The Lawrence City Commission doesn't do all its work alone. It relies on more than 300 people on 40 advisory boards to do much of the legwork on important issues facing the city.
"All those boards, their recommendations especially on major issues come to the commission," said Gayle Martin, communications coordinator for the city. "They're doing a lot of homework and background work for the commission."
All board members are volunteers who have decided to help make Lawrence government work at a grass-roots level, Martin said.
"I think traditionally we've had an active citizenry, which we think is healthy for the community," she said.
The influence of community members reaches into nearly every corner of governance. Some of the boards include the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission, the city's Historic Resources Commission and the new Public Transit Advisory Board.
"We just couldn't do it without them," Mayor Jim Henry said. "They provide so much input. To me, it would take a large number of staff people to visit with all the citizens.
"We very, very much appreciate the time and energy they give the city."
Eye for elections
The boards often draw participation from those interested in city politics.
"If citizens have an interest in city government, this is an ideal way to get involved and have a say in the direction the city takes," Henry said.
Martin said that people get involved for all sorts of reasons, many to learn more about local government and to "contribute to the community."
She said some have gone on to become city commission candidates.
Not everybody has an eye on being elected, though.
"I admire the people who run for election, but it's not for me," said Bill Carswell, chair of the Lawrence Arts Commission. "We do have a lot (of volunteers) and I think that's wonderful. If each of those people is in contact with other people, then there's a kind of democracy at work here people who are not directly elected are still involved in the governance of their community."
Becoming a member of one of the boards is relatively simple. Volunteers can send a letter to the mayor who makes the appointments in care of City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., or call the city manager's office at 832-3400.
Henry, who has been responsible for filling vacancies over the last year, said it hasn't been too hard to find volunteers.
"I've been able to fill them, I think, with some really quality people," he said. "We like to have a diverse group of people, because this is a diverse community and the makeup of the boards should be diverse as well.
"They are the people who are in touch with neighborhoods. They provide input to advisory boards and commissions, which in turn gets to the city commission. They kind of have their finger on the pulse of the community."
City keeps ears open
The city commission often, but not always, accepts the recommendations of the boards.
"I think they do listen," Carswell said. "You have to realize, we're only advisory ... they don't always have to accept our opinion and we don't always expect that."
Even so, Carswell said, "I think we're appreciated. I've never felt unappreciated."
The city showed its appreciation for board members in early March with a reception at the Eldridge Hotel.
Carswell said the thanks is nice but not why most people participate.
"The people on these commissions work very, very hard and work selflessly," he said. "We do it to make our community better. I know that sounds kind of Pollyanna-ish, but that's the truth."