Post updated at 12:56 a.m. Sunday, July 9:
Seven Lawrence City Commission candidates during a public forum on Saturday afternoon answered questions about housing, homelessness and economic issues that are pressing for the city.
City commission candidates Courtney Shipley, Brad Finkeldei, Justine Burton, Mike Dever (represented by Beth Easter as he had a prior engagement), Amber Sellers, Chris Flowers and Dustin Stumblingbear on Saturday participated in a community forum hosted by the Lawrence Branch NAACP. Candidate Joshua Olafson was not present or represented.
Ursula Minor, NAACP Lawrence Branch president, asked candidates questions on topics such as homelessness in Lawrence, how to create jobs that pay living wages, and the anticipated effects of the incoming Panasonic plant.
Candidates were also given the chance to speak on their reasons for running in the election as well as give final statements before socializing with the members of the public in attendance.
‘Why are you running?’
To kick off the panel, each candidate shared why they have chosen to run for city commission. Shipley, Finkeldei and Sellers currently serve as city commissioners.
Shipley said she would like to foster an environment of open-mindedness, communication and cooperation among city leaders.
Finkeldei said he wanted to continue some of the work that was disrupted or delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the city’s strategic plan and updates to the land development code.
Burton stressed the importance she sees in unity between all four areas of Lawrence — north, east, south and west. The west side, she feels, is prioritized and held to higher esteem development-wise.
“North Lawrence and East Lawrence, I’d like to see those areas built up,” Burton said. “We’re a community, not separate from each other but as a whole for each other.”
Easter read statements from Dever, who cited his years of leadership experience, serving on City Commission from 2007 to 2015. He said he’s running again after developing increasing concern for the city’s future.
“Public perception of downtown Lawrence is at a recent all-time low,” Dever wrote in his statement. “Our public schools are closing due to poor planning and lack of determination to invest in our older neighborhoods. New home construction is at its slowest pace in many years, and low- and middle-income buyers are priced out of home ownership in Lawrence due to a variety of bureaucratic and self-inflicted reasons.”
Sellers said she brings a “people-centered” approach to policy. Comprehensive housing, community representation and transformative infrastructure are a few values most important to her.
“We need to make sure that the individuals in our community can see themselves represented — not just by ethnicity, but by culture, by values, by understanding of what it means to be collective in the work that we do,” Sellers said. “ … There’s a human aspect — a social aspect — that often gets put on the wayside that we don’t address when it comes to infrastructure.”
Flowers said he doesn’t agree with the way the current Commission operates, and he hopes to bring “progressive” action. Police accountability is a focus of his, he said. Flowers later promoted one of his most passionate topics he’s campaigning on: legalizing the use of psychedelic drugs, such as magic mushrooms.
Stumblingbear said his focus is empowering people to step up and take action on pressing issues, like aiding homelessness and creating affordable housing. He added that he wants his fellow community members to thrive in Lawrence as he said he has.
‘How would you balance the interests of unhoused individuals with community and business interests?’
As the city runs its campsite for people who are unhoused, concerns about homelessness in Lawrence have come to the forefront. Some community members have complained about unhoused people’s presence around or in places such as businesses, residential neighborhoods and parks. Candidates were asked how they’d address varying needs.
Dever, through Easter, said that “unhoused individuals either by circumstance or choice have demanded a statistically disproportionate quantity of resources from our community compared to those living on the margins, temporary or subsidized housing.” He said drug addiction and mental health issues are the main driving factors of homelessness in Lawrence, and that the first step is establishing “proper partnerships” with programs that can respond to those problems.
Sellers, however, pushed back against the idea that people struggling with drug addiction and mental illness make up the majority of people experiencing homelessness. Most aren’t chronically unhoused, she said; rather, they’re temporarily unhoused and in transition. She said the city and state should put money into mental and social services.
Sellers said “the NIMBY we’ve been dealing with in the back yard is now in the front yard, and that’s why everyone’s concerned about this,” referring to the “Not In My Back Yard” mindset. She said housing policies have never been oriented around ensuring affordable and accessible housing for all, but that’s going to change now.
Finkeldei said it was unfair to group people together as “the unhoused,” and he said he thinks about interests of institutions and individuals in policies.
Stumblingbear agreed with Sellers that the unhoused population is diverse.
“It is elderly people, it’s people with families, it’s individuals, it is people who have mental health issues, it is people with disabilities, it is everyone in this community,” Stumblingbear said. “We all can sit on the verge of becoming unhoused very quickly, and that’s what’s happened with some of these individuals due to the pandemic and due to rapid inflation.”
He continued that he’d balance the interests of business owners — “not businesses, because businesses are not people.” Creating affordable housing tailored to all income levels and types of families, including single people, as well as working with groups such as Tenants to Homeowners will allow unhoused community members to find some stability, he said.
Flowers said he would prioritize protecting people experiencing homelessness and that he would “not crack down on panhandling,” which he said he believes is a protected form of speech. He also objected to the question and said the needs of unhoused people are the needs of the community.
Burton, however, said she would prioritize businesses.
“When somebody comes into my house, I have rules that they have to follow, and it should be the same thing with some of the individuals that do not have housing,” Burton said. “You see them all over — you see people all over town, but being able to give them direction, give the mental health services and stuff that they need, would be the best thing. But I also want to make sure that businesses are put first — that they are being respected and being cared for. That’s the primary thing I believe.”
Shipley said she actually thought the question was well worded because it did include “balance,” and that is what is at issue. She said the city should not criminalize poverty but should consider setting boundary safety restrictions for public spaces. She said camping in city parks must end, but the city must build its capacity in the near term and then “kindly ask people to remove to those spaces.”
“I think it’s a good idea for this community — it won’t be popular for me to throw this out because people have avoided talking about it — to discuss residency requirements,” Shipley said. “I am fully aware of how that’s problematic when people don’t have addresses, but the Lawrence taxpayer cannot continue to shoulder the burden for other communities around us.”
‘What is your understanding of how the Panasonic plant will or could affect Lawrence?’
Most candidates agreed Lawrence would benefit in some capacity from the incoming Panasonic factory plant, which is expected to bring thousands of jobs to the De Soto area, but they said it’s tough to pinpoint exactly what those benefits would look like.
Sellers said there’s a concern that the factory may provide low-wage jobs. Douglas County as well as surrounding counties will see economic development, but city leaders will have to work to maintain their policies and incentives, she said.
Dever said he believes a project on such a scale as the Panasonic plant can benefit communities, but he doesn’t believe Lawrence is prepared to accept those benefits.
“We lack the existing housing on almost all of the price spectrum and have few buildable lots and subdivisions in the Lawrence school district,” Easter read on Dever’s behalf. “The city must improve its quality and speed of service related to planning and development services, and the City Commission needs to be more open to annexation, infill with subsidies and densification of the core of our community now, or the new residents will live elsewhere and we will not benefit as we should.”
Flowers and Stumblingbear agreed Lawrence needs to establish affordable housing because as Panasonic jobs open, those employees will need stable housing.
Though Burton also agreed affordable housing is vital, she expressed concern about where those buildings would go. Instead of expanding further west, she said, eastern and northern Lawrence should grow.
Shipley said in her perspective, the city’s main concern right now is identifying Lawrence suppliers that could work with the Panasonic factory.
Finkeldei was the most optimistic that the new plant will be good for Lawrence.
“Overall, I believe it’s going to have a ripple effect,” Finkeldei said. “The state’s already hearing about other manufacturers who want to come and locate close to the Panasonic plant.”
The candidates for Lawrence City Commission will be the subject of next week’s Douglas County Democrats forum. It will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 15, though the doors will be open for networking starting at 9:30 a.m. at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. The party is hosting the event, but Lawrence City Commission seats are nonpartisan.
Primary election day is Tuesday, Aug. 1, and the general election is on Tuesday, Nov. 7. Douglas County voters can check their voter registration, register to vote and/or request an advance ballot by mail at KSVotes.org. Learn more about voting in Douglas County at this link.
If local journalism like this matters to you, please support The Lawrence Times.
Click here to subscribe.