Lawrence City Commission candidates share their views on plastic bag fees, Tobacco 21, environmental policies
photo by: Contributed and file photos
The next Lawrence City Commission is poised to consider various ordinance changes, from disposable bag fees to raising the tobacco age, and candidates vying for the commission’s three open seats are promising to bring additional proposals.
The Journal-World asked the six candidates their positions on the proposed plastic and paper bag fee, upcoming environmental policy and the proposed ban on tobacco sales to those under 21. Candidates also shared about policy changes they would like to bring to the table at City Hall, with those proposals ranging from new financial oversight policies to a Green New Deal for Lawrence.
• The city’s Sustainability Advisory Board’s is recommending an ordinance that would have grocery stores and other retailers charge a 16-cent fee per bag upon checkout for both single-use plastic and paper bags. The proposal would exempt some types of bags, such as those used to carry raw meat, seafood and bulk items such as fruits, vegetables and nuts. It’s estimated that Lawrence residents use between about 30 to 35 million plastic shopping bags annually, and 16 cents is the estimated “social cost” of a single plastic bag in terms of environmental harm, litter cleanup and the burden it places on recycling, sewer and waste processing systems. SAB is proposing proceeds from the fee be used to help offset implementation costs, provide reusable bags for low-income residents, and support local environmental education and environmental initiatives.
• The city allocated $75,000 as part of its 2020 budget to update its climate protection plan, and the process is expected to get underway early next year. SAB has recommended some environmental goals for the city, including that the city adopt a policy as soon as possible to achieve 100% use of renewable energy in all city functions by 2025. Mayor Lisa Larsen, who is a retired environmental geologist, recently told the Journal-World that she supports that recommendation and that she thought alternative energy sources should be a key component of the new climate protection plan.
• A court ruling this summer indicated that local governments have the authority to ban tobacco sales to those under 21. The Lawrence school board has called for the commission to approve a Tobacco 21 ordinance to help combat what the district calls an epidemic of vaping. The ordinance would prohibit the sale of all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and other devices that vaporize nicotine liquid, to people under 21, but would not ban the use of tobacco products for those ages 18-20.
• Stuart Boley
Boley is generally supportive of a disposable bag fee but said the commission needs to work out the particulars of the policy. In August, the commission sent the topic back to SAB to address various questions, including which businesses and bags the charges would apply to and how the city would ensure the fee was charged.
“It’s a complicated issue; there are a lot of opinions,” Boley said. “What we have to do is go through a process that essentially brings people together around the eventual policy that we adopt.”
Boley said the city needs to be responsive to public concern about the city’s environmental efforts and that the upcoming update to the city’s climate protection plan will provide more opportunities to work on environmental issues.
Boley said he supports the Tobacco 21 initiative because it’s been shown that limiting access to tobacco and vaping products to people under 21 reduces access to those harmful products for younger teens. The Douglas County Commission has already passed Tobacco 21 for the unincorporated areas, but Boley said to be effective it needs to be a countywide initiative that includes Lawrence as well as Baldwin City, Eudora and other municipalities.
Boley, a retired tax auditor, also has two finance-related policies he wants the commission to consider. The first is whether the city — which used the same auditor for at least 20 years before a change this year that yielded the discovery of several issues — should make it a policy to rotate its auditor every few years, which Boley said is a best practice.
The second is whether the city should have a fund balance policy for additional funds. Currently, the city only has a policy regarding how much in savings should be maintained year-to-year for its general fund. Boley noted the Journal-World’s reporting that the utility fund had a large reserve at the same time that the department increased utility rates.
“And so I think that’s a perfect example right there,” Boley said. “If we need a certain level of balance in the utility funds, what happens if we exceed that? What do we do? Well, there is no policy in place to address that.”
• Ken Easthouse
Easthouse supports the proposed disposable bag fee, and he said the provision that would use part of the proceeds to provide reusable bags for low-income people is important. He said although plastic contamination in the world’s oceans may not seem at the forefront in Kansas, the city needs to be responsible for the environment.
Regarding other environmental policies, Easthouse said he would like to see the city expand eligibility for the property tax abatements it provides under the Neighborhood Revitalization Act to include weatherization improvements and the addition of solar power.
Easthouse said he is against the Tobacco 21 ordinance because he thinks adults should be allowed to make that decision for themselves. Easthouse said tobacco use has been steadily falling and that the health issues with vaping have mainly involved people who also vaped THC products, and that he sees that as a separate issue. Easthouse said his own father died of lung cancer and he understands the horrors of what smoking can cause, but it’s ultimately not the government’s role.
“I also have a strong belief that adults should be allowed to be adults,” Easthouse said. “I believe we have far too many people 18 to 20 in our community who may desire to smoke and frankly it is not the government’s business necessarily to tell them what they can and cannot do in regards to tobacco.”
Easthouse noted two policies he would like the city to adopt. Easthouse said many people use marijuana for PTSD, and he thinks Lawrence should ban employers from giving drug tests as a condition of employment. He also said he thinks the city should adopt a downtown commercial vacancy tax that would incrementally increase the property owners tax rate once a property sat vacant for a certain number of years.
“There are properties downtown that have been vacant 20-plus years, as long as I’ve been an adult,” Easthouse said. “And that is something that really harms our downtown. If we’re going to protect downtown we have to take a look at those vacant properties and what we can do to force those landowners to either do something with it or sell it so someone else can.”
• Brad Finkeldei
Finkeldei said he doesn’t currently support the proposed disposable bag fee, but he said he is open to learning more and certainly open to getting the report back from the SAB. He said he wasn’t sure charging a fee would actually reduce consumption.
“Their methodology of how much they are going to generate on a yearly basis assumes that people are still going to be using the bags, but they’ll only be paying for them,” Finkeldei said. “And so if the goal is the elimination of the usage of plastic bags, we need a program that would accomplish that, not one that just generates income from the purchase of the bags.”
Finkeldei said he didn’t have any other specific environmental policies, but he thinks the city should update its climate protection plan and that might lead to the commission considering additional policies.
Finkeldei said he thinks reducing tobacco and vaping among youth is a worthy goal for the community, and he supported the proposed Tobacco 21 ordinance. He said he believes the evidence from other communities with such ordinances indicates that prohibiting the sale of those products to people ages 18 to 20 also limits use by younger teens.
“I believe that the health impacts to our youth are pretty severe,” Finkeldei said. “And that the evidence is pretty strong that limiting that age group not only helps limit usage in that age group but also limits the usage for those under 18 who shouldn’t even have it anyway.”
Regarding other potential policy changes, Finkeldei said he’d like the commission to consider going back to four meetings monthly instead of three and to reevaluate when study sessions are used. He said the commission sets itself up for very long meetings by not having the fourth meeting.
He’d also like to revisit changes the commission has made to some city advisory boards. Specifically, he said he wanted to revisit the Social Service Funding Advisory Board, which was recently consolidated into the Special Alcohol Funding Advisory Board. He also said he wants to reconsider whether commissioners should have been removed from advisory boards, as he thought it led to quicker decision-making and less bouncing back and forth between the commission and the boards.
• Joey Hentzler
Hentzler supports the disposable bag fee proposal, but he said the ultimate goal should be shifting corporate behavior and not just individual behavior. Hentzler said climate change is one of his top issues, and the city has to set higher goals to eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions, among other measures. He said he’s excited for the city’s upcoming update to its climate protection plan.
“The 2009 plan set targets to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 and that is wholly inadequate,” Hentzler said. “We have to reach zero emissions a lot quicker than that if we’re going to meet the goals set by national experts.”
He said he wants to implement a Green New Deal for Lawrence. In addition to reducing emissions, he wants to improve electric vehicle infrastructure, maximize renewable energy production and work regionally on climate goals.
Like the national proposal, Hentzler wants to address social and economic issues. Those include improving parental leave for city employees, banning employment and rental applications from asking about criminal history, and working with nonprofits or universities to expand early childhood education. He also wants the city to create or partner to create a public bank, which would finance green energy projects, loans for higher education or technical training, and generally provide the public more equal access to credit.
“It’s well documented in the research that individuals with equal income have different access to credit or buying a home etcetera just based off of their race,” Hentzler said. “And so the public bank could be a really powerful mechanism that helps the city fund these projects by generating revenue from these investments and also addressing the need for credit in a more equitable way.”
Hentzler also said the city’s infrastructure needs to be more resilient and able to manage unpredictable weather patterns, such as flooding and heat waves. He said particular attention needs to be paid to low-income people who will be impacted the most. He’d like to see the city expand its grant and loan programs to fund more weatherization and energy-efficient improvements for homeowners.
Hentzler supports Tobacco 21. He said vaping is just another way mega corporations are trying to get young people addicted to nicotine, and protecting them should be a priority. He said that’s especially important for youths because their minds are still developing and more susceptible to nicotine addiction. However, he said violations of the ordinance should not fall on clerks, but store owners.
• Rob Sands
Regarding the proposed disposable bag ban, Sands didn’t give a final position but said he is open to any proposal that still gives people choice. He said research should show the proposal is effective in reducing waste and not too burdensome on the city.
When it comes to other environmental policies, Sands said he thinks the city should consider using electric vehicles when possible and renewable energy to power city operations. He said he sees a wind energy offer that the city did not take up as a missed opportunity.
“I think when we talk about what we can do about climate change, I think we need to look realistically at how we can best spend the money that we have available for it and working with Evergy, if that comes up,” Sands said.
Sands supports Tobacco 21. He said it’s a habit that affects many areas of a person’s life and it is important to address the 18-20 age range because people mature a lot in that time and habits started in that period tend to lock in.
Regarding other potential policy changes, Sands said he’d like to see the city look critically at its downtown design guidelines. He said he agrees with the notion that trying to copy a style and aesthetic of the past never really succeeds. Citing the Kansas Leadership Center in downtown Wichita as an example, he said he thinks there is room for more modern architecture downtown and developers need the ability to build something unique.
“I think we need to allow a builder to design a building that is a little more concerned about an aesthetic than trying to modernize a look from the past,” Sands said.
He would also like to reevaluate the city’s use of benefit districts, such as the one that is being used to finance the reconstruction of Queens Road in northwestern Lawrence. He said the city’s ability to assess those costs to property owners years down the road is not the right way to go about it.
“I’d like to have a very comprehensive look about whether or not benefit districts are the most appropriate way to pay for infrastructure,” Sands said.
• Courtney Shipley
Shipley supports the disposable bag fee and using the proceeds to mitigate costs for people who can’t afford reusable bags. She said she’s surprised the city didn’t address the issue sooner, as she thinks it’s a relatively minor policy change.
“I understand there are people who think this is kind of performative and I understand that comment,” Shipley said. “But I think ultimately we have to start acting the way we want our environment to look. And that means reducing plastic that doesn’t end up being recycled and ends up being part of the landfill system.”
Shipley said she expects to see more creativity and initiative from the city when it comes to green initiatives, including renewable energy. She noted that Baldwin City has a solar farm, which it developed through an agreement with Westar Energy. She also thinks the city should consider replacing city vehicles with electric ones as they are retired.
Regarding Tobacco 21, Shipley said she shares the concerns of the school board, parents and the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department that teens under 18 are getting tobacco and vaping products from their older peers. Shipley said she hears the concerns that the ordinance could infringe on the rights of legal adults, but that must be weighed against health issues. She said she wants to keep having the conversation and would like to see data on whether Tobacco 21 ordinances adopted in other cities have been effective.
When it comes to other policy changes, Shipley said she would like to see the city’s rental inspection program reevaluated. Shipley, who is a property manager, said the program needs to focus more on tenant safety and issues such as basement flooding, leaking roofs and mold. She also said the policy needs more protections for tenants who report their landlords to the city, as she has heard of people being evicted for doing so.
Shipley would also like to reconsider the number and distribution of the rentals inspected. She said she thinks property owners with a substantial number of units should have a higher percentage of those units inspected.
“I just think there is a little bit of balancing that could be done there probably,” Shipley said.
Currently, the program requires that 10% of a landlord’s rental units be inspected every three years. However, landlords whose properties have fewer than five violations per unit qualify for a six-year inspection cycle and in the first cycle of inspections, more than 90% of landlords qualified for the six-year cycle, according to city reports.
More coverage of the 2019 Lawrence City Commission election
Read up on all the candidates and issues in advance of the Nov. 5, 2019 election: ljworld.com/2019-election/