City Commission candidates sound off on city’s form of government, downtown plan and more
photo by: Elvyn Jones
The eight candidates running for Lawrence City Commission shared their views Saturday on affordable housing, a possible restructuring of the city’s form of government and the future of downtown.
All eight candidates were at the Lawrence Arts Center for a forum sponsored by the Douglas County Democratic Party. The slate includes two incumbents, Stuart Boley and Lisa Larsen, and six newcomers: Chris Flowers, Ma’Ko’Quah Jones, Bart Littlejohn, Amber Sellers, Shawn Pearson and Milton Scott.
On Saturday, the candidates expressed a range of views on a recent proposal to change the city’s form of government. Earlier this year, a task force recommended that the city consider a form of government with a directly elected mayor and a six-member commission elected by geographic districts. Currently, the commission consists of five members who are elected at large, meaning that all of them represent the city as a whole, and the body chooses one of its own members each year to serve a one-year term as mayor.
Sellers said she supported a directly elected mayor, and she said that person would play an important role in working with the city manager and the City Commission. Pearson said he, too, supported allowing residents to elect their mayor directly.
Jones, however, expressed some reservations. She was concerned about the concentration of power in the mayoral position and the amount of money it would take to run for that office.
Boley, who has served a one-year term as mayor before, said there could be advantages to a popularly elected mayor. He and Larsen, who has also served as mayor, both stressed that the public would have the opportunity to vote on any changes to the city’s form of government.
Kansas law specifies two methods for a city to modify its form of government: a citywide election or a charter ordinance, which would have to be passed by four of the five commissioners and could still be put to a citywide vote if a valid protest petition were filed. However, the commission has previously said that it would not try to change the city’s form of government without a public vote.
Boley also said he favored putting a question about the city’s form of government on the November 2022 ballot to give voters enough time to study the changes.
Scott said that he was willing to listen to all sides of the debate but that he would support a system of districts if it increased the diversity of candidates and the commissioners’ connections with their constituents.
Several candidates — Flowers, Littlejohn, Jones and Sellers — said they’d be more interested in a hybrid system with four commission districts and two commissioners elected at large. Flowers also feared that because of the city’s housing affordability issues, many renters might be clustered into a single district.
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Candidates also had varied views about the city’s affordable housing shortage, the downtown master plan and the future of downtown more generally.
A draft version of the master plan was released earlier this year, and a City Commission-appointed steering committee is now accepting residents’ feedback on it. Some of the candidates mentioned specific things they wanted to see in downtown — for instance, Flowers said he wanted to ensure the Replay Lounge wasn’t affected by any redevelopment projects — but many of their comments were broader in scope.
Jones said she wanted to make downtown more pedestrian-friendly and to emphasize parking garages instead of on-street parking in areas that see a lot of pedestrian activity. She cited Pearl Street in Boulder, Colo., as a model for converting downtown streets to more pedestrian-friendly areas.
Littlejohn said there should be more business opportunities in downtown for graduates of the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University. He said he’d be in favor of reserving space in downtown as an incubator for new businesses — an idea that Boley, Larsen, Pearson, Sellers and Scott also favored.
Pearson said that there was a great deal of ignorance about the master plan itself and that the city’s top priority should be to educate the public. He also said the city should add more parking downtown and look at ways to develop the riverfront.
Boley and Larsen said the master plan was a way to realize another goal: increasing residential opportunities in the downtown core. Specifically, Boley said the city should use properties it owns to try to add affordable housing projects downtown. Larsen agreed; she specifically mentioned building apartments above the Community Building on 11th Street.
Scott said that the downtown plan should be flexible and that it should also preserve the downtown farmers market. He was also in favor of using downtown incubator spaces to help business owners of color.
On the issue of affordable housing, Littlejohn, Scott, Jones and Sellers all wanted to encourage the development of more duplexes and triplexes in all Lawrence neighborhoods. Littlejohn said the city should work to reduce the red tape involved in developing those kinds of multifamily units, and he and Sellers thought the city could do more to educate the public about housing assistance programs. Pearson, meanwhile, said that annexing more land into the city would help ease the housing shortage.
The primary election is Aug. 3, and city voters will be trimming the list of candidates to six for the general election in November.