City commission candidates hit some hot topics during the Lawrence Kansas Branch NAACP forum Wednesday night, including hiring of the next police chief and affordable housing solutions.
Ursula Minor, president of the chapter, served as moderator, and the six candidates — alphabetically by last name, Stuart Boley, Ma’Ko’Quah Jones, Lisa Larsen, Bart Littlejohn, Milton Scott and Amber Sellers — answered seven questions each.
Minor noted that the city commission doesn’t hire employees but asked what the candidates would expect the city manager to look for in hiring the next chief of police. The position has been held by interim chiefs for about a year and a half while the department has undergone a top-to-bottom review by a consulting group, and the city is currently advertising the position.
Littlejohn said he would look for someone who is passionate, who’s going to work with others and be a part of the process. He emphasized accountability, oversight, working with the Community Police Review Board, and being a friendly face.
“We need our police department to function properly, we need it to function justly, and we need it to be the best representation of our town,” he said, and he would like the chief to mirror that.
Sellers said she would look at a candidate’s experience based on the municipality they serve and how it compares to Lawrence, how diverse the community is, what the crime rates are and other such data, plus how they interpret that data in policing.
“Will they be able to share with us how they’ve interpreted the data from where they’re from, and how they’ve used that to create programs or outcomes to elevate their police officers and their relationship?” she said. “… I want someone that understands how to implement programs, how to implement policy.”
Boley said he thinks someone who can align the department with the city’s strategic plan, including goals of community engagement, equity and inclusion.
“I think that we need someone who recognizes that we have dedicated and committed police officers, but there are also opportunities for departmental improvement, and one of the keys is to have someone who can build trust,” he said.
Larsen said she’s looking for someone with a good history of community engagement, and who will implement a proactive model as opposed to a reactive one by working to get to the root causes of crime.
“Those are the key factors for me — the ability to build trust, progressive leadership in the roles in their career so far, and if they show a good record of community engagement in how we engage our community to build that trust,” she said.
Jones said she thinks it’s important to get the feedback of the police force, and to recruit the best possible candidates. She would like to see how they’ve moved up in the ranks, how they’ve handled conflicts and how they understand mental health in some situations.
“Someone who sees the problems that we have and is very pro-police reform, so that they can recognize that these relationships need to start being built again, stronger,” she said. “Police need to understand that not everything needs to be criminalized, and I think that starts from the top down.”
Scott noted early results of a study showing that People of Color are twice as likely to be searched in Douglas County when stopped by police, and he would like the chief to understand that. He said he’d like to see a visionary who can be an example nationally.
When “she” arrives, he said, “I hope that she will be able to bring to us that experience and knowledge; someone who can restore the trust in the community and see the community members as an asset and work collaboratively with others.”
Minor also asked candidates how they would solve the affordable housing shortage in a way that doesn’t result in isolated low-income neighborhoods.
Jones said the city needs to bring property owners and landowners to the table to discuss cooperation in combating homelessness and houselessness, perhaps including instituting low-income units within multi-unit complexes. She also said there need to be more protections in place for tenants through a tenants’ bill of rights.
Littlejohn said affordable housing provides a benefit by allowing people to establish generational wealth, and he would like to work with nonprofits and for-profit developers to come up with proposals and ideas. He said he’d like to see a “healthy intermix” of different types of housing along with amenities that provide a sense of community.
Scott said he thinks it’s important to look at how we’re developing — townhomes and duplexes, for instance, rather than just single-family homes, to get a mix of housing throughout the community. He said there are also some ways that the city can waive costs to make housing and development more affordable.
Sellers said “we can’t go after a pot of gold with no plan in mind.” She said the Affordable Housing Advisory Board has been wanting to work with the city commissioners to form a comprehensive plan for affordable housing. She wants to seek the community’s input, and she said mixed-income housing can help alleviate poverty and improve diversity and housing quality.
Boley said one of the progress indicators in the city’s strategic plan is how many households are spending more than 30% of their incomes on housing. If the city can start talking about how to raise household income alongside addressing the cost of housing, that’s another “interesting way” to help fix the problem, he said.
Larsen said the commission has pushed to scatter affordable housing throughout the community for “quite some time.” She said the state has prevented the city from requiring a portion of multifamily housing developments to be affordable, and from requiring landlords to accept vouchers, which takes some tools away from the city. She said one idea was to have the city look at buying properties throughout town and have partners such as Tenants to Homeowners run them.
A recording of the forum is available on the Lawrence Kansas Branch NAACP Facebook page and below. Some other questions touched on utility rates, planning and zoning, and how to handle impactful decisions in an efficient and effective manner.
See more upcoming forums for the Lawrence City Commission and Lawrence school board at this link.
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In between questions about economic issues in Lawrence, such as childcare, local purchasing policy, and the Downtown Master Plan, City Commission candidates explained what role they thought the commission should have in the business community in Wednesday’s forum, hosted by The Chamber of Lawrence.