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Chestnut likely to file for seat on City Commission; expanded rental registration up for debate at City Hall; sidewalk umbrellas and sandwich boards may draw new city regulations

News and notes from around town:

• Who’s ready for another election? Well, it doesn’t matter, you are getting one anyway. The end of the presidential election typically marks the beginning of the local campaign season for city commission and school board races.

This year is no exception. The streets are starting to fill with scuttlebutt about who may run and who may not run in April’s Lawrence City Commission race.

It is likely one shoe will drop this week. I fully expect former Lawrence Mayor Rob Chestnut to announce that he will run for the City Commission. Chestnut chose not to see re-election after ending a four-year term on the commission in early 2011. After a two-year break, all the signs are pointing to him making another bid, but he hasn’t yet made an official announcement.

Chestnut was considered a bit of a budget wizard (is a wizard better than a wonk?) on the City Commission. He is the former chief financial officer for Lawrence-based Allen Press, and now holds the same type of position for a Topeka-based publishing company. The man loves numbers, and I suspect he’ll crunch many of them during a campaign that probably will have its fair share of questions about financial matters — ranging from possible water and sewer bill increases to big ticket items such as the proposed $25 million recreation center.

As always, there are three commissioners on the five-member City Commission whose terms are expiring — Mike Amyx, Hugh Carter and Aron Cromwell. None has made an announcement about whether he seeks to run again.

Indications, however, are that Amyx will run again. As for Carter and Cromwell, I think there is a less than a 50 percent chance that either of them will seek re-election. I’m not sure either of them feels like he is in a position that to make the time commitment for the next two to four years, which is the length of a City Commission term. (First and second place winners in the election get a four-year term. Third place winners get a two-year term. Over the years, I’ve heard many incumbents say they would run again, if they could be guaranteed to finish third.)

So, Amyx and Chestnut would make two, but don’t forget Scott Criqui already has filed for the office. Criqui — a human resources commissioner for the city who also was recently named interim executive director for Lawrence-based Trinity In-Home Care — started campaigning for the 2013 City Commission race roughly during the Hoover Administration. Well, not quite. He filed for office back in June.

As for others who may jump into the race, I know that Leslie Soden — the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association president who has led some of the opposition to the proposed hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire — has been contemplating a run. It will be interesting to see if she decides to run. She recently got a prime political appointment from City Hall when she was named to the new Joint Economic Development Council.

I would expect at least a couple more candidates will emerge. Two years ago, there were five candidates, and that was the smallest field in memory. Historically, there usually are eight or nine candidates, and sometimes we have been around a dozen.

• Here’s a topic that likely will be a campaign issue regardless of how city commissioners deal with it at their meeting this week: Rental registration.

As we previously reported, some neighborhood advocates are lobbying the city to expand its rental registration program to include all rental units in the city. Absent that, they would like to have at least all rental units 50 years and older be required to register, which would subject them to periodic health and safety inspections from the city.

Currently, only single-family zoned properties that are used as rentals are required to register with the city and undergo the city inspections once every three years. That accounts for only about 10 percent of the rental units in the city.

Commissioners are set to debate the idea at their Tuesday evening meeting. Commissioners will be presented with several sets of numbers related to a possible expansion of the program. They include:

— A program that would inspect all rental units at least 50 years old once every three years. The city estimates the program would add about 2,500 rental units initially. City staff members believe they would need to hire one new inspector and one new administrative assistant to staff the program. Total startup costs are projected to be about $86,000.

— A program that would inspect all rental units in the city once every three years. The city estimates the program would add about 18,600 units to the program and would require five new inspectors and two new administrative assistants. Total startup costs are projected to be about $370,000.

The city currently charges a $25 annual fee for rental units that are part of the city’s rental inspection program that covers only single-family zoned rentals.

The annual fee would need to increase to about $45 in order to cover the additional operating costs if the program is expanded to include all units at least 50 years old, a report from City Hall estimates. But due to economies of scale, the city estimates the current $25 fee would nearly cover the additional operating costs if all units in the city were inspected.

It will be interesting to see how much the city’s landlord community fights the proposal. I think they’ll need to put up a fairly stiff effort, if they want to ward off the new regulations.

Commissioners in the past have expressed support for expanding the program, but always have balked at the start-up costs. Given some of the city’s past spending decisions, it will be more difficult for the city to argue that it can’t afford the one-time start-up costs.

But commissioners also don’t have to look very far to see how contentious a political issue rental registration can become. The city of Manhattan in recent years passed a rental registration program, then a new slate of commissioners got elected. One of the first items repealed by the new commission was the rental registration program.

In Lawrence, it is difficult to think of a group that can be more politically influential than landlords and real estate interests, if they want to be.

• Some people sit on the Massachusetts Street sidewalks with a guitar. I think I may sit out there with a portable welder and an acetylene torch. There may be some business to be had.

City commissioners at their Tuesday meeting will consider adding new regulations cracking down on umbrellas attached to sidewalk dining areas in downtown.

Many restaurants in downtown have begun connecting large umbrellas to their sidewalk dining railings. The city has become concerned that the umbrellas often overhang the portion of the sidewalk still used by pedestrians. Many times the umbrellas hang so low that people run the risk hitting them with their heads. The city has received a few complaints from members of the public, and City Commissioner Aron Cromwell — who, not coincidentally, is the tallest city commissioner in recent memory — has mentioned it.

City staff members are recommending a new regulation that would require the lowest point of all umbrellas to be at least 80 inches above the sidewalk.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the umbrellas are mounted in special holders that are welded to the wrought iron railings of the sidewalk dining area. I really don’t know how much modification will be needed to those expensive railings. I’m mainly just looking for an excuse to sit with a lit acetylene torch next to some of the less talented guitar players in downtown.

• While they’re at it, city commissioners also are being asked to tackle the growing issue of sandwich boards and other signs that are showing up on city sidewalks.

During a recent trip down Massachusetts Street, the city found 35 such signs out on the sidewalks. Staff members are proposing a simple regulation that would prohibit any sandwich board that is larger than 32 inches wide or 48 inches tall.

The regulations also would limit businesses to one sandwich board per entrance. The city also is proposing that the signs be within 12 inches of the building, and that at least six feet of passable sidewalk be maintained.

A bigger issue may be that city staff is proposing that, once these regulations are passed, the city get more strict in enforcing the sign code downtown and at other businesses. For example, there are several businesses downtown that attach banners to their sidewalk railings advertising drink specials and such. Those generally aren’t allowed. The same goes for businesses that tie large bunches of balloons onto the railings and such.

Commissioners will discuss the proposed sign regulations at their Tuesday evening meeting.

But fear not, business owners, the new regulations don’t say anything about acetylene torches. Call me, and I’ll sit in front of your business for awhile. After all, what says red hot deals better than a lit acetylene torch?

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