Candidates running for Lawrence City Commission on Saturday shared their views on community oversight of police, how to engage marginalized people and more during the final forum of this election cycle.
The forum was hosted by the Lawrence Kansas branch NAACP in partnership with Black:30 and Loud Light. Black:30 is an entrepreneurial support organization that Taylor Overton and Devanté Green founded in May. Loud Light is a Kansas youth-centered civic participation organization.
Overton served as moderator Saturday. Candidates Mike Dever, Justine Burton, Dustin Stumblingbear and incumbent candidates Courtney Shipley and Amber Sellers participated in the forum.
Incumbent candidate Brad Finkeldei was unable to attend because he was visiting his daughter for an important event in her college career, he wrote in a statement Overton read to the crowd of about 50 in attendance.
Engaging the community
Overton asked candidates, “In what ways do you think that we can make government and its processes more transparent to encourage constituents to participate, especially those from historically marginalized groups?”
Stumblingbear said people running city meetings need to be aware of what’s going on in those spaces and behavior that’s happening there. He also said that as a disabled veteran, he’s been able to participate in city meetings via Zoom regularly, and virtual options as well as recordings on YouTube are available.
Burton said talking and listening is important, and the city should be transparent about what’s going on. She said there are people in this town who would help in any way they can if they had a platform to talk.
Shipley says she thinks the city already delivers a pretty high expectation of transparency. She said that as mayor, she was very focused on filling city advisory board appointments with new people and fresh perspectives.
“Believe me, there were very powerful interest groups who did not like that,” she said. “But I was committed to looking for new people of all ages, all backgrounds, and making sure we didn’t have absolutely what we did have: all white boards. All wealthy, white boards. We’ve captured all the data on the demographics of the people on our boards, and I was not having any more of that.”
She also suggested that the city find a way to pay people from marginalized backgrounds to serve on boards because they may be single parents who don’t have child care, and they need to be supported.
Dever said when he previously served on the city commission, it was difficult to get people to serve on boards because most of the people did’t know there were openings, or how to find out about them.
“We should look at our demographics — the city knows everything about us,” he said. “We can easily mail out information to people who may have shown the desire to participate, but haven’t done so yet — maybe get them involved.”
Sellers said the government must build with, not for, the community. She said only offering traditional engagement approaches is often performative and lacks critical components of inclusivity. She said the city has to stop thinking that people coming to give three minutes of public comment during the commission meetings is the only way to be part of a participatory government.
“There are other ways. We have to meet the community where they are,” Sellers said. “We have to stop talking about ‘the community has to come to us.’ It is our responsibility as a city, as a commission, to go to the people.”
Supporting businesses owned by people of color
Overton, who grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, asked candidates, “We know that minority-owned businesses are essential to our community’s health and culture. What will you do if elected to better serve our needs?”
Dever said he wanted to make sure people know about funding opportunities that are available to help entrepreneurs.
“I think without knowledge, they have no power. I want to help give people power to flourish, especially minority-owned and small-business owners who really struggle with these kinds of conditions,” he said.
Sellers answered next, saying that if you’re going to lead with educating the community but you don’t know that community, you need to first educate yourself. She said community development block grants could help infuse dollars and support into minority-owned businesses.
Stumblingbear said systems are intentionally designed to keep Native American people out of opportunities. He said it’s important to at least be integrated or to be a part of a community in order to really help it. He said during a BIPOC entrepreneur workshop Overton recently hosted, he felt that his questions were being answered by someone he could trust and who was actually looking out for him.
Burton, who founded a local nonprofit called StopGap Inc. that supports young adults aging out of foster care, said she can tell you how minorities are left out when it comes to getting assistance. She said she’d want to sit down and talk with people who want to start businesses and see exactly what they want, and to partner with a bank or credit union to offer an incentive package to offer new businesses.
Shipley said the city has incentivized already-wealthy business owners, and it’s entirely possible to use those same kinds of ideas “to start prioritizing people who actually need the incentives to do the project.” She said the city can fund small businesses that are primarily started by people of color or people who don’t have access to capital.
“That’s just a priority we need to make, and we will make it such that it connects to our strategic plan outcomes,” she said.
Overton asked candidates, “What do you consider to be the community’s role in police oversight?”
Sellers said law enforcement officers having a good relationship with neighborhood associations or constituency groups within the community creates another pathway into accountability. She said she believes the city is moving strides with the Community Police Review Board, though it’s in developing stages, and as the city continues to move forward looking at policing, they’ll understand how to fortify and strengthen the CPRB.
Stumblingbear said he’s participated in ridealongs with Lawrence police and gone through the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s citizen academy to get a firsthand view of what law enforcement is doing in this town. He said the city commission needs to listen to both sides. He said he knows it can be scary to be around the police, but if people can get a firsthand view of what police do each day, it’s easier to make policy proposals.
Burton said she was followed by an officer a couple years ago, and that he’d stopped and stared at her until she got into her building. “That’s scary,” she said, and she thinks the police need public oversight.
“We still have those few that like to harass. So I’m looking at, I think we need to make sure the police are protecting and serving the community and not stalking and harassing,” Burton said.
Shipley said the community asked for a CPRB, and that’s what the city is going to give them, though it’s been off to a rocky start. She said she wants to see the CPRB reviewing police policy and giving feedback on it, and reviewing data that the city collects.
“They should be able to review complaints, understanding, of course, the constraints of employment law, which whether I like it or not is a reality,” Shipley said.
Dever said he thinks the community is the ultimate arbiter of what police need to be doing in the community. He said he believes in clear and transparent operations, but he would like a police review board to have authority and power to actually do something.
“So far, they haven’t really had that chance, and I look forward to seeing that happen,” he said.
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, lawrencekstimes.com/election2023. 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: This post was updated Oct. 20 to embed a video of the forum.
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