural to think that the issue of mayor was settled through that process. But Lawrence, like many other cities, doesn’t directly elect a mayor. Instead, the five-member commission picks one of its own members to serve a one-year term as mayor.
An arm-wrestling tournament didn’t seem fair, so commissioners through the decades came up with a different type of tradition to pick a mayor. It basically goes like this: Whoever is vice mayor becomes mayor, and whoever was the top vote winner in the most recent election becomes vice mayor. Whoever was the second place vote winner in the election will be vice mayor the following year.
So, get out your scorecards and follow along. In 2013, Amyx was the top vote winner in the election. He became the vice mayor in April of 2013 and then became mayor in April 2014. Farmer was the second-place winner in the 2013 election, so he became vice mayor in April 2014 and is in line to become mayor on Tuesday. Soden was the top vote winner in last week’s election, so she is in line to become vice mayor on Tuesday and then mayor in April 2016. Boley was the second place winner last week and is in line to be vice mayor in April 2016 and then mayor in 2017. Matthew Herbert is the other new member elected on Tuesday. He finished third and receives only a two-year term and, by tradition, is not in the running for a mayoral spot.
Whew. Tradition can be tough to follow. But for the most part, city commissioners have followed this one. As near as anyone can remember, there have been two times in the past 30 some years that commissioners have deviated from the selection process. One time Nancy Shontz was bypassed and another time Mike Rundle was skipped.
We’ll see how this all goes on Tuesday. It does seem to have the potential to create a little tension among the commissioners, but perhaps not. The surest thing is that a new commission will be seated.
And yes, there will be some pomp and circumstance involved. There is a formal State of the City Address, a formal swearing in ceremony and, if tradition holds, a reception that includes free cookies for all.
That’s one tradition that I plan to hold onto — perhaps even with one in each hand.
It didn’t take long for the tales of tragedy in Moore, Okla., to cause at least one city leader to begin asking questions of whether Lawrence is adequately prepared for a similar natural disaster.
City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer raised questions at last night’s City Commission meeting about whether Lawrence’s building codes for public buildings, like schools, are adequate when it comes to providing shelter from tornadoes.
“I think it would behoove us to look at ways to make our school buildings safer,” Farmer said. “If we don’t, shame on us.”
Farmer's comments Tuesday night came after he first broached the subject on his Facebook page earlier in the day. From his page: “I understand that natural disasters happen. I understand that we have better things in place to enhance warnings. But if we parade children into a hallway and tell them to cover their necks with their hands, and an EF-5 comes rolling through town, it won't matter. It’s time we stop making excuses for lives being taken because we were too irresponsible to think outside of a box, or too cheap to make sure this NEVER happens again.
“Reinforced tunnels, underground schools. Something. Smarter people than me are thinking about this. We have to figure something out. Innocent lives being taken because we didn't act when we possessed the innovation to stop it is unacceptable to me.”
Commissioners asked Planning Director Scott McCullough to produce a report summarizing what Lawrence’s building codes require in the way of storm shelters in public buildings and whether there are feasible additions that could be made to the code.
I would look for that report in the next few weeks.
As for what is really possible, I don’t know. Lawrence Public Schools spokeswoman Julie Boyle told me Lawrence public schools don’t have FEMA designated safe rooms, but obviously they do have plans to locate students and staff to interior portions of the buildings, which are better designed to withstand severe weather.
We’ll see how much, if any, serious discussion the idea of stricter building standards gets at City Hall.
Tuesday’s discussion arose after Mayor Mike Dever asked whether the city was planning to send any personnel to the Oklahoma City area to assist with the devastation following this week’s tornado.
City Manager David Corliss said the city hadn’t yet been asked for any assistance, but he plans to spread an offer of assistance to public administration officials he knows in the Oklahoma City area.
“I certainly will make it clear that we are available to do that,” Corliss said.