Lawrence city commissioners split on mayor’s Lawrence Community Shelter board appointments

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Commissioner has ‘never seen one person so inappropriate for a position on a board,’ she says

Post updated at 1:15 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18:

One Lawrence city commissioner on Tuesday voiced concerns about a person the mayor appointed to serve on the new Lawrence Community Shelter Board of Directors, and another spoke critically of the process that led to three appointees.

The shelter is moving into a model of shared governance between the shelter board, the City of Lawrence and Douglas County. The commission on Tuesday approved a resolution to accept bylaws that dictate the structure of the new board of directors. If the Douglas County Commission also approves it during their meeting Wednesday, it will become effective.

Under the resolution and updated bylaws, the mayor can appoint three community members to serve on the shelter board. Like other city boards, those nominations are then confirmed by the other Lawrence city commissioners.

Mayor Lisa Larsen appointed Elizabeth Keever, of Heartland Community Health Center, to a one-year term; Chuck Magerl, of Free State Brewery, to a two-year term; and Shannon Oury, of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, to a three-year term.

Commissioner Courtney Shipley, who last year served as mayor, said it can feel personal when people raise concerns about appointments. She said she did not mean any disrespect toward Larsen, but “I’ve also never seen one person so inappropriate for a position on a board since I’ve been here,” she said.

“So I think the kindest thing I could ask is for the mayor to perhaps reconsider,” Shipley said. “I think once we’ve had this conversation out loud, some other people might come out of our community that are highly qualified to do this, even though I think some of the people who applied probably are. … But I have a grave concern with one of these appointments, which I did express to you.”

Larsen asked who that was. Shipley said Magerl.

“We have received over the past year, and in particular, a piece of correspondence in March, which I consider to be dehumanizing in its terms, and disqualifying for this position,” Shipley said. “I did not in any way, shape or form want to say that and I thought it would have been much easier to have that conversation as commissioners to avoid that. But the public makes the point — we don’t really have conversations about who does these jobs, and now we’re here. And if people want transparency, which many of the downtown owners said they did, that is the transparency, that’s the information I’m sharing.”

Magerl did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment for this article Tuesday night. Shipley did not immediately respond to a request to forward the email she referenced.

Lawrence City Commissioner Courtney Shipley (left) listens as Chuck Magerl speaks during the commission’s Sept. 19, 2023 meeting. (Screenshot / City of Lawrence YouTube)

Magerl was one of numerous downtown business owners who last year signed a petition requesting that city leaders immediately declare a sheltering and housing emergency in Lawrence and rescind the ordinance that allows people experiencing houselessness to camp in the commercial district when the Lawrence Community Shelter is at full capacity. 

The petition also asked the city and county to “Increase the Lawrence Community Shelter (LCS) occupancy from 50 to 125. … If LCS leadership is unable or unwilling to raise occupancy, the City, County, or other safety net organizations should enter into negotiations to take over operations at the shelter.”

He has spoken about the local homelessness crisis during one commission meeting in recent memory. He spoke about the increasing numbers in Lawrence’s “point in time” count of people experiencing homelessness, and he said that “As a community, we should provide care and compassion and have courage to call things by their name — be honest about drug addiction and mental illness.”

“We must build programs to help but be modest in what we can accomplish with limited funding and staffing and the immense effort of individual recovery programs,” he said during the commission’s Sept. 19 meeting.

Commissioner Amber Sellers asked Larsen whether she had interviewed all six or seven of the candidates who had applied to serve on the board. Larsen said she did not.

One of the people Larsen did not interview, Denise Ballard, spoke during public comment, explaining her interest in serving and her experience that she thought would be pertinent.

Denise Ballard (Screenshot / City of Lawrence YouTube)

She said she’s been volunteering at Just Food, Family Promise and LINK “so that I’m not sitting in my home, an ivory tower, saying ‘Well, this is what we should do,’ but getting down there and taking food to the tent camp and spending some time with them at LINK, listening to their stories.” She also said she retired from the Department of Treasury, so she understands finances, particularly with regards to Social Security and disability programs.

“I just wanted to make sure that I share that so that as you’re considering moving forward with any type of board that people understand what the qualifications are, and to at least talk to all of the people who have applied,” Ballard said.

Sellers said commissioners never really raised questions about appointments before she took office, and she’s heard some backlash about how this is how the process has always worked.

“If you continue to move things in bureaucracy you’ll get bureaucracy, and bureaucracy doesn’t always mean equity,” she said. “… This is how we’re going to do it, because this is what’s easy. This is what’s comfortable, without really doing the due diligence.”

Sellers said she had done due diligence in encouraging people to apply for the board who she believed had enough experience to be valuable members, and some had applied before the three applicants Larsen nominated.

“I can’t vote on this tonight. I’m not gonna vote on this tonight. Because in my heart of hearts, due diligence wasn’t given,” Sellers said.

Larsen stood by her choices.

“I definitely reviewed and spoke with each one of them individually. I also spoke with others in the community, not just those three, about the prospect of their thoughts on whether they wanted to be part of the board, and these are the three that I believe are good for the job,” she said.

Shipley asked Larsen to hold two votes, separating the appointees, and she voted in favor of Keever and Oury but against Magerl. Commissioner Brad Finkeldei, Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn and Larsen voted in favor of all three appointees. Sellers abstained from both votes.

Littlejohn said he thinks the three appointees will do a great job and set LCS on a path to stability.

Finkeldei said that “I guess I would only add that, you know, the process is that mayor nominates and we approve. And we have three nominations before us, so then the question becomes do I approve the three that were selected, and I do think they will all be good board members and so I support them.”

Commissioners also approved $150,000 in funding for the shelter, and an updated agreement with expectations for the shelter.

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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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