Lawrence City Commission elects Lisa Larsen as mayor, Bart Littlejohn as vice mayor
photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World
Story updated at 10:52 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6:
Lisa Larsen, the most senior member of the Lawrence City Commission, will be back in the mayor’s chair for the coming year after being elected to the position by her fellow commissioners on Tuesday.
The Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously as part of its meeting Tuesday to elect Larsen, who served as vice mayor this year, to the mayor position. In her speech, Larsen spoke to what she saw as the top issues for the upcoming year, including the ongoing development code update and the city’s work to address housing and homelessness. Larsen said the code update would be pivotal for the city’s future.
“I believe this task is likely going to have the greatest impact on the growth and development of our community,” Larsen said. “It has an opportunity to reshape how we develop new growth and also how we manage infill and redevelopments.”
The land development code, which has not been updated since 2006, covers building density, parking requirements and land uses, or what type of use can occur where, as well as various other aspects of development. Larsen said the code update was an opportunity to meet the housing and commercial development needs the city faces, including a lack of affordable housing, the need for business growth, and the need to address climate change. She said she hoped to see a draft of the update, if not a final product, by the end of 2023.
Larsen said she thought other important issues in the coming year would include economic development; housing and homelessness; a continued focus on city infrastructure; and the upcoming discussion of potential changes to the city’s government structure. She said the rewrite of the development code will make a significant impact on economic development, and coupled with the new Panasonic battery plant being constructed in nearby De Soto, will give the city an opportunity to take advantage of the economic impact coming its way.
“I believe there is a need to explore more public-private partnerships to ensure we are in the best position to capture these changes,” Larsen said.
Larsen said housing and homelessness has been an ongoing discussion, and with the development of the city’s new Housing Initiatives Division and the city’s commitment to eliminating chronic homelessness using the Built for Zero housing model, she believed the city was in the best position to address the emergency aspect of the problem as well as the long-term needs of affordable housing.
“We need to continue this path and work with our partners to ensure we take advantage of the strengths throughout our community,” Larsen said.
Regarding infrastructure, Larsen said it was vital that the city continue to emphasize and dedicate resources to infrastructure repair and maintenance. For the city’s government structure — the commission has discussed potentially moving to a directly elected mayor or election by districts — she said she’d like to see the commission make a decision regarding whether to place potential changes on the ballot by the end of May, if not sooner.
Larsen also said she would like to see the city develop a tax incentive program for neighborhood restoration for owner-occupied properties. She said she’d like that to come back for discussion on a future agenda, with the goal of finalizing a plan by the end of 2023. Lastly, she said the underlying strength of Lawrence was its citizens, and she encouraged the community to engage in civil and healthy discussions about issues as it works to find the best path forward.
“I encourage each of us to approach the future with an open mind, to be willing to view our community through the eyes of others, to accept that changes may be needed and to be part of needed changes,” Larsen said.
Larsen said it was an honor to serve the community, and thanked her friends and family for their support, especially her 83-year-old mother, who she said was watching from her home in western Kansas, and her partner, who was in the audience.
Larsen was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the commission in 2015, and was later the top vote winner in the 2017 and 2021 elections. She previously served as mayor in 2019. Traditionally, the commission chooses the mayor and vice mayor based on general election results.
The commission then voted 4-1, with Commissioner Amber Sellers opposed, to name Bart Littlejohn as vice mayor. Sellers, who came in third after Larsen and Littlejohn in the most recent election, said she sought to nominate herself as vice mayor.
Outgoing Mayor Courtney Shipley also made remarks as part of the meeting. Shipley said in part that she was honored and humbled to have served as mayor, and was grateful for the support and engagement from the community. Shipley also thanked her family and friends for their support, particularly her husband, who she said takes up a lot of slack in her absence and makes her service possible.
Shipley spoke to some of the accomplishments of the last year, including the hiring of several key city positions (fire chief, human resources director, engagement coordinator, and staff for the city’s new housing initiatives division); progress to align the city’s budget with its strategic plan; and all the work citywide to make celebration of the University of Kansas men’s basketball team national championship go smoothly.
In other business, the commission:
• Voted unanimously to rezone a 0.13-acre site at 900 Pennsylvania St. from general industrial to limited industrial to allow the building to be used as a restaurant. The commission heard concerns from several neighbors, who filed a protest petition, including concerns about noise, hours of operation and other potential disruptions. In approving the rezoning, the commission emphasized that the project would have to go through a site plan process, which would address such topics.
• Voted unanimously to issue up to $5.3 million in industrial revenue bonds for the Community Children’s Center to obtain a sales tax exemption on construction materials and labor for the renovation of its newly acquired building at 346 Maine St. Commissioners spoke to the need for early child care and expressed strong support for the project.
• Began discussing a recommendation from city staff to spend the city’s remaining $8.29 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds on eight projects related to housing. The biggest item was a recommendation to spend $4.65 million to invest in tiny, modular homes that can be an alternative to tents for those experiencing homelessness. Commissioners said they would be interested in discussing that and other items, but that they wanted more details and were not ready to commit to a dollar amount for the modular homes project or to commit to spending all of the city’s remaining ARPA dollars on the eight projects.