At forum, most City Commission candidates call housing and homelessness the biggest issues facing Lawrence

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The candidates vying for three expiring terms on the Lawrence City Commission spoke during a candidate forum Saturday, July 15, 2023 at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.

All eight people running for the three open seats on the Lawrence City Commission appeared at a candidate forum Saturday, and just about all of them said housing and homelessness issues are the greatest challenges facing the city in the immediate future.

This was the second forum appearance in as many weeks for most of the group, including incumbents Amber Sellers, Brad Finkeldei and Courtney Shipley and potential newcomers Dustin Stumblingbear, Chris Flowers and Justine Burton. They all were present at a candidate forum hosted last Saturday by the local branch of the NAACP and this weekend they were joined by the other two candidates, Joshua Olafson and Mike Dever.

Besides their opening and closing statements, candidates at Saturday’s forum — which was hosted by the Douglas County Democratic Party — only had time to answer a couple of questions, one of which was their thoughts on the biggest challenge to the City of Lawrence in the next four years. For nearly the entire group, that challenge was Lawrence’s dearth of housing and the related issues affecting the unhoused population.

Some candidates, like Finkeldei, said these are big issues that require a multifaceted approach with “no easy answer.”

“If easy answers existed, all the cities across this country facing housing problems would’ve solved it, cities facing houselessness would’ve solved it,” Finkeldei said. “It’s not an easy problem; it’s a complex problem.”

But he said getting to a solution could start with the impending updates to the regulations that guide how development occurs in the city, the Land Development Code, which will be the subject of some community meetings in the next week.

The scale of these issues was a sentiment shared by Olafson, who noted that housing challenges connect with many of the issues Lawrence faces on the whole.

“I’d like to see Lawrence expand and grow,” Olafson said. “I’m excited for the Panasonic factory. I think it’ll bring in new people, families, into Lawrence and we should prepare for that as best we can.”

Flowers also mentioned the looming Panasonic battery plant coming to nearby De Soto as having the potential to make a big impact here. He also brought up a number of potential housing solutions: moving forward with adding density through infill development, leaning on the potential of the delayed Pallet Shelter Village and reducing the stigma that leads to people being “scared of the unhoused.”

“We need to stand up to NIMBYs and say ‘This housing project is for the good of the community,'” Flowers said.

Shipley and Stumblingbear also both tabbed housing as the biggest challenge in Lawrence for the foreseeable future, with both lauding the importance of engaging with others’ viewpoints as key to tackling the issue.

Stumblingbear said on his end, he has tried to be engaged in public planning processes like the recent community meetings intended to guide the city’s and Douglas County’s joint strategic plan to counter homelessness, “A Place for Everyone.”

“… This is community planning — for the community,” Stumblingbear said. “It doesn’t work without your participation, not just at the ballot box, but also at these community engagement (sessions). You have to be there.”

And Shipley said she goes out of her way to interact with as many people in the public as possible, along with other commissioners. She, too, mentioned the city and county homelessness plan as an important tool moving forward, but also noted that growth isn’t measured only in housing development.

“It’s fine to say that growth is good, but not all growth is good, and not all growth is housing,” Shipley said. “There’s also commercial and industrial that we need to focus on, as well.”

Dever said he feels the reason the community is facing its current housing issues is because Lawrence chose to “meter out” its growth and development when planning for future annexations in a thoughtful way.

“… We need to focus on how do we manifest these plans for housing across the spectrum?” Dever said. “How do we change people’s attitudes about housing for everyone, including the placement of low-, middle- and moderate-income housing?”

As for Sellers and Burton, they highlighted issues besides housing as the key challenges for Lawrence.

Burton’s message for the day was that her focus as a city commissioner would be ensuring that the city is treated as a “whole,” instead of certain areas being prioritized over others. She said she felt that North Lawrence and East Lawrence are often forgotten and deserve more development like what people on the western side of town have seen, and she has a vision of North Lawrence as a commercial hub for people passing by the city along I-70.

“This is all of Lawrence,” Burton said. “Development (happens) out west or someplace else, and I don’t know what the thought process is for that. I think it says a lot about some of the people we have in place that are running the city.”

Sellers, for her part, said the biggest issue facing Lawrence in her eyes starts with understanding the “relationship between statutes, regulations and policy.” When the community grasps the role of each of those elements in city leaders’ decision-making process, they can see the issues that stem from the process as a whole.

“All of the issues that we are dealing with across the state, across the country — housing, access to housing, homelessness, economic development, social injustices — are rooted in the relationship of how we develop policies and the different entities of government,” Sellers said.

Candidates at the Douglas County Democrats’ forum were also asked to talk about an issue they’re excited about tackling in the upcoming term, and about half the group — Dever, Shipley and Stumblingbear — mentioned the proposed changes to the city’s form of government appearing on the November 2024 ballot. If approved by voters, the city would transition from its current commission-manager form of government to a modified mayor-council manager form of government, including a directly elected mayor and some seats elected by districts.

The primary election is Aug. 1. Advance voting by mail and in person at the Douglas County Elections Office, 711 W. 23rd St., began Wednesday and will remain open until noon on July 31. People who wish to request an advance ballot to be mailed have until July 25 to do so.


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