Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday stuck with tradition in choosing the mayor and vice mayor for the next year.
The commission said goodbye to Courtney Shipley, whose term came to an end, and welcomed back Commissioners Mike Dever, Brad Finkeldei and Amber Sellers. Finkeldei and Sellers, both incumbents, were reelected; Dever previously served from 2007 through 2015 and returned to the commission with more than 1,000 votes over the other candidates in the Nov. 7 election.
In odd years, like this year, the vice mayor has traditionally been nominated to take the helm next, and the top vote recipient in the election held weeks prior is nominated to serve as vice mayor.
That tradition held Tuesday. Finkeldei nominated then-Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn for mayor, and the commission voted 5-0 in Littlejohn’s favor.
Finkeldei also nominated Commissioner Mike Dever to serve as vice mayor. Sellers nominated herself. Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve Dever as vice mayor, with Sellers opposed. (Read more from their remarks in this article.)
Lisa Larsen, who began Tuesday’s meeting as mayor and whose term as a commissioner continues through 2025, reflected on some of the goals she shared when her fellow commissioners elected her mayor a year ago.
She said the city has made strong progress on a very in-depth and lengthy review and revision of the land development code.
“The importance of this document warrants taking the time to make sure we do our best to get it right,” she said.
She said she still wants to pursue a program to offer some tax relief or other financial assistance to homeowners who want to maintain and rehabilitate their homes, akin to economic development incentives for businesses, as part of a neighborhood restoration program.
She said she was happy to report the city’s capital improvement plan includes $480 million of infrastructure projects, and the commission has approved annexation of nearly 300 acres of land that has the potential to provide space for more than 500 housing units.
Lastly, she said the impacts of the city’s homelessness and housing situation have “been felt far and wide,” and although the city has had challenges and difficult discussions about its ability to handle the magnitude of the issues, she believes the city has committed to moving forward by learning from missteps and capitalizing on successes. She mentioned several of the city’s initiatives in emergency shelter, recovery from homelessness and expanding availability of affordable housing as “paramount” to the community’s equitable and sustainable growth.
“While there’s always more work to be done, I believe our accomplishments this year move us closer to meeting our goals and making Lawrence a better place to live,” Larsen said.
Littlejohn, elected along with Larsen in 2021, thanked his fellow commissioners — those incoming and outgoing — for the work they put into the job. He also thanked city staff members for their day-to-day efforts to maintain and grow the city, which he said “should never go without appreciation.”
Littlejohn said local government is “its own special animal.”
“We have the opportunity to work for folks in the most direct way and make a difference in the ways that people can truly appreciate,” Littlejohn said.
He said the city has a dearth of housing at all levels, but especially affordable housing. He said the city has committed to bringing online hundreds of affordable housing units within the next few years. Littlejohn said the city is not in a vacuum, and it could use all the help and support it can get at the state and federal levels.
He said that in order to be successful, the city needs “intelligent growth that entails both workforce and economic development.” He said increasing commercial development, creating opportunities for local entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses, and retaining talent from universities, trade and technical schools are all parts of that, and he has been encouraged by the city’s progress.
“All of us make up this vibrant community that is Lawrence, and there is space and place for us all. Working together is what gets us there,” Littlejohn said. “I’m excited to work with all of you to keep pushing us forward to a bigger and brighter future.”
The mayor’s main responsibility different from the other commissioner positions is making appointments to the city’s advisory boards. The other commissioners then confirm appointees through votes. That could change in future years, however.
In November 2024, Lawrence voters will choose whether they want to directly elect a mayor and six commissioners. If voters vote “yes” to change the city’s form of government, the current commissioners would then decide by June 2025 — months before the next city election — what the directly elected mayor’s responsibilities would be.
Read more about the upcoming ballot question at this link.
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