Primary Election Day is Tuesday for the Lawrence City Commission and one Lawrence school board seat.
For those who are studying up on the candidates in preparation to cast their ballots, here are the commission candidates’ answers to questions about their experience, the city-county strategic plan to reach functional zero homelessness, and how they prioritize developing home ownership opportunities.
The nonpartisan primary will narrow commission candidates from eight to six. The six who receive the most votes Tuesday will advance to the Tuesday, Nov. 7 general election, and ultimately, three commissioners will be elected.
Turnout for odd-year primaries is generally fairly low — just a little more than 10% of registered voters cast ballots, according to Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew. In 2021, the sixth candidate to advance from the school board primary election was decided by just seven votes.
These questions and answers are republished with permission from the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. Visit lawrencechamber.com/elections to see candidates’ full questionnaires for the chamber.
Find much more election coverage at lawrencekstimes.com/election2023.
Candidates’ answers are given in alphabetical order by last name.
“What experience do you have that you believe qualifies you to be a strong city commissioner?”
Justine Burton: I don’t know what definition you are looking for, for Strong, however, I respect everyone’s opinions but, I don’t follow the crowd. Experience? life! I don’t have a lot of initials behind my name. However, I have a bachelor’s degree in human services. I worked for the Department of Children and Families, aka SRS, for 10 years, and Bert Nash Mental Health Center for 7 1/2 years.
Mike Dever: Having previously served on the city commission for eight years from 2007 until 2015, I believe I would bring experience and institutional knowledge to the position of City Commissioner. I also believe my 30 years of business management experience and work with governmental agencies provide me with the tools to carefully work with others to solve the diverse problems facing the City of Lawrence.
Brad Finkeldei: I have had the pleasure of serving on multiple boards and committees with residents from all over Lawrence prior to being elected to the City Commission, including serving with Ballard, Family Promise, and the Planning Commission. I learned a great deal about the challenges and strengths of our community through those interactions over 20 plus years. I believe the lessons I learned and the experiences I had prior to joining the commission help me bring our whole community together to create a healthier, vibrant and more just Lawrence. Finally, I believe my experiences as an attorney give me a unique perspective that is beneficial to the commission.
Chris Flowers: I have been attending meetings regularly for well over 6 years, so have a good idea of how the process works. By attending meetings over the years, I’ve learned a lot about local government. I’ve sat through things that come up yearly, such as the budget process. I know what a protest petition is and how it works. I sat through city commission meeting where they established Plan 2040.
I also have experience at being a big mouth, and I think that would be a great asset to this city, because it means I’m willing to initiate discussions others are uncomfortable having. I’m willing to ask questions others would rather ignore.
As a delivery driver, I have pretty good knowledge of our roads, and I think I could improve how the city does some of it’s street projects. I think there are projects like the 21st bike boulevard that haven’t been money well spent. Also sometimes I think the city needs to do a better job about not closing too many major roads at once during the summer.
Joshua Olafson: I have been in leadership roles for over 15 years, from my leadership in a church settings to leadership positions throughout my career. I believe that Lawrence is special and unique and that we have amazing people and potential here. I want to see the voices of all of Lawrence represented. I am skilled at collaboration and working with others to bridge the gap between different ideas to find paths forward. I believe it is the Commission’s role to serve the people of Lawrence and have the hard conversations so the city and its residents are positioned to thrive. I recognize that I alone do not have all the answers which is why collaboration within the commission and within the city are so vital. I believe that we can do better and that we owe it to each other as residents of Lawrence to learn and grow together.
Amber Sellers: I have 20+ years of professional experience in government affairs, research, regulatory, and public policy. My experience tracking and interpreting the impacts of state legislation on local governing makes me a unique asset to local governing. Having worked in public health, I have utilized that knowledge to drive meaningful, measurable performance outcomes. Each of these characteristics should be considered, especially when working with city staff, to set priorities and address the needs within the community. Additionally, my ability to inform and engage people directly while teaching policy implementation speaks to my passion for civic engagement – a vital characteristic for a Commissioner.
Courtney Shipley: I have served as city commissioner for one term. I also had the honor of serving as Lawrence’s first Latina Mayor. My strength as a commissioner derives from consistent communication with people from every corner of our community.
Dustin Stumblingbear: My military experience as a truck commander in Iraq, along with being a supervisor for 5 years at the University of North Dakota, and my time as a team leader and trainer during my work at American Woods, Inc. have allowed me to develop and cultivate the skills to listen effectively, communicate intelligently, and make decisions based on data available in the moment.
“What are your thoughts on the City’s response to the homelessness issue and/or the current version of the Community Plan to End Homelessness? Does anything stand out that you would change, add, or delete?”
Note: Read about the plan in this article from March.
Justine Burton: The city had a knee-jerk response to this crisis. It seemed more like out of sight out of mind attitude and no thought for the neighborhoods and their safety, nor the security and safety of surrounding businesses. Some individuals do not want housing, as they have lived on the streets for years so just help them with what they need. Others, if they want help, may not know what resources are available to them. It is difficult as some may have mental health issues. Anyway, they cannot be forced to except housing they are people not a herd of cattle. But, we should have rules that apply to everyone that comes into our house. Sometimes when these individuals are given bus tickets to Lawrence from surrounding areas, such as Franklin County, Leavenworth County, small counties that feel they don’t have the resources. If this is the case, I feel those counties should reimburse Douglas County for services.
Mike Dever: I believe the Community Plan to End Homelessness is a long-term and ambitious document that dives deeply into solving the housing aspect of our homeless crisis in Lawrence. I was not involved in the creation of the document and have only read the 30-page plan. If elected I would dig deeper into the existing plan, assure that it is being followed and that the original principles were sound. However, we need a short-term plan to address the existing crisis. What I want to focus on as a commissioner, is the current and past response to the unhoused in Lawrence and identifying ways to better utilize the existing medical, mental health, drug addiction and short-term housing resources currently available. We need to assure citizens that the City has a specific near-term plan in place to urgently move unhoused individuals to existing shelter and transitional housing services. The current inhumane conditions the City has allowed to persist within our homeless and transient community is unsafe and unsustainable.
Brad Finkeldei: Prior to 2023, the city of Lawrence never provided direct services to the homeless. In response to a growing need and the inability of non-governmental entities to handle the issues of homelessness facing our community, the city commission dedicated dollars and resources and stepped into the emergency sheltering space as their portion of the community’s goal to reach functional zero. I like the city’s commitment to be part of the solution to this nationwide problem. That being said, tackling this problem was new to the city and its employees and thus there has been significant struggles and growing pains along the way, which I certainly hope, and trust, we will improve upon as we continue this difficult work. Although the Community Plan to End Homelessness is not yet complete, I do support the direction it is heading and understand that it will take the entire community, not just the city to make significant progress on this difficult issue.
Chris Flowers: Our city’s response has been hectic. I don’t think it was thought out and the city seems to be coming up with the plan as they go along. At this point I take anything the city says about their plans for the unhoused with a grain of salt. The pallet village was supposed to be open up by now but that was delayed. I don’t think the tent city was supposed to be up as long as it has been but it is. I don’t know how much longer the city intends on using it, since they recently spent thousands of dollars to relocate the entrance. Why would we spend that much just to move an entrance to a place we plan on closing in a few months? When it comes to the homeless, I don’t want to put them all in one place. That just seems to be asking for trouble.
Joshua Olafson: I believe creating a safe space for the unhoused is a step in the right direction, however, I believe that fencing off the camp was ill advised. I believe that homelessness is an issue with many facets that need to be addressed in tandem such as mental and physical health, job training and assistance, and also housing assistance. I believe city commission could improve their plans with a more well-rounded and comprehensive approach as well as seeking out expertise from other cities and states that have seen successes in this area.
Amber Sellers: Addressing the unhoused in our community has been a point of conflict – politically, socially, and culturally. Historically, housing policies have never centered on accessibility and affordability for all. Stigma against and dehumanizing people experiencing houselessness must be mitigated in our city. To create a meaningful impact, we must acknowledge that behavioral health access through increased workforce and services – along with additional permanent, affordable housing and temporary sheltering is tantamount to moving Lawrence toward functional zero. With an initial cost estimate exceeding $50M, the need for state-level financial support must be expected for the plan to be successful.
Courtney Shipley: While it is finishing up its cycle through public engagement there are a few things I hear the public has interest in and I will be watching for and encouraging community discussion. Evaluating the possibility of residency requirements, the thoughtful and kind relocation of campers from all parks, and clear behavioral and safety expectations at the palette home site (which is already required but the neighborhood needs clear communication regarding those expectations.) While these are minutia in the broader scheme, they are the most frequent comments I hear from people and I can’t ignore them.
Dustin Stumblingbear: I’m a firm proponent of the Community Plan to End Homelessness. The city of Lawrence is doing something undone before for cities of our size so I support the efforts being made by the city staff of Lawrence, even the missteps are teachable moments that intelligent people are embracing.
“On a scale of 1-10, how important is creating new residential home ownership opportunities (not rental)? What resources should the City of Lawrence deploy to assist with housing creation?“
Justine Burton: I know of a young lady who was raised and has lived in Lawrence her whole life, she has worked for an organization she retired from (still working part-time for the same organization) and raised children and grandchildren. But, because she was unable to find a place to live, she had to live in a motel for three years. This should not happen. I don’t know all the circumstances, maybe bad credit, I don’t know but it shouldn’t happen. When housing is created, there are so many restrictions, red tape, that a person probably still wouldn’t qualify. Well, we have HUD and Tenants To Homeowners but what is the qualification processes? I would like to see individual homes not tract housing something that is just thrown together without thought just to appease someone.
Mike Dever: I believe that there are housing shortages in many desirable communities, but the City of Lawrence has not kept up the supply of buildable lots in the City and Douglas County has restricted the ability to construct residential subdivisions in unincorporated areas. The combination of many other factors has led to a limited supply of residential homes in our area, and a larger than average increase in price due to demand. I believe the creation of residential housing, and a long-term plan to accommodate the needs of a growing community, must be a top priority for the City.
Brad Finkeldei: Although home ownership is not for everyone, and nearly 50% of our community are renters, it is an important avenue for creating generational wealth and raising people out of poverty, so I would rank it as a 7. First, we must continue to expand our housing stock at all price points so people have options to purchase. Second, we must continue to support Tenants to Homeowners and Habitat for Humanity who provide lower income individuals a path to homeownership. Finally, we must create a community where all people feel comfortable so they want to buy a home and stay in Lawrence.
Chris Flowers: I’d say 7.5; important, but not as important as making sure there is enough housing for everyone. If we want more home ownership, maybe we should rework some of our building codes. I may be wrong, but I’m not sure if tiny homes are allowed in some neighborhoods. But if instead of putting one big house on a property, you built 2-4 tiny homes instead, then there would be 2-4 homes to own instead of one.
Joshua Olafson: I believe that the importance of new residential home ownership is a 10. We want to see new and current business opportunities thrive and it will start with housing. How can the city expect to recruit new businesses and entrepreneurial initiatives with a lack of housing opportunities for their employees? We also want to see homelessness decrease in our city and it will start with more affordable housing initiatives. The City of Lawrence needs to reevaluate their strict housing and zoning policies to align with city growth and provide substantial opportunities for new and affordable homes to be built. I believe this issue is urgent and that the City of Lawrence should consider deploying any and all resources available to address it.
Amber Sellers: First, the creation of residential housing for ownership sits at 7 out of 10. This approach must balance the desire for market-rate housing with the need for moderate-income and permanent supportive housing for unhoused individuals. With additional state tools and policies, our city can continue bringing on more affordable housing, including mid-market density housing. The Kansas Affordable Housing Tax Credit enacted by HB 2237 in 2022 leverages state housing tax credits alongside federal LIHTC funds. The recent expansion of the Reinvestment Housing Incentive District program utilizes a percentile rebate back to developers who complete improvements to property (or properties) within an approved RHID redevelopment plan. Coupled with current efforts to revise our zoning codes, Lawrence will be in a position to grow homeownership in an economically diverse way that brings equity in homeownership that our city has not seen in decades.
Courtney Shipley: Home ownership is not a priority for all generations. Other municipalities are envious of our Affordable Housing Trust Fund. We should continue with thoughtful and efficient investments through that mechanism.
Dustin Stumblingbear: It is vital that home ownership opportunities be created for all residents of Lawrence to create the financial stability needed for families to grow and move into Lawrence. The city of Lawrence should focus more dollars into the programs that are creating actual housing stock at affordable levels, that being Tenants to Homeowners.
Learn more about the candidates in these articles, or check out our coverage of four candidate forums at lawrencekstimes.com/election2023.