Where they stand?: Q&A with the two Democrats vying for the Lawrence mayoral nomination


Two Democrats serving on the Lawrence Common Council are running to be the next City of Lawrence’s mayor. Deb Whitfield and Shawn Denney are vying to replace two-term Republican Steve Collier, who is not seeking reelection. They will face off in the May 2 primary, and the winner will compete in November against Republican mayoral candidate David Hoffman, who is unopposed in the primary election.

The two Democratic primary candidates answered the following questions from Current about their plans, if elected.

With the incumbent mayor not running for reelection, is it worthwhile to continue the council’s investigation into the 2022 budget? Why or why not?

Whitfield: As we currently understand, Mayor Collier and his team failed to submit the 2022 budget adopted by the council to the state. It appears Mayor Collier took that action deliberately in order to spend more money than he was authorized to do in the 2022 budget. That’s unacceptable. Our political system of checks and balances works when both sides come together and negotiate their differences. It’s not my belief that Mayor Collier running or not running for reelection has anything to do with this issue. Accountability doesn’t vanish when electoral politics fade away. We must hold leaders accountable and bring transparency to the process of spending taxpayer dollars.

Denney: The (state) Constitution clearly lays out the foundation of our government, which provides that the legislative body has fiscal and budgetary responsibility. This investigation’s question is how did a legally adopted budget not get implemented or submitted to the state of Indiana? The question has less to do with the current mayor than rule of law for every municipality in Indiana. To not continue would set a precedent where any executive of every municipality in Indiana, from the smallest township government up to the perhaps the governor, could override a legally adopted budget by simply not reporting it to the state.

What would you do to maintain growth and economic development in Lawrence?

Denney: Indiana right now has a workforce shortage. Focusing our efforts on making Lawrence a destination for families to live, work and play will not only drive economic growth but also improve the quality of space for our Lawrence families. Improving our city parks so they are accessible year-round, adding trails and ADA-compliant sidewalks to neighborhoods, and making sure public safety is a top priority all go a long way toward quality of space for our Lawrence families.

Whitfield: We are well positioned to benefit from so many factors — from our proximity to Indianapolis to our educated and motivated workforce — not to mention the tremendous growth potential. I would look to foster relationships with companies that provide good wages, good benefits and want to become a part of our community. We must make Lawrence an attractive place to do business. As we see more development on the Fort, more homes built all around the city, and the introduction of the Purple Line, we have an opportunity to define what Lawrence can be 10, 20, even 50 years from now.

What does the community do well, and what needs improvement?

Whitfield: Lawrence is a great place to live, work and raise a family. Our school system sets a high standard for our children and is a shining example of leadership. Still, we have issues to face. We are not doing enough to build up our entire city — and instead favor certain areas above others. We should think bigger when it comes to economic development. I will work with stakeholders to make sure we pursue every opportunity to grow and improve. Finally, while we have an incredible police and fire department, our public safety personnel must have the funding and resources to do their jobs well.

Denney: Lawrence always wants to be a good partner to our neighboring communities. Right now, Lawrence does have a whole multitude of retail options available for residents inside and outside of Lawrence along the Pendleton Pike corridor. Educational options for Lawrence children are also some of the best I would argue in the state. Lawrence does still need to work on bringing connectivity through trails, outdoor activities in our community parks, as well as basic infrastructure improvements to the city’s most southern and western neighborhoods.

What would you do that would set you apart from the current administration?

Denney: At the heart of my campaign is the belief that democracy is not just a system of government, but a way of life. We must work together to build a society that is more inclusive, more responsive and more accountable to the needs of all our citizens. That being said, fiscal transparency, proposing balanced budgets and building a rainy-day fund are areas which need improved while at the same time addressing the infrastructure needs of all the neighborhoods in Lawrence.

Whitfield: First of all, transparency is a foundational value of mine and I will make sure that my administration is transparent to the residents of Lawrence. As I’ve said before, we are all in this together, and it takes a team to improve our city. To me, that team must include all residents of Lawrence. A good leader must possess self-awareness, credibility and be able to build relationships across our community. I will focus on improving the entire city, including neighborhoods that have often felt neglected by our elected leaders.

What is your leadership style?

Whitfield: My leadership style is to first seek to understand, then act in the best interests of our citizens. I am an inclusive leader that values all perspectives and seeks to fully understand an issue before finding a solution. I believe all voices have a place at the table and we must work together as a team to solve the issues facing our city and neighborhoods.

Denney: The short answer would be I believe in building teams which empower those closest to the issues with the ability and confidence to come up with positive solution. This probably goes back to my days as a teacher in the classroom. I am very focused on building trust within our team, encouraging personal and professional growth, and promoting shared success.    

Should Lawrence maintain its unigov status?

Denney: Lawrence does have a vested interest in the development of central Indiana, and we share many of the values of our neighboring communities both inside of northeast Marion County and out. Lawrence does also have a unique identity, history, and approach to economic development to the rest of the county.  Unigov is over 50 years old, and it is a partnership I feel we can thrive in. Having said that, it never hurts to pull things off the shelf, dust them off and take a second look from time to time.

Whitfield: Lawrence, like every other municipality in the state, is served by a county government. Notably, the criminal justice system and some of our major thoroughfares are maintained by the county. As mayor, I will work with officials in Marion County government, the city of Indianapolis, and with the state legislature to ensure that Lawrence gets more resources and improved services from our county government.

What is unigov?

Unigov is the term for the consolidated city-county government of Indianapolis, which includes all of Marion County. In the late 1960s, Richard Lugar, who was the mayor of Indianapolis at that time, came up with a plan to bring the entire county under the City of Indianapolis.

According to a handbook published by the League of Women Voters, the plan stemmed from concern that growth outside of what was then city limits would diminish the tax base. By expanding its borders, the city maintained that revenue stream and provided services to the newly incorporated areas.

Some established cities were excluded from full consolidation, however. Those were Lawrence, Beech Grove, Southport and Speedway. The excluded cities have maintained many separate powers and services.

In addition to voting for the mayors and councils of their own cities and towns, residents of excluded cities also vote for the Indianapolis mayor and council members for their districts, because those residents pay taxes to and receive services from the City of Indianapolis.