Different forms of government ruled city

Lawrence in the 1850s was a libertarian utopia.

At least that’s the way Richard Cordley, an early city resident and pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, described the town in his 1895 book, “A History of Lawrence.” The city, he noted, developed amid threats of destruction from pro-slavery forces; residents built Lawrence accordingly.

“They had been so constantly in plans of self-defense that they had no time to show what they could do in the way of developing a community,” wrote Cordley, who arrived in town in 1857. “Yet they gave some evidence of ability in that line.”

Without collecting taxes or creating a formal government, he wrote, Lawrence’s residents:

  • Maintained a free public school.
  • Supported a “military organization” to defend the city.
  • Kept order “without any laws or courts to which they could appeal.”
  • Maintained a clean town without any authority to enforce sanitation rules.

“The voluntary city organization of 1857 … confined itself to suggestions without any pretense of power to enforce,” Cordley wrote. “Its suggestions, however, were quietly acquiesced in, the streets kept clean and the back ways clear.”

In 1858, though, free-state legislators took control of the Kansas Territory and passed legislation authorizing a charter for the city of Lawrence. The bill passed Feb. 11; on Feb. 20, the charter was accepted and city officers were elected.

The first mayor, council

C.W. Babcock was Lawrence’s first official mayor, Cordley recorded. Robert Morrow, P.R. Brooks, E.S. Lowman, L.C. Tolles, John G. Haskell, M. Hartman, Harry Shanklin, A.J. Totten, S.W. Eldridge, A.H. Mallory, L. Bullene and F.A. Bailey were the first councilmen.

“Lawrence now had a city government, and regular courts and laws, and could do under legal sanctions and by legal constraints what she had already been doing by voluntary concession,” Cordley wrote.

But settling on a form of government proved difficult to stick with.

Before 1913, the city had a mayor elected by residents and a council with members elected from districts within the city.

Between 1913 and the mid-1930s, a three-person commission ran the city: a mayor, a commissioner in charge of the city’s finances and a commissioner in charge of streets and utilities.

Between 1935 and 1950, the mayor-council form ruled again.

Lawrence adopted its current manager-commission form of government in 1950, when it was approved by two-thirds of the city’s voters in a special election.

Five part-time commissioners are elected by all city voters — there are no districts. The commissioners in turn appoint a mayor from the group, but that person has mostly ceremonial duties. The commissioners set policy and hire a city manager to run the day-to-day operations of city government.

Not a career

Today, three commission seats are open every two years. The top two vote-getters in the general election receive four-year terms and, by tradition, each serve a year as mayor. The third-place finisher receives a two-year term.

During that time, a review of the city’s records shows that politicians have found it hard to make a career on the commission. Some have served eight-year terms, but it’s more common that commissioners have served six, four or even two years on the board.

There are a couple of reasons. Sometimes, commissioners get tired of the grind. And sometimes, voters tire of the commissioners.

During the 1980s, for instance, only three of eight incumbents who ran for re-election managed to keep their seats.

“The people in this town, they make very definite decisions about who they want to serve,” former Mayor John Nalbandian said in 2002. “You can see that in the way the profile of the commission changes over time.”

The longest-serving commissioner of recent times was Barkley Clark, who won three elections while serving from 1973 to 1983.

“It’s good it’s not longer,” Clark said in 2002. “After awhile, it’s good to have new blood (on the commission), a fresh perspective on things.”

City managers have stuck around longer. Buford Watson Jr. managed the city throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Current City Manager Mike Wildgen has had the position since 1990.

The future

In recent years, the idea of creating a “strong mayor” form of government has occasionally surfaced, as has the idea of electing commissioners by geographical district.

Scott Henderson, who failed in a 1999 run for City Commission, made the proposal for district elections in 2001.

“The system I’m suggesting would guarantee there being a candidate from every section of town,” Henderson said. “It would level the playing field.”

Nalbandian, who also serves as a Kansas University professor of public administration, warned of problems.

“The cost is that politics would be more fragmented than they are,” he said. “You would inevitably get council members who would feel their district needs supersede that of the city as a whole.”

The strong mayor proposal has also generated skepticism but appears to be gaining strength for future adoption.

“I think we’re getting close, but we’re not quite there,” Commissioner Boog Highberger said in 2003. “But it’s something we’ll have to consider in the future.”

At the time, Commissioner Sue Hack said she liked the idea.

“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 some observers like the current setup.

“They’re not professional politicians at all,” former Mayor Barkley Clark said. “They’re citizens serving the citizens … it’s the best thing about serving at the city level.”