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Archive for Sunday, April 9, 1995

OFFICIALS MULL WARD-ELECTION IDEA

April 9, 1995

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Is Lawrence ready for a city commission divided into geographic districts? That depends on who's doing the talking.

When does a city become too big for its elective britches?

Some say Lawrence has reached a critical threshold -- one prompting a need for more representative and responsive government.

Others would rather stick with the time-tested and, they maintain, highly effective current version, which emphasizes professional efficiency and minimizes political infighting in the name of community.

Who's right? That all depends on whom you ask.

"When you have at-large elections all kinds of silly games get played, and that includes bullet voting," said Russell Getter, a professor of political science at Kansas University who sits on the "reform" side of the political fence.

By electing five commissioners at large, he maintains, voters often end up defeating their own interests. Three seats come up for election every two years, and by casting three votes there's a chance that a voter's second and third choices could help push his favorite out of the winner's circle.

"Any election system that causes you to vote against your own most-favorite candidate has a fatal flaw in it," he said.

Getter's solution: Set up a ward-election system, in which candidates would run for election within a specific district, be elected by a smaller constituency and, therefore, represent the interests of a smaller group of people.

Even a winner in last Tuesday's at-large election agrees a change may be for the best.

"It's something that we ought to look at," said Allen Levine, who will take his seat on the commission Tuesday night. "The pros outweigh the cons."

Among the pluses of by-ward elections, Levine said: Campaigns would allow candidates to meet more potential constituents and address issues specific to particular neighborhoods with a firmer electoral base.

"People would know who to call when their trash didn't get picked up," he said. "It may be more divisive, but it would be more responsive."

Not so fast, Commissioner Bob Moody said. While several candidates in the city primary touted the positives of by-ward elections, little attention was paid to the negatives.

For drawbacks, Moody said, just look to Topeka. City council members are stuck playing back-room politics and trading votes for each other's projects to keep the city operating.

And that's not what Lawrence needs, Moody said.

"I think it's too political of a process," he said. "It takes the focus off of the community and onto the ward. I think we've got pretty good representation already."

Mayor Jo Andersen isn't sure which way to lean. She likes the idea of being elected by a citywide electorate and isn't too hot on the idea of opening up commission debates pitting neighborhoods against other neighborhoods.

"Give me a break, you have to make the rules some way," she said with a sigh Friday afternoon. "The person who gets the most votes wins."

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