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Candidates for Lawrence City Commission discuss single-use plastics, environmental stewardship

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Election Day is drawing near: Tuesday, Nov. 7 is the last opportunity to cast your ballot and help decide which three candidates will fill Lawrence City Commission seats.

Candidates include newcomers Justine Burton and Dustin Stumblingbear, former commissioner Mike Dever, and incumbents Brad Finkeldei, Amber Sellers and Courtney Shipley.

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Sustainability Action Network, a group of Lawrence community members who are committed to environmental activism, asked commission candidates to complete their questionnaire. In it, candidates discuss bans on single-use plastics, city growth, multimodal transportation and more. 

These answers are reposted with permission from SAN. Candidates’ unedited answers are given in alphabetical order by last name.

Tuesday, Oct. 31 is the deadline to request an advance ballot to be mailed to you. In-person early voting hours are still available, and polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7. See options for how to cast your ballot at this link, and find much more election coverage at lawrencekstimes.com/election2023.

Single-use plastics

Q: How did you vote, or how would you have voted, on the plastic bag ordinance prohibiting single-use plastic bags at the point of checkout in retail establishments? Why?

(Read the backstory on this issue in our articles at this link.)

Burton: I did not vote. Before, I would have voted I would need to know the demographic that is being targeted and what is being used as the alternative, there should be an alternative to plastic however, some community members may not be able to afford to pay for a substitute so, who pays for the replacement and will the all-new bags be free to the public.

Dever: I agree with the concept of limiting the use of plastics and other non-reusable/recyclable single use containers. However, there is a burden placed on many small businesses when government imposes strict changes to their operations, and we need to be sensitive to those burdens. I am concerned with the additional FTE required and would have preferred to have shifted existing staff time initially, to determine the time requirements of the new position. I also believe that the city should reevaluate the program after several years, to monitor the costs and benefits of the program.

Finkeldei: I voted against the plastic bag ordinance as proposed. I certainly had no issue with the ordinance as it related to grocery stores, national chains or larger businesses. I was concerned with the impact on “mom and pop” stores who likely use a very small number of plastic bags and would have to absorb the cost of changing their current inventory and processes. If there would have been agreement to exempt those businesses I would have supported the ordinance.

Sellers: I voted no on Ordinance No. 9996. There were several strategies available to our community for mitigating access to single-use plastic bags that do not require a mandated law approach. The Sustainability Advisory Board presented that most businesses in our community are willing and capable of collaborating to inform and educate on the need to eliminate single plastic bag use. If retailers collectively agree and are currently transitioning towards reusable bags and other materials, then a city-wide education action plan and a pledge from business owners would have been a more proactive and less punitive approach; good policy without policing.

Shipley: I voted for the ban. Most large chain retailers already have the structures in place to switch away from plastic due to the fact that many other cities have done it already. I noticed also that during covid many local restaurants had switched not only to paper, but also switched to more biodegradable carry out containers. This community is willing and prepared to move toward more sustainable behavior, no matter how small it may seem to some. As I stated at the time of my vote, there have been controversial changes in our community such as the smoking ban. Now we not only accept it, but it is hard for some generations to believe we ever allowed it. Let’s also be clear. Our work is not done. There should be real attention paid to local programs to lessen landfill waste in general.

Stumblingbear: I do support ordinance 9996. We only have one planet and we can adapt to live with less single use plastics in order to preserve this planet not only for our current living generations but also for those to come. These plastics are blowing out of trash containers across Lawrence. These plastics are ending up in our gardens, our roadways, our parks, and our waterways. This is a real and current threat to our community’s health and safety.

Q: Would you encourage proposals or ordinances which further limit the use of single-use plastics? Why or why not?

Burton: I will not commit to a concrete answer without hearing any public discussion regarding future proposals or ordinances.

Dever: I believe we need to evaluate the initial phase of the program, and then determine the efficacy and the benefit of the program as it relates to environmental impacts on the community and the costs of the programs to the community.

Finkeldei: No, not unless the exemptions above are included. 

Sellers: I’m reminded by the quote, “I’m not making new law. I’m eliminating bad policy.” While I believe the Commission has the authority to create laws, we equally have the authority to implement and develop sound policy. I remain committed to encouraging our community and staff to create space to mobilize diverse thoughts and voices on the issue

Shipley: I’m not apposed to any new ideas for waste reduction. Practically though, I think the real need is for initiatives at the state or national level. However we can use resources to educate the community about buying power and packaging choices or begin to incentivize reduced solid waste.

Stumblingbear: I do support future ordinances that would further limit single use plastics within Lawrence city limits. Our city can show it is possible for businesses to succeed in municipalities that adopt environmentally focused ordinances such as ordinance 9996. I reiterate we only have one planet to live on.

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A growing city and getting around

Q: If Lawrence were to grow, do you favor expansion of the city limits, infill high-density housing development, or some other alternatives?

Burton: Your statement, “if Lawrence were to grow.” Lawrence should grow but growth should benefit the community not just a portion of the population of Lawrence. What type of expansions are you suggesting? The far West side of Lawrence already has a high-density of housing development. There should be a conversation between the builders and community leaders as to what alternative housing options look like.

Dever: I support the expansion of the city limits and the thoughtful and creative use of infill developments in existing parts of our community to create the housing needed in Lawrence. The population of the community does not need to grow to initiate these alternatives, as we already have far too few affordable homes and most are priced out of the market due to the lack of existing inventory. Thoughtful planning and code changes that are already being considered for approval will help with some of the initiatives in existing parts of Lawrence. The existing commission has already placed critical tax dollars in the budget for future infrastructure extensions and improvements that will also allow for the construction of a variety of new housing on the edges of our community.

Finkeldei: I much prefer infill and high density housing development, but with the desperate need for more affordable housing, I also support expansion of the city limits.

Sellers: If the answer to the question is solely focused on housing, then housing growth in Lawrence should be managed using each of the above methods available to fill the gap in housing, ensuring equity, access, and a strong quality of life for all who choose to rent/lease or buy. Mixed-income housing that is permanently supportive, low & moderate income, and market rate requires a blending of funding sources – all critical to housing choice.

Shipley: Lawrence is growing. Our current pattern of development is unsustainable. Denser infill in established neighborhoods is wise but must take into account neighborhood context. Encouraging infill in established neighborhoods means higher density not necessarily maximum density. Neighborhoods of the future should be higher density and should have mixed housing types to create more healthy, walkable, bikable neighborhoods accessible by public transportation. Benefit districts should be considered as expansion is historically not fiscally sustainable.

Stumblingbear: Lawrence is going to continue to grow. A combination of higher density infill and annexations would be ideal for the growth of Lawrence. I would want future annexations to focus on higher density rather than single family detached dwellings. We should work to include more green infrastructure as future annexations are near floodplains or include wetlands. Future development on annexations that was formally farmland will directly impact how rainwater drains thus we should work to include green infrastructure as part of our land development code update. 

Q: How would you encourage Lawrence residents to rely less on motor vehicles in favor of walking, bicycling or using public transport to reach goods and services? How should future development plans advance this goal?

Burton: Here again, what demographics are you targeting? Older community members will continue to use their cars for modes of transportation. Younger people may adopt other alternatives.

Dever: When the bus system was being used as a political football in the past, I requested a public vote on the issue and requested a second sales tax for equipment and infrastructure so we could operate more sustainably. The public spoke on transit, now they need to use it more often. I also commute to work on a bicycle regularly and try to encourage others by “example” and using the vastly improved public paths, trails and bike paths on a weekly basis. Lawrence has a lot to offer to someone who does not want to rely on a vehicle, and the continuous commitment to multi-modal transportation has made it much better than it was just ten years ago. I look forward to moving the process even further to more walkable, interconnected neighborhoods.

Finkeldei: I believe we need to keep the bus as a free service to encourage its use. I also believe the new bus hub and routes will encourage the uses of buses (along with micro-transit). As for walking and biking, we need to continue to invest in sidewalks, walking/biking trails, and supporting biking on our roads. Finally, our new development code should continue to require multi-modal transportation to be included in any new project.

Sellers: Biking, walking, or using public transport are tools that can empower people to get where they need safely in an affordable, independent way. Having these options can improve economic resilience, health, and a sense of community. Lawrence is a community where many of its residents work outside city limits, impacting their motor vehicle use. Strategies to mitigate reliance on motor vehicles for in-town use should be examined from the perspective of housing, business sustainability, and support of arts & entertainment.

Shipley: I think the establishment of a downtown bus hub will make it possible for many to change to public transportation. Rethinking parking could also help discourage car-centric behavior. I have been fighting for safer and more complete bikeways. With the advent of e-bikes and a good bikeway system we could really reduce car use in our community. And expansion past the SLT should be planned with public transportation and bikeways as priorities.

Stumblingbear: To help Lawrence residents rely less on personal vehicles; more clearly marked and dedicated lanes for biking are required along major routes. More mixed used developments could allow people to live closer to work, entertainment, and grocers among other services. Future infrastructure should allow pedestrians and bicyclists to feel safe at all intersections otherwise why would people use these modes of transportation.

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Taking initiative in environmental stewardship

Q: How have you, and how would you demonstrate initiative and leadership in the area of environmental stewardship through specific proposals?

Burton: If and when a specific proposal is presented, then and only then after having a committee discussion would I be able to make an informed decision.

Dever: I was a leader in and a member of the City Commission that created the first sustainability coordinator position for the city and also established the community garden program. I was also a part of the City Commission that instituted City supplied, single stream curbside recycling and large improvements in multi-modal transportation planning throughout the community. I championed an individual ballot initiative for a separate tax for hybrid/electric buses and equipment and the operational costs of the bus system. I have a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Kansas and have worked in Environmental Consulting and Industrial Hygiene for over 38 years and have a serious interest in environmental stewardship. My hope is to assist with community and commission initiatives that advance environmental programs improving the quality of life and community.

Finkeldei: I have not initiated any direct environmental policies, but I have certainly shown my support for many such projects and policies during my time on the commission. That being said, I am leading the Development Code revision that will encourage infill and higher densities, which will be a major step forward in achieving our environmental goals.

Sellers: I would propose first that understanding the dynamics around the intersectionality of environmental stewardship in the planning, strategizing, development, and impact of sustainability policies across municipal departments is important. I believe one can demonstrate some level of leadership once that has been established.

In May of this year, the City was recognized for its Sustainable Capital Projects Policy – our commitment to “…provide consistent procedures and standards for the sustainable management of siting, design, construction, remodeling, repair, maintenance, operation and deconstruction of city facilities and infrastructure.” I believe early discussions with Commissioners around the Multimodal Transfer Facility Project were crucial to developing such a policy.

Shipley: I have already been championing sidewalks and bikeways. I have also been fighting wasteful and unnecessary road expansions that destroy animal habitat and continue our car-centric tradition that is antiquated and destructive. I’m proud that we have prioritized stormwater projects that have been long neglected and are more important than ever in the context of climate change. We need people who can stay focused an our established sustainability goals and our Strategic Plan goals even when there is higher initial cost. I have been pleased to do that for Lawrence and will continue that work for my neighbors and the future of our children. 

Stumblingbear: I would be 1 of 5 city commissioners where it takes 3 commissioners to get any action taken upon a proposal from a commissioner. I would continually advocate for mixed use developments alongside green infrastructure. I will push for any future city projects to include forms of renewable energy on site. I would push against all arguments against sustainable practices based upon systemic racism but shrouded with socioeconomic terms.

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