Candidates for Lawrence City Commission discuss renewable energy, collaboration with other local governments

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Lawrence city commission candidates during a forum Monday evening spoke on renewable energy and efforts to collaborate with the Lawrence school district and Douglas County.

Sonja Czarnecki, president-elect of the League of Women Voters of Lawrence-Douglas County, moderated the forum, held at the Lawrence Public Library. A recording of the forum will be uploaded to the library’s YouTube page in the near future.

Candidates Brad Finkeldei (incumbent), Courtney Shipley (incumbent), Justine Burton and Mike Dever were there in person. Dustin Stumblingbear had his wife, Rachel Stumblingbear, read his prewritten responses, and Amber Sellers (incumbent) had Kenna McNally read hers.


Renewable energy

Czarnecki asked candidates, “How can the City Commission encourage citizens to increase renewable energy use and improve energy conservation practices to decrease the emissions of burning fossil fuels in Lawrence?’”

Burton said she believes that if the city wants everyone to be electric in five years, the city should pay 85 to 90% of the cost for citizens to convert their appliances from gas to electric and give tax rebates on electrical bills.

Sellers wrote that “Addressing lifestyle choices around reducing energy consumption and sustainability should focus on understanding how citizens identify themselves in these areas. … These differences in thought should be shared and examined against social determinants and the many subpopulations that would be impacted in our city.”

Stumblingbear wrote that the commission could direct staff to find programs that help property owners with the cost to better insulate their properties and help reduce energy usage to cool or heat them, as well as programs to help with the cost of installing solar panels.

Dever said the government has limited authority to impact individuals’ choices regarding the environment, but the city can encourage local job growth so people can stay in town and walk, bike or ride buses to work. He said the city can also create more sustainable housing choices and transit-centric housing, and emphasize how people can live in more carbon-neutral ways.

Finkeldei said he agrees the goal should be to encourage people. He said Black Hills and Westar have both implemented programs so people can choose to have their energy come from renewable sources. He also said the ongoing rewrite of the city’s land development code will allow for more solar energy and encourage walkability.

Shipley said the city needs to begin to connect the Lawrence Loop with “spokes” to help people get to their jobs and homes by bike. “Once we build to discourage cars, we’ll be ready for climate change; we’ll be ready for sustainability. We’ll be ready for future generations who really aren’t interested in driving cars at all.”

Collaboration with USD 497, Douglas County

Czarnecki asked candidates how the City of Lawrence should work with Lawrence Public Schools and businesses such as the Panasonic plant to plan for projected future housing and school needs, and how the city and county commissions should collaborate more.

Stumblingbear wrote that the city needs housing not only for Panasonic workers but also for teachers in the school district. He wrote that the city should communicate with incoming businesses to learn where they believe workers will most need housing, which would then inform conversations with the school district about which schools may see an enrollment bump.

Stumblingbear wrote that the city and county should collaborate on expanding the footprint of the Lawrence Community Shelter and the county-owned land behind the shelter, which could be used to construct outdoor shelters and spaces for residents to use during daytime hours. He wrote that they need to work together on supportive housing and case management.


Dever said the city, school district and county need to talk more. “We all work for the same people,” he said. “We owe it to them to communicate with each other so we can avoid things like school closures at any cost.” He said when he was previously a commissioner (2007 to 2015), talks of closing schools led to serious and lengthy discussions between the agencies, and it seemed to him as an outsider looking in that there was not a lot of communication in the most recent closures of Pinckney and Broken Arrow elementary schools.

Dever said when he previously served on the commission, there was a horrible relationship between the city and county, but he felt that the relationship was blooming and blossoming when he left. He said he thinks they need to focus on communication, “and most importantly, we need to focus on our public housing needs and the unhoused, and I think the city and the county together can accomplish way more together than apart.”

Finkeldei said it takes a long time to get new areas developed, and “You have to be way ahead of the curve. We’re not really talking about Panasonic anymore — we’re talking about the project that follows Panasonic.” He said with the school district, you have to be prepared for neighborhoods to change. For instance, he said when his neighborhood opened, there were 60-some kids in it; when he moved in, there were three, and now there are about 22.

Finkeldei said one positive thing to come from COVID-19 was a closer relationship between the city and county. He said they’ve been working on updating city-county agreements and planning together ways to address homelessness and emergency sheltering.

Shipley said everybody’s worried about Panasonic, but we have people right here who need child care and can’t find it. She said the city has 800 employees, they have children, and she’d rather concern herself with their needs before she loses sleep over Panasonic, which she said she doesn’t believe will bring in the money that people think it will, and “certainly not the number of people looking for housing that we think it will.”

Shipley said there was “actual palpable animosity from years of negative transactional relationship between the city and the county” when she and Finkeldei took office almost four years ago, and those relationships have been improved tenfold. She said they can also work together to stop spending duplicative money, and watch capital improvement plan items for things like the Wakarusa extension, “which is a waste of tax dollars and destroys sensitive green space.”

Burton said she thinks the focus needs to be on the families and citizens of Lawrence. “You need to take care of your community. You need to take care of Lawrence. That’s the main bottom line,” she said. She said they still hadn’t talked about building grocery stores, and that was one thing they needed to talk about.

Regarding collaborating with the county, Burton said that somebody needs to be looking at reducing taxes and finding a way to spend the money more wisely. She said maintaining historic buildings and enforcing codes for maintenance on vacant and non-vacant buildings around Lawrence are other things that need to be taken care of.

Sellers wrote that “The health and well-being of our community should always be examined holistically. Future housing and school needs are currently being discussed as they relate to current needs, which far exceed those related to the proposed impact of the Panasonic plant.” She wrote that the best approach for the city, school district and businesses is to continue to be diligent in addressing current needs and policies for economic impact.

She wrote that collaboration is essential for effective governance. The city and county commissions meet annually, “which I believe is inadequate and counterproductive,” she wrote. “I believe quarterly meetings would be ideal to receive updates on housing, economic development and public health matters — all issues the city and county currently collaborate on.”

The general election is coming up Tuesday, Nov. 7.

Meet the candidates and find out how to register to vote, double-check your registration and/or request a mail ballot on our election page, The deadline to register to vote or update your registration is Tuesday, Oct. 17; advance voting begins the following day.

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Note: Post updated at 2:45 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6 to embed video

Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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