Candidates for Lawrence City Commission on Saturday shared the issues that they’re most excited to address if they’re elected to serve.
The eight candidates are running for three seats. The primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 1, will narrow the field down to six candidates who will face off in the Tuesday, Nov. 7 general election.
Melinda Lavon, chair of the Douglas County Democrats, moderated the panel. She asked candidates to introduce themselves, share what challenges they believe the city will face over the next four years and more. Though the party hosted the forum, commission seats are nonpartisan.
The candidates generally agreed during the forum — which drew more than 100 attendees to the Lawrence Arts Center Saturday morning — that housing is going to be the biggest challenge facing the city over the next four years.
Dustin Stumblingbear, a member of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma, said he’s lived in Lawrence about 20 years. He did two tours in Iraq in the U.S. Army National Guard. He said he’s served on local boards and task forces, and he wants to continue serving the Lawrence community.
“This city shaped me into the man I am today from childhood into my teenage years into adulthood, and I want other Lawrence residents to be able to thrive, enjoy success and have joy in their lives as I’ve been able to do,” he said.
Stumblingbear emphasized the importance of community engagement and talking with people. He said he participated in the public engagement meetings around the joint city and county homelessness and housing strategic plan, and that he believes in its long-term goals. He said the plan accurately interlinks houselessness, affordable housing, economic development and community safety and security.
He said whether he’s elected or not, he intends to keep engaging with the community and staying tuned in to what’s going on. He watches city and county commission meetings, school board meetings and more, and he said he understands how all the forces are in play in the community.
Amber Sellers, an incumbent commissioner elected to her first term in 2021, said she came here as a senior in high school and knew this would be her forever home. She said her 20 years of professional work has been all over the state, and her background is in public health, research and government affairs.
She said her experience, knowledge and understanding makes her “a candidate that can see the whole system and be able to attack it not only from the outside, but from the inside.” She said she sees the role as relational, and commissioners are elected to hear the voices of the people and to challenge city staff to understand how to navigate opportunities and resources at a local, state and federal level to get the work done and make the city successful.
Sellers said a lot of the issues the city, state and nation are struggling with, such as homelessness, lack of housing, economic development and social injustice, are rooted in relationships of how policies are developed and different entities of governments. She said she wanted to improve the city’s relationship with the county and use public-private partnerships along with new state tax credits to add more moderate-income housing.
“We just need to keep moving and being innovative in how we engage and talk about getting this work accomplished,” she said.
Brad Finkeldei, also an incumbent commissioner and former mayor who was first elected in 2019, said he grew up in Wichita, went to K-State for a chemical engineering degree, and decided to come to KU for law school and has been here in town since. He’s a managing partner at Stevens & Brand LLP.
Finkeldei said he’s served on board including the Ballard Center, Family Promise, some city committees and the planning commission. He said it was clear to him that he could make a bigger difference if he ran for a city or county office. He took office shortly before COVID-19 hit, and he’s running again in hopes of continuing some of the work that has been delayed related to the pandemic.
Finkeldei is also chairing the Land Use Development Code Steering Committee, and he said he believes when he looks back in 20 or 30 years, that will be the most important thing he’s worked on. He said it’s easier to keep people in housing than it is to rehouse people after they lose their homes, so the city needs to look at regulations around accessory dwelling units (commonly known as “granny flats”) and other ways to help people age in place. He also said codes need to allow housing to be built more quickly and more densely.
Finkeldei listed several things he’s excited about: He said there is land set aside for 850 affordable housing units to be built over the next few years, and some upcoming city projects will improve the sewer systems and help deal with flooding and wastewater. He also said there is major development ongoing downtown, and some new businesses coming to town.
Chris Flowers is a delivery driver who said he’s lived in Lawrence since 1999. He said he also thinks there are a lot of issues that he thinks are getting overlooked, and the city is enforcing too many ordinances.
He said one reason he’s running is because the current commission has “gotten totally anal about free speech.” He pointed to the commission’s May 16 meeting in which a person who frequently gives public comment that is critical of the police was not allowed to comment on a police week proclamation. Someone else had been allowed on April 18 to talk about an autism awareness proclamation, however.
Flowers said the commissioners need to approve housing projects that add to infill density, but in the past year they have denied some duplex projects. He said the city should improve its response to people experiencing homelessness and not try to force help on people who don’t want help, but he was also concerned about people who get banned from the city-sanctioned camp in North Lawrence and where they can go to camp.
“Part of the problem isn’t the unhoused; it’s the people’s perception of the unhoused, and that’s what needs to change,” he said.
Flowers said the issue he’s really passionate about is decriminalizing magic mushrooms. He said studies have shown that psychedelic mushrooms and microdosing can help with mental health, including for veterans who have PTSD, and he believes the government should allow people bodily autonomy if they want to consume things that grow naturally and give them positive health benefits.
Joshua Olafson, originally from Colorado Springs, Colorado, said he moved here about 10 years ago and fell in love with this town. He’s an engineer with an audio-visual company. He said he wants to serve because he wants to see change.
“I want to serve because I want to see change. I want to see us grow; I want to see Lawrence thrive,” he said. “So I’m a moderate. I believe that we all need to work together regardless of what side we’re on — we’re all in this together.”
Olafson said he wants the city to be a safe space for all, and he was sad to hear people say that Lawrence wasn’t a safe place for transgender people after the Kansas Legislature passed Senate Bill 180. He said he also wants to improve the city’s relationship with the homeless community and look at how the city is helping people.
“I wanna jump in feet first and do the hard work and have hard conversations,” he said. People won’t always agree, he said, but that’s part of being in community.
Mike Dever, who served as a city commissioner from 2007-2015, said he was born and raised in Chicago and moved to Lawrence in 1981. He owns GuideWire Consulting, and he does environmental consulting and land use evaluations for third parties.
Dever said he feels like he’s done a good job in the past in both difficult economic times and flourishing times. “We’ve got a lot of good ideas and a lot of great plans, but we need to institute them, and we need leadership to help drive those plans forward,” he said.
Dever said he thinks the community needs to firm up its vision and attitude toward growth, annexation and housing across the spectrum. He said the city also needs a short-term plan to understand how many people there are in the community right now who don’t have roofs over their heads and how best to serve them as quickly and efficiently as possible with the resources that are already in place.
He also said he thinks the city needs to focus its priorities. “Just like any business, (the city needs) to reevaluate services that we provide, identify potential providers who might do better, and also to evaluate whether our budget can continue to support many of these services,” he said.
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Justine Burton said she’s from Lawrence and Eudora. She is the founder and CEO of Stop Gap Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps young adults who are aging out of the foster care system and other at-risk youth.
She said she’s running because she believes Lawrence needs a lot of change, and she wants to be part of it. She says she looks at Lawrence as a whole, not as a section, and there are a lot of areas that need improvement.
“I would like to be able to be on board and see those changes. I have a big vision for Lawrence, and I’d like to see some things happen,” she said.
Burton said she would like to see North Lawrence more developed. Being right off Interstate 70, she said businesses in North Lawrence could bring great economic advantages to the whole town. She also lamented the city not having any grocery stores north of the river or on the eastern side of town.
“Everything’s focused in one place in Lawrence, and I think that’s unfair for everybody else, especially for people who live in North Lawrence and East Lawrence,” she said.
Courtney Shipley, another incumbent wrapping up her first four-year term, said she grew up here and was the first Latina mayor of Lawrence. She said she initially got involved in community engagement because of a roundabout, and she started serving on the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods board and the Lawrence Preservation Alliance.
She said she wants to continue serving as a commissioner because she wants to make sure future generations have the same place to come back to. “We need jobs, we need housing, we need opportunities for them,” she said, as well as trails, parks, cultural representation and other “very important tangibles that people come here for.”
Shipley said an issue facing the city that she’s excited to address is staff satisfaction, which the public doesn’t necessarily see. But she said that she can say “from years of, frankly, not great leadership and management, that we have a real problem with that area. We’ve been working on it for years, and I am very glad to be part of that.”
“People no longer care about this top-down kind of leadership,” she said. “They want job satisfaction that involves their expertise and acknowledges their existence and achievement in the workplace.”
She also said she’s excited to have been one of the commissioners who agreed to return the Sacred Red Rock, Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, to the Kaw Nation, and to see that process come to fruition. The move is coming up in August.
Catch up on more coverage from previous forums and see more election news at lawrenceks.news/election2023. Our candidate questionnaires will be published Tuesday, July 18.
It is too late to register to vote in the primary election, but not too late to request an absentee ballot. The deadline to request a ballot to be mailed to you is Tuesday, July 25. Douglas County voters can check their voter registration and/or request an advance ballot by mail at KSVotes.org. Learn more about voting in Douglas County at this link.
Early voting has begun. Douglas County voters can cast their ballots in person at the election headquarters, 711 W. 23rd St., from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday over the next two weeks. Read more about that at this link. Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 1.