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NAACP forum asks Lawrence City Commission candidates for ideas on housing, police reform

The eight candidates campaigning for seats on the Lawrence City Commission took questions on affordable housing and police reform, among other topics, during a forum hosted by the Lawrence chapter of the NAACP on Saturday. 

Ursula Minor, president of the chapter, moderated the Zoom forum. In alphabetical order by last name, Stuart Boley, Chris Flowers, Ma’Ko’Quah Jones, Lisa Larsen, Bart Littlejohn, Shawn Pearson, Milton Scott and Amber Sellers attended. 

Minor asked candidates how the city commission can improve access to affordable housing and end houselessness in Lawrence. 

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Littlejohn said housing remains the only way to build generational wealth in this country, and the city also must look to make resources available to help people stay in their homes. He said social services have long been overworked and understaffed, and that the city should prioritize programs like Housing First. 

Jones said houselessness is affecting a variety of people, including families who may have expended most of their resources for medical care for a family member during the pandemic. She said she thinks a resolution that would discourage evictions and raising rents could help people stay in their homes, and the city should look at how to make resources for people who are about to get evicted more effective. 

Pearson said he thought being creative with private businesses and other community stakeholders could help solve the public housing shortage in the city. He also said people camping in parks is not sustainable in the long term, and there should be more homeless shelters in town. 

Scott, who worked in affordable housing in his career, said the city received $1.6 million in federal funding to aid in fighting homelessness, and he would like to include developing congregant and noncongregant shelter units in that effort. He said he’d like to look at building duplexes, triplexes and different plans to develop affordable housing, including public-private partnerships and low-income housing tax credits.

Boley, an incumbent seeking re-election, mentioned that he helped to establish the Affordable Housing Advisory Board and served on that board for two years. He said he’s advocating for a utility assistance program. He said the city manager’s proposed budget, which was released this week, includes “meaningful funding” for efforts in combating homelessness. 

Flowers said he agreed with Littlejohn’s points. He also said affordability wasn’t just determined by the cost of housing but also by income, and he thinks more Lawrence residents should be making a living wage. He said some city positions are making $9-11 hourly starting wages, and improving that was one step the commission could take. 

Sellers said it was important to remember that homelessness, houselessness and affordable housing are multifaceted, interrelated problems, and one solution won’t fix it all. She said the other candidates had mentioned several ideas, and she also noted economic development. She said better wages needed to balance out the cost burden of housing in this community. 

Larsen, the other incumbent seeking reelection, said the city is expanding its community development division to include homeless outreach, emergency sheltering and rapid rehousing. She said that is a must in order to give the community the best opportunity to build a “coordinated, strong and focused” program to address the issues. 

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Minor also asked the candidates how Lawrence can be a leader in police reform. 

Scott said the city should adopt the measures in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and look at innovative, community-based programs to reimagine and reinvest in “just, equitable public safety approaches.” He also said the municipal and district court could help with reforms involving bench warrants for minor infractions.

“We’re all in this together. I think we need to hear from the community at large, as well as the rank and file of the police department — to come together on this particular issue,” he said. 

Boley quoted from a recent study conducted of the Lawrence Police Department, which included 60 key findings and 75 recommendations. 

“It also lays out needed improvements in training and data-gathering,” he said. “The comprehensive study of the police department provides an opportunity for our community to come together. We should work together to implement the report’s recommendations.”

Flowers also mentioned the study and one recommendation, which suggested that LPD participate in or host more events such as neighborhood watch meetings. Flowers said he’s against that. He also said commissioners need to be leaders and ask questions. 

“When cops say something, we need to ask questions to verify that they’re telling the truth,” he said. 

Sellers said she believes public health and safety are deeply rooted in social justice. She pointed to the LPD study, a report from the Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice, and a report from the Kansas Supreme Court’s ad hoc Pretrial Justice Task Force

“The department must first identify measurable outcomes and strategies to operationalize equitable policing in practice, policy, as well as in training pedagogy,” she said.

Larsen also said she thought the 75 recommendations in the LPD study would help the city become a leader in community-based policing, but first the issue of trust needed to be addressed in face-to-face conversations. 

“It’s stated very plainly in the police study that our minority community members do not trust our police department,” she said. “It’s going to take very frank discussions between all parties to address this problem of trust.” 

Littlejohn said the police department is needed, but in order for it to be effective, there needs to be accountability and transparency. 

Also, “We should continue to make sure that there are mental health and social service professionals there to handle those calls that might not necessarily require full force,” he said. “We should also make sure that there’s oversight and accountability through a metric-tracking software so that we know what we’re missing, and how to improve.”

Jones said the community needs to understand the position law enforcement puts themselves in in regards to safety, but she wants to see “actionable items that the Lawrence City Commission can do to improve police reform.” 

“There’s an insufficient amount of training focused on antiracism, implicit bias, mental illness, age-appropriate responses, problem-solving, mediation or cultural competency,” she said. 

Pearson said he would like to hear what citizens think would be most effective instead of city commissioners guessing at what they think would be most effective, and he said more education, training and data collection practices could help ensure the city has the best police force it can. 

He also mentioned face-to-face interaction — “You’re much less threatening on foot or on a bicycle than you are in a squad car, and that just changes perceptions,” he said.

The top six votewinners in the Aug. 3 primary will advance to the general election in November, when three will be elected to the commission. Find more coverage and information about the election at this link. Register to vote by Tuesday; advance voting begins Wednesday. 

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— Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363.

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