City Commission candidates share thoughts on collaborating with Douglas County Commission, efforts to encourage renewable energy use and more

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Candidates running for seats on the Lawrence City Commission — and a pair of surrogates standing in for candidates who couldn't attend — took part in a forum Monday, Oct. 2, 2023, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St. From left to right are Mike Dever, Rachel Stumblingbear, Kenna McNally, Justine Burton, Courtney Shipley and Brad Finkeldei. Stumblingbear and McNally were each standing in for candidates Dustin Stumblingbear and Amber Sellers, respectively.

At the first of a series of election forums on tap this week, the candidates running for seats on the Lawrence City Commission answered questions about renewable energy, how they’d work collaboratively with other local governing bodies and more.

On Monday, the League of Women Voters of Lawrence hosted a candidate forum in partnership with the Lawrence Public Library. Four of the six candidates running for three open seats on the City Commission — incumbents Brad Finkeldei and Courtney Shipley, former commissioner Mike Dever and newcomer Justine Burton — were present. The other two candidates — incumbent Amber Sellers and newcomer Dustin Stumblingbear — were not in attendance and instead were represented by surrogates. All of the candidates had received the questions ahead of time, allowing Sellers and Stumblingbear to prepare answers in advance.

The candidates were asked a series of questions, including how they think the City Commission and Douglas County Commission should be working together to collaborate. Burton said she’d like to see the two groups working to reduce taxes and spend money more wisely, and Stumblingbear in his prepared statement said the bodies should be working to expand the Lawrence Community Shelter’s footprint and create more support sites throughout the community for people experiencing homelessness.

Some candidates, like Shipley, talked about how the two commissions have seen their relationship improve drastically in recent years.

“When Commissioner Finkeldei and I (were elected) four years ago, I would say there was actual, palpable animosity from years of a negative transactional relationship between the city and the county,” Shipley said. “…When we came in, we were making it part of our responsibility to improve that relationship, and it has been improved tenfold.”

Finkeldei said one thing that helped with that was the efforts of the county’s Unified Command team that emerged to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that initiative created collaboration that continues today as the city and county work to address the numerous agreements established during the past few years. He added that the city and county’s joint plan to address homelessness is another recent example of that work.

But Dever said there was a similar negative relationship that improved during the time he first served as a commissioner, from 2007 to 2015. He said he sees how the two groups should be working together as “all about relationships,” and said building a rapport back then helped change what was previously a negative relationship to a productive one that helped the commissions collaborate on projects like the University of Kansas Innovation Park and Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.

Sellers, in her statement, said that it would be productive for the two commissions to meet together more regularly. As it stands, they meet in a joint session once per year, but Sellers said quarterly meetings where the two groups can receive updates on housing, economic development and public health matters would be a better path toward further collaboration.

Candidates also answered questions about how the city can meet its goals for renewable energy development, and how the City Commission might encourage citizens to increase renewable energy use and improve energy conservation practices.

On that front, candidates like Dever and Finkeldei said while the City Commission isn’t in a position to exercise any authority, it can take steps to encourage the use of sustainable transport options and housing development, for example. Finkeldei said that’s a focus in the ongoing process of revising the city’s Land Development Code.

“Allowing solar, allowing walkability, allowing insulation and encouraging all of that … the development code will be the biggest way to do that in the future,” Finkeldei said.

Shipley said continuing to lean into sustainable public transit options — which she said the city is “way ahead” of compared to other communities — will be an important way to advance both goals.

Burton and Stumblingbear offered some more specific ideas for how to encourage more renewable energy use. Burton suggested the city pay a majority of the cost to help convert household appliances and HVAC systems to more energy-efficient models and offer tax rebates on electrical bills, and Stumblingbear suggested helping to better insulate newly constructed properties and finding state and federal programs with funding for solar energy development.

Other questions at the forum touched on topics like how the city can work with the school district and large-scale business partners like Panasonic to project for future housing. On that front, candidates said communicating is key, which Dever said is one way to avoid having to resort to school closures due to declining district enrollment. Others, like Shipley, advocated for developing 15-minute neighborhoods, which aim to put a resident’s work, school and shopping options within a 15-minute walk or bike-ride from home.

Finkeldei said that Lawrence should actually be looking beyond Panasonic to the next big project that might come here, even as that development continues to unfold.

But Sellers and Burton both expressed that the city’s focus should be more insular, not based on new citizens that may or may not be moving here in the future. Sellers said Lawrence’s future needs related to schools and housing already “far exceed” those related to the proposed impact of the Panasonic plant.

“Lawrence represents one of almost 10 communities positioning themselves for potential growth from the Panasonic plant,” Sellers said in her statement. “As we are faced with navigating attrition in our schools and increasing our housing stock, the best approach for the city, USD 497 and businesses is to continue to be diligent and steadfast in addressing current school and housing needs and policies for economic impact.”

Community groups and members of the public will have more chances to hear directly from candidates through the rest of the week. Two forums taking place Wednesday — one hosted by the Lawrence chamber of commerce and the other by the North Lawrence Improvement Association — are private events. But an event on Saturday, which will also feature the 11 candidates running for seats on the Lawrence school board, is open to the public. The event is hosted by Lawrence’s NAACP branch, Black:30 and Loud Light, and begins with the school board forum starting at 1:15 p.m. at the Lied Center Pavilion, 1600 Stewart Drive.

The deadline to register to vote in the general election is Tuesday, Oct. 17, and advance voting by mail or in person at the Douglas County Elections Office, 711 W. 23rd St., begins the following day.


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