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Archive for Sunday, March 30, 2003

Support grows for idea of ‘strong mayor’ in city

March 30, 2003

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Sue Hack says she's just gotten the hang of being Lawrence mayor. Now it's time for her to give up the job -- her term is over.

"You just get it going and it's done," she said last week.

Hack isn't the first mayor to have such a lament. The city's government rotates the post among the five elected city commissioners annually; voters do not directly choose the mayor.

Hack and some of her predecessors say there isn't time to get much done before the next mayor steps in.

But that could change -- and Tuesday's City Commission election may be the last of its kind.

There's talk among the city's politicians about allowing voters to directly elect a "strong" mayor who would serve a two- or four-year term.

"I think it would give somebody for the community to rally around, in terms of leadership," said Commissioner Mike Rundle, Hack's predecessor as mayor and candidate for re-election Tuesday. "It would give some consistent oversight over the management team."

The movement crosses political lines.

"Maybe it's time to look at electing the mayor separately from the commission," candidate Greg DiVilbiss said. "Ideally it would be for four years. But two years would be better than one year."

But there are skeptics.

"I think it tends to polarize the process," said candidate David Schauner, who said he was undecided on the issue. "I'm not certain what the unintended consequences of the change might be."


'Clear vision'

Recent mayors say the post might as well be a full-time job. Hack retired from teaching to give it her full attention; Rundle took a "vow of poverty" and worked little at his day job during the term. Their predecessors, Jim Henry and Erv Hodges, both were retired during their respective years on the job.

They don't get a lot of money in return. Mayors are paid $10,000 during their one-year term. The other commissioners are paid $9,000 a year.

As currently structured, the job does not come with much power. The mayor is just one vote on the five-member commission. The post's authority comes in the power to make appointments to city advisory boards, run the commission meetings and sign city documents.

But mayors spend a lot of time on ceremonial duties, like ribbon-cuttings. And they are the face of the city when a company's representatives or other dignitaries come to town.

Hack said that was where the current system sometimes failed.

"The system does not give the mayor a mandate to speak for the city, or make bold, visionary statements," she said. "I think we're getting to the size where the city would be better served by a longer-term mayor in charge of that visioning process."

But the position shouldn't be vested with too much power, Hack said. "I wouldn't think a full-time mayor should micromanage the city," she said.

Commissioner David Dunfield is likely to be named the city's new mayor when the newly elected commission convenes next week. He has mixed feelings about the need for a "strong mayor" form of government, but said he understood the reasoning.

"It is true that the larger the city gets, the harder it is to establish and maintain a clear vision when there is so much turnover in elected officials," he said.

But, Dunfield added: "I think the system we have now serves us well."

'Not broken'

Indeed, the chief argument against the idea is that you shouldn't fix what isn't broken.

"I'm pretty satisfied with what we have," candidate Lynn Goodell said. "You have regular elections and nobody has all the power."

Fellow candidate Lee Gerhard warned against the "professionalization" of elected officials in Lawrence.

"It will cost the city more," he said. "And it will make the government more professional, in the sense that you're hiring the people you elect. My personal opinion is that we're not quite ready for that."

Candidate Dennis "Boog" Highberger agreed.

"I think we're getting close, but we're not quite there," he said. "But it's something we'll have to consider in the future."

That future could come sooner than later. Hack said the commission would take up the issue during the next two years, after which the question could be put to voters for final approval.

"I have a feeling it may actually happen," she said. "It's interesting, because I hear support for it from both sides."

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