Archive for Saturday, March 31, 2001

City commission, school board votes have big impact

March 31, 2001

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Lawrence residents will be voting Tuesday for men and women to serve as city commissioners and members of the school board. It is an important election, and hopefully there will be a large voter turnout.

Unfortunately, for one reason or another, Lawrence voter participation has been an embarrassment in recent years. It is difficult to understand what motivation is needed to entice residents to vote. Why don't larger numbers of residents realize the men and women they elect to the city commission or school board will play a significant role in the quality, honesty and efficiency of our city government and the level of excellence in Lawrence schools? What could be more important?

And yet the percentage of eligible voters that has gone to the Lawrence polls in recent years has been a disgrace. Too many people evidently think their votes don't make that much difference, but time and time again, whether on the national, state or local level, it has been proven that every vote counts.

Enough important issues have faced both city government and the school board in recent years that it would seem local residents would want to have commissioners and board members who reflect the views of the voters. Time and time again, people complain about some action of the school board or city commission, and yet it would be interesting to know how many of the complainers voted in the last city commission and school board election.

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It is interesting to note there is serious discussion in Kansas City, Mo., concerning that city's form of government. Should it be the current city manager/elected mayor form, or should the mayor have more power?

Here in Lawrence, there appears to be growing interest in or concern about the roles of city commissioners and the city manager.

Who is supposed to call the shots? Who determines policy, and who initiates action at the city level? Do city commissioners recommend or direct the city manager to do this or that, or does the city manager tell city commissioners what he wants and how he wants them to vote?

Over the years, Lawrence has been fortunate to have been served by a number of truly community-committed individuals who headed various city departments. Unfortunately, many of these people have reached retirement age or about to attain this age and they have or soon will be departing their city jobs. These people are the ones who make city government and city services click. What is going to happen when these "old-timers," people who know Lawrence and its needs and are respected by local residents, no longer are around to bring some common sense and understanding to city government?

For one reason or another, there seems to be increased grumbling about city government not about the quality of individuals serving as city commissioners, because there seems to be a better, more cooperative and respectful spirit among current commissioners than at any recent time, but rather about the professionals serving in city hall. Maybe it's merely a sign of the times as more issues come before city officials, but it is not good.

These complaints come from a wide variety of interests. It isn't just one special interest, but rather from residents representing many segments of the city's population.

Lawrence is growing, and it will continue to grow, but it often seems city employees go out of their way to make things difficult rather than to accommodate this growth. Does this emanate from the city manager's office? Is this his philosophy? Does it come from others within city hall, or is it dictated by city commissioners?

It is important for those serving in positions as city manager, superintendent of schools and other similar posts to be reminded there needs to be a delicate and proper balance in the relationship between those serving in a "manager" position and those who have been elected by the taxpayers to represent their interests and concerns.

The "managers" usually have professional training, knowledge and skills to carry out actions and policies, but it is the elected officials who have the responsibility of determining policy, initiatives and programs not the other way around.

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On the school side of the picture, most local residents want to have a truly superior local school system. They see no reason Lawrence should not have the finest schools in the state, a system that other communities want to emulate. Too often, in past years, excuses have been offered for why local students have not measured up to the levels of performance and knowledge exhibited by students in other Kansas schools. This is changing, however, because there has been a major improvement in the superintendent's office.

Lawrence is a university city and, as such, has a tremendous focus on education. Are Lawrence schools as good as many believe? Is there room for improvement? Have they slipped or improved in relation to other Kansas public schools? Is there any reason Lawrence residents, parents or school officials should be content to measure the excellence of their schools merely against Kansas schools? How about trying to be the best among all the nation's university cities?

Again, voters have the ability to select the types of people they want to serve on the school board. These board members then let the professional school staff know what they expect and the level of excellence they hope to achieve. Board members also are the people who decide whether they have sufficient funds to build and maintain a truly outstanding school system or whether additional funds (taxes) are needed.

Given the roles and responsibilities of those serving as city commissioners or school board members, voters have it in their power to have a tremendous say in how the city and school systems are run. They are not run by the city manager or the superintendent of schools but rather by those elected to the commission and school board.

Is there any more powerful or compelling reason for citizens to get out and vote next Tuesday?

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