Candidates differ on rental licensing program; discuss views on city management, commission changes

When the current City Commission passed a new rental registration and licensing program last year, it was one of the more sweeping program changes made by the commission in recent memory.

Now the question is whether the program will be swept out with a new commission.

Of the six candidates running for the Lawrence City Commission, all said they support the basic goal of the program — to ensure that renters are living in safe conditions. But candidates were more divided on whether the city should inspect a sample of apartments every year, which is what’s called for with the new regulations.

In interviews with the Journal-World, candidates were split into two groups: those who were enthusiastic about the program, and those who were wary that the program may be overreaching.

Candidates Terry Riordan, Bob Schumm and Leslie Soden all said they thought the city had crafted a fine program that calls for apartments of all types to be inspected on a periodic basis.

“It is going to provide safety at no cost to the taxpayers and very little cost to the rentals,” Riordan said of the program, which is designed to be funded with fees paid by landlords. The program is underway with single-family rental units, but inspections won’t start for all apartment types until July.

Riordan and Schumm were both architects of the system, and were among the commissioners who approved the plan on a 3-2 vote. Commissioners Mike Amyx and Mike Dever voted against it. Dever is leaving the commission. Amyx remains.

Soden, a supporter of the proposal as it was being debated last year, said she thought the system did a good job of balancing the need to ensure safe housing with the rights of tenants and landlords.

“I think the system to inspect apartments will work really well,” Soden said.

Candidates Stuart Boley, Matthew Herbert and Stan Rasmussen all raised questions about whether the city could come up with a better program to ensure adequate living standards in rentals.

“I would like to see it be a complaint-based system rather than all of us in the industry paying a fee because a few of us run a shoddy business,” said Herbert, who operates a property management business in addition to his job as Lawrence High teacher.

Rasmussen didn’t go that far, but said it’s worth keeping an eye on whether a complaint-based system would be better.

“I’m not sure the broader system is necessary,” Rasmussen said. “I’m worried it could get a little expensive and get out of hand. But I’m willing to see how it goes.”

Boley said changing the system wouldn’t be one of his top priorities, but he’s uncertain the program will pay for itself as planned. He said there also may be some questions of fairness.

“Is it a good idea to have all the landlords essentially bear the costs for the program when they are not causing the problem?” Boley asked. “I think the jury is still out on it.”

The rental inspection program is one of several issues that the new commission may deal with. Here’s a look at the candidates’ stances on several issues.

City Manager

The next commission may have the task of hiring a new city manager. Current City Manager David Corliss is a finalist for a position in Colorado. Whether he’ll leave his post is uncertain, but the announcement that he is a finalist for a new job was a first during his tenure. Here’s a look at what candidates had to say about what they would look for in a new city manager:

Boley: Professional qualifications, experience and skills as a good listener hopefully “will be baked into the DNA of any candidate,” Boley said. He said he would want a city manager who feels comfortable giving commissioners advice and guidance.

“I know I’m learning and will continue to learn for a long time,” Boley said. “It is really important to be able to rely on staff.”

Herbert: A professional who can gather information quickly and accurately, and communicate that information to the commission and public would be key, Herbert said.

“The Rock Chalk Park project has made it clear that the public wants to know what is going on,” Herbert said. “For a long time we treated city commissioners like city fathers,” Herbert said. “It has become apparent the community is not OK with that notion. The community wants to be involved in the process.”

Herbert said a city manager may need to take a more “proactive role in leadership,” especially if the city keeps its current system where a mayor serves only one year at a time.

Rasmussen: An experienced professional with team building and consensus building skills would be key, Rasmussen said. The position needs the management skills to oversee the day-to-day operations of all city departments, while also responding to the direction of the City Commission.

Rasmussen said he wants a city manager who also feels comfortable telling the commissioners that they may be heading down a wrong path, in his or her professional opinion.

“I want that professional judgment, personally,” Rasmussen said. “We’re paying for it. We should expect it.”

Riordan: Riordan said someone who can communicate with citizens would be important. He said he also wants a city manager who can communicate well with county government officials because there may be opportunities for greater efficiencies between the two governments.

“I want someone who can communicate what the possibilities and limitations are of an idea,” Riordan said. “I want someone who will present information and guidance to the City Commission, and leave the decisions to the City Commission.”

Schumm: A good people manager who can lead the city staff in an efficient manner is a key attribute, Schumm said. He also would want a city manager who would be “on the lookout for possibilities and opportunities that I may not be aware of, and then present them in a neutral manner.”

“I want the ideas balanced,” Schumm said. “I want the ideas to come with the plusses and minuses. I want the City Commission to really be making the final decisions. I don’t want it led by the city manager.”

Soden: She said Corliss has exhibited many of the traits needed in a good city manager.

“I’m impressed with his depth of knowledge on issues,” Soden said. “He has always been responsive to the concerns that came up in my neighborhood.”

She said she would like a city manager who provides more information about some of the costs associated with public incentives that cut into the city’s tax base. She also said a city manager needs to ensure that staff members have the freedom to write reports based on their best professional judgment rather than feeling pressured to write a report to meet the viewpoint of elected officials.

Commission structure

There’s been talk during the campaign that it may be time to change the City Commission’s current structure, which consists of five at-large commissioners. Commissioners choose a fellow commissioner to be mayor for a one-year term. Options discussed include a new position of mayor elected by voters. The idea of creating anywhere from four to eight positions that would be elected by precincts instead of by voters at-large also has been discussed.

Boley: Boley said he would want to have a “well-thought-out” discussion with the community before making any changes. He said he doesn’t believe the current system is necessarily broken, but wants to hear more from the public.

Herbert: He said he does not like the idea of creating city commissioner districts, but does support the idea of creating a directly elected mayor who would serve a multi-year term. He said the current system of a mayor elected by the other commissioners to serve a one-year term is largely ceremonial and “silly.” He said a multi-year term might allow a mayor to become more of a true leader in economic development-related issues. He said he would want to look at making the mayor a full-time position with professional-level wages.

Rasmussen: He said he’s open to having a discussion about changes. He thinks he would be more likely to support changes in the mayoral position instead of creating commissioner districts. He thinks commission districts could “dilute representation.” A multi-year mayor, however, may result in “more vision and planning long term.”

Riordan: Riordan was one of the first to bring up possible changes to the commission’s structure. He said a system that expands the commission to seven members may be beneficial. Under that system, four commissioners would be elected by district, two would be elected by the city at large, and the mayor would be elected by the city at large.

Schumm: Schumm said he thinks the commission needs to look at a way to accommodate more people, but said changing the commission’s structure would be a “bedrock decision.” He’s not sure what the public thinks of the idea. He said the idea of a multi-year term for mayor could be advantageous. He said the current system basically has the city manager playing the role of mayor on longer-term projects. He said that can create an uncomfortable position because it “puts the city manager in a political position, and political city managers don’t usually last long.”

Soden: Soden said representation by city commission district could help voters have more of a voice. She said a system where two commissioners elected from each district could be beneficial. That would create an eight-member commission, and a directly-elected mayor could vote in a case of a tie.

Ninth Street Arts Corridor

The Lawrence Arts Center has won a $500,000 grant to help convert the portion of Ninth Street east of Massachusetts into a new pedestrian-friendly street and a showcase for art. The city likely will need to contribute about $3 million in funding to do the actual infrastructure related work. Planning is underway now, and city funding could be needed in 2016. There has been talk of where the project fits into the city’s capital improvement plans, given the desire to build a new police headquarters with no or a minimal tax increase.

Boley: Project leaders and neighborhood leaders seem to be working better together on the project, he said. He likes the concept behind the project, but stopped short of saying where it would land on his list of funding priorities.

“I don’t want to pull the plug on it, but we do have to think about what our priorities are,” Boley said. “We have a lot of things in this town that could use attention.”

Herbert: He said the project “would hold a high priority” with him, in part because he thinks the street is in need of repair. He said the fact that art can be incorporated into the project adds value to the project.

Rasmussen: He said the project can be a real positive for the community. He said the city needs to be very sensitive to how the project impacts the existing East Lawrence neighborhood. He would need more information about the entire city budget before he could speak to what level of funding priority he would give the project.

Riordan: He said the project will be a “boon” to the Warehouse Arts District in East Lawrence and to the downtown area. A goal would be to great a project that doesn’t “change the flavor” of the East Lawrence neighborhood. Funding the project would be a high priority, he said.

Schumm: Schumm lists the project as one of the more exciting ones facing Lawrence. He said the completed project could be “one of Lawrence’s greatest assets,” and would “demonstrate to the world that we celebrate arts and culture.” Schumm said he’s committed to funding the project.

Soden: She said she is concerned that the $3 million price tag is causing the city to delay some other road projects that she said are likely in greater need of repair than Ninth Street. She said the project has great potential, but she would like to explore whether a project could be completed for less than $3 million.

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