Chat about the Lawrence City Commission results with former Mayor John Nalbandian

February 28, 2007

This chat has already taken place. Read the transcript below.

Former Mayor John Nalbandian analyzes the results of Tuesday's primary election.

Moderator:

This is 6 News Reporter Laura McHugh. John Nalbandian is with us today. John served as a city commissioner from 1991 to 1999. He was Lawrence's Mayor in 1993-94 and again in 1996-97. He's also a Professor of Public Administration at KU. We're glad you could be with us today.

John Nalbandian:

Thank you for inviting me.

Moderator:

Were you surprised at all by the primary election results?

John Nalbandian:

Not much. I did think the Boog might have finished higher. I was surprised that Dever and Chestnut finished a little better east of Iowa than I expected, and Boog, Schauner, and MM finished not as well west of Iowa as I expected.

KU_Radar:

Dr. Nalbandian, do you think there is a correlation between campaign fundraising and election results? For instance, couldn't a candidate raise more money than other candidates from a few supporters and still come out at the bottom of the vote count? That doesn't seem to be the case in this election though so what do you make of that? Thanks for your time.

John Nalbandian:

Thank you for the question. I think it is unlikely for a candidate to raise a significant sum of money and not finish in the top group. Not sure where I would draw the line at top group... Nevertheless, I think you can make a case that money follows legitimate candidates rather than creating legitimate candidates. I have told people thinking of running for local office, "If you cannot raise money, you are running uphill because you do not know enough people who can support you." Alternatively, you might know a lot of people, but you would have to be a compelling candidate to win. I think that is what is happening with Mark Funkhouser in his race for Mayor in KCMO. I would not attribute Dever and Chestnut's finish solely to the money that they raised.

Moderator:

The top vote-getters, Mike Dever and Rob Chestnut, seemed to consider the results as voters calling for a change. Do you think that's accurate?

John Nalbandian:

First, let me return to the last answer. In my sentence beginning with "alternatively," I meant to say that "you might NOT know a lot of people." Sorry.

I do think your observation is accurate. I spoke this morning with former Commissioner Moody, who I served with, and he said that this was less about "growth-no growth," than it was about a general level of dissatisfaction with the way things are going in Lawrence. If that is accurate, and I think it is at least in part, it is very difficult to pinpoint the source of the dissatisfaction. It could come from many sources with each resulting in a vote for change.

Moderator:

Here's part of a question from a poster named "justthefacts": Do you think that most voters simply vote for someone that looks and sounds more like they do as opposed to learning about the views and ideas of each individual candidate? Why do you think so few people vote in city primaries?

John Nalbandian:

I think people taken as a whole are pretty discriminating. Take the top three candidates; they represent a deliberate set of choices, i think. You can see this in almost every local election.

John Nalbandian:

Over the years in local elections I have been impressed with how deliberately people vote. This observation does not hold true for every individual, but in whole, I think it does. Dever, Chestnut, and Highberger. How do you put that together unless you attribute some deliberate decision-making to the process.

Regarding the number of people voting in city primaries, without a galvanizing issue, I think it is hard to generate interest among more than a hard core. Obviously, now that we have had the primary, a larger group of people will know that a general election is coming up, and we will have a larger turn out. When I went to vote on Tues morning, there were three other voters I ran into. I did not know them by name, but I recognized each as someone who is involved.

As a candidate, there is nothing more dispiriting (is that a word?) than talking to people who don't even know there is an election. I remember my first campaign, in 1991. I was walking the streets and knocking on every door. That was not an experience I would want to repeat. "You are who?" "You are running for what?" "Oh, there is an election?" We learned pretty quickly, and we got lists of people who had voted in the last local election. Those were the houses I walked the next time we did the house to house, and was that different--an uplifting. People who vote in local elections are special, and that is why I never want local elections to be held in November with the partisan elections.

John Nalbandian:

Regarding the number of people who vote in city primaries, you are right, there is a small core that does this. They tend to be those who are involved in the community in ways that connect to city government. With the added publicity, there will be more, of course, who come out for the general election.

RogerPaulMartin:


I and many other voters are frustrated by ads that say little and words that provide no answer, or a clearly evasive answer to clear questions. How can we flush out politicians who are trying to disguise their thoughts and feelings, or provoke clarity from those who're clearly being evasive?

Roger Martin

Moderator:

Sorry those last answers got posted all at the same time -- we had a little technical difficulty!

John Nalbandian:

You assume that there are clear responses to the questions you ask. If you ask something as specific as "would you vote to repeal the no-smoking ordinance?" I think you could expect a "yes" or "no." If you ask, "are you in favor of the SLT? you probably are not going to get a yes or no because you have not specificed the route, the cost, the disruption to Haskell, the authority of the federal government, where the project sits in KDOT's list of priorities, etc.

John Nalbandian:

City commissioners are expected to deal with questions that have "no right answers." If they have right answers, they should not come to a citizen group for a vote. It is illogical to ask people to vote on whether 2+2=4. It is logical to ask them to vote on whether the acquatic center should charge a fee that would pay for operating costs if the fee would systematically discourage poor people from attending the center.

John Nalbandian:

When I vote for a candidate, I am looking for a general outlook that I can count on--that makes sense to me. I never pick a candidate based on how he/she would vote on a handful of issues--unless the responses added up to a profile. The city commission addresses so many issues that are not addressed in campaigns, I need to know more than howthe person would vote on a particular issue before I would vote for him/her. That is why people ask other people, "do you know the person?" "Who are you voting for?"

Moderator:

John is also Chair of the Library Board of Trustees, so he's received a few questions about the expansion proposals.

theheadturner:

Four year ago three canidates ran for city commission on the PLC"s plateform to impead growth in our community. Given their success how would you propose we pay for a thirty million dollar library project.

John Nalbandian:

Not sure how to connect the pieces in your question. I will respond to the issue of the library. I think we can pay for the library in a few ways. First, we need to decide whether we want to vote on the library project by itself or whether we want to package it with other projects. Once the City Commission decides that, it needs to decide what revenue stream to propose and put to a vote. A very modest sales tax increase will pay for the library. I am talking about less than a cent. For even half a cent, if I am recalling the numbers, we could pay for much more than the library. For a little more than half a cent, we could have the projects AND reduce the property tax. That's what we did in 1993.

We need to remember that in Kansas, there is virtually no money transferred from state revenues to local governments. This is not the case in some other states. Take a state like Arizona, arguably as focused on property rights as any other. There is a significant transfer of money from the state to local governments. This means that an income tax is being used to help pay for local government expenses. The income tax is more equitable that either the sales or property tax, but this is Kansas, and we don't take to change very well.

tommyvoter:

What happened to the library's plans to open smaller retail type branches in west Lawrence and south Lawrence with a total cost of less then one million dollars.

John Nalbandian:

The city commission instructed the library board to refocus its efforts on downtown. The city commission saw a renewed library presence downtown as representing a significant positive contribution to the vitality and future of downtown.

RalphGage:

Are local politics getting more personal and less civil, in your view?

John Nalbandian:

The candidates are probably the best ones to answer that question. But, think as long as we run non-partisan, at-large elections, it is hard to sustain a negative campaign because you are not running against and individual. If we had districts and had two candidates running against each other, I am sure you would have more attacks.

theheadturner:

In 2002 there was attempted an effort to foster a kinder and gentler city. Your wife was involved. Since then, the city manager was forced out, the planning director forced out, department heads have retired and there has been constant turmoil at city staff level. PlaceMaker's director quotes "The depth of the distrust here is really striking. It is more than in most communities."
Is it time, in your opinion, to elect city commissioners who can work together and with city staff?

John Nalbandian:

If my wife was involved, it would have been kinder and gentler for those around her.

I think the distrust cannot be laid totally at the hands ofthe city commission, at least not directly. I look at planning issues as the focus of the distrust issue. In this policy arena we have professional staff, the planning commission, and the city and county commissioners. Over a relatively short period of time, but time that spanned commissions, appointments were made to the planning commission that divided that body. I am sure it was thought that because there were planning commissioners on one side of the issue, there should be an equal number on the other. I do not subscribe to this strategy as a way of finding balance. In fact, we split the planning commission which in practical terms meant that the planning staff had no consistent direction, and the city commission could not/would not step in and provide the direction. Lot's of casualties. We need reasonable people, making reasonable decisions, based on reasonable laws and policies. We don't get that by pendulum politics, in my opinion.

lawrencian:

I am disappointed that transit in Lawrence wasn't discussed more. Why is it that no one wants to talk about public services like the "T", even though it continues to grow? Also, what is your opinion on the consultant's reports on coordination with KU on Wheels?

John Nalbandian:

In Lawrence, public transportation has two different advocates, if I may simplify. There are those who advocate public transportation as an alternative to driving for a variety of reasons, and there are those for whom there are virtually no alternatives to public transportation. Neither of these groups has consistently had a compelling, consistent place in Lawrence politics.

I think merging the T with KU will be what public transportation needs to get on the political agenda. It has been done in other places (Ames or Iowa City??),and done well. It is time we take this on. Once merged, there will be a lot of attention on the issue because so many KU students use the buses.

Moderator:

Finally, do you think the primary results will hold up in the April 3rd general election?

John Nalbandian:

I think Schauner has an uphill road because he would have to displace Boog or Chestnut or Dever. That will be tough because it is hard for me to imagine a lot of new voters who would vote for Schauner and NOT vote for Boog. Is it possible for Schauner and Boog to move into 2 and 3? Unlikely since the Dever and Chestnut camps won't let up.

Moderator:

John, thank you for spending so much time sharing your insights with us this afternoon.

John Nalbandian:

It has been my pleasure.

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