Lawrence leaders question whether city should continue to postpone policy decisions

photo by: Screenshot/City of Lawrence

The Lawrence City Commission and city staff hold their regular weekly meeting over video conference Tuesday, May 5, 2020.

The Lawrence City Commission will soon weigh whether it is appropriate to make decisions on contentious policy issues while it is largely operating virtually, with more limited options for public feedback.

The City of Lawrence has indefinitely postponed various agenda items with high public interest because of a desire to reduce large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, and the commission has had significantly lighter agendas in recent weeks as a result. The postponed agenda items have no date for when they might return to the commission and include the plastic bag ban, illegal camping ordinance, sanctuary city policies and short-term rental regulations, among several other items.

At the commission’s meeting Tuesday, Mayor Jennifer Ananda asked that the city create a timeline for addressing those postponed items so they are not just on an “indefinite pause.” City Manager Craig Owens responded that the commission needs to decide which is the lesser evil, continuing to postpone those items or considering them during virtual meetings, which offer more limited options for public participation.

“I think the factor still is to what degree do we want to undertake them in a virtual meeting environment,” Owens said. “And so, to the degree that you’re comfortable (with that), there is a trade-off.”

When the commission meets in person, any member of the public wishing to speak about a topic has three minutes to address the commission. For some of the more contentious topics, crowds of dozens of people have gathered in the City Commission chambers and the lobby of City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

Under the virtual meeting format, the public can submit written comments via email or a drop box inside City Hall. Residents can also arrange ahead of time to join the virtual meeting to comment, either via online videoconference or via phone. A few city staff members remain in person at City Hall, and residents without internet access or the needed technology can provide comment in person.

Ananda said she thinks the commission needs to consider the merits of continuing to postpone the agenda items versus resuming more city business under the new format.

“I do think it is important to evaluate the balance between wanting to have robust public engagement — and the ways that we’re able to do that through this virtual setting — and continuing to move forward the good work that we’ve begun,” Ananda said.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen agreed that the commission needs to consider that social distancing due to the pandemic — which calls for people to maintain a 6-foot distance between one another — may be in place for some time, and that the city needs to create a timeline for moving forward with the postponed items.

“I agree also that we’re going to be social distancing for quite some time, so maybe we just need to face reality that this is how it’s going to be and figure out how we can work that out so we can address all these (agenda items),” Larsen said.

The city staff memo to the commission that outlines the postponed City Commission agenda items includes nine items, but the memo states that the list may not include every outstanding policy issue of immediate public interest that has been delayed. In addition to the previously mentioned items, the list includes reconsideration of the capacity limits for temporary shelters for the homeless; changes to the city resolution governing employer-employee relations, which was requested by employees wishing to form a union; and the creation of a sidewalk maintenance insurance program, among other sidewalk-related issues.

Even if the commission members themselves continue to meet virtually, limited public gatherings that follow social distancing guidelines could be possible in coming weeks. Phase 2 of Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s four-phase reopening plan could begin as early as May 18, as long as the overall spread, hospitalization percentage and death rate attributed to COVID-19 in the state continue to decrease in the 14 days following May 4, as the Journal-World previously reported. Under Phase 2, gatherings would be capped at 30 people instead of 10 people, although local health departments can choose to issue more stringent requirements. Douglas County has already chosen to implement a stricter version of Phase 1 of the governor’s plan, ordering restaurants to remain closed to dine-in service and keeping local libraries closed through May 17.


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