OK. We - through our city commissioners - have sought and received the resignation of our city manager. That's the commission's right, and, in a year or so, they can be held accountable for their actions. We'll hire a new manager, and we'll move on. If you like the status quo, this is all right, but why don't we take this opportunity to think more deeply about our form of government.
In particular, Lawrence residents need better ways to discuss issues before they become crises, and better ways to hold elected officials accountable for policies that go wrong. These needs are especially pressing, because Lawrence faces a raft of big decisions - infrastructure improvements, a new library, economic growth, the physical expansion of the city and a dozen more - and the city simply must have a more public, more inclusive set of discussions about its needs and priorities. At the same time, Lawrence needs a much greater capacity to hold its elected officials and bureaucracy accountable for their actions. In sum, Lawrence needs vigorous, focused debate over its future direction and its past record of successes and failures.
Ordinarily, election campaigns, commission meetings and endless public meeting do offer up the essential debate and accountability that lie at the heart of a democratic community. But far too often, our collective discourse simply fails to address new issues in an effective manner, nor does it allow us to hold officials truly accountable for their actions. There is no silver bullet here, but we should consider one major change that could encourage more useful discourse and greater accountability in the city we call home.
The citizens of Lawrence should directly elect their mayor.
Every two (or four) years, a hotly contested mayoral battle would allow the community to consider broad issues - both prospectively and retrospectively - that we currently address only at an angle, with commission coalitions forming and reforming, and with developers, neighborhoods and citizens all feeling frustrated that they haven't completely understood the options before us or where the responsibility lies for past decisions.
The commission, for example, has decided to spend almost $2 million to expand our parks; at the same time we have serious infrastructure needs, broad issues of extensive green space and development, as well as property taxes that continue to soar - to say nothing of a potential $30 million price tag for a new library. Not every issue can be addressed in a citywide mayoral election, but a lot could be. We could have an extended discussion of annexation policies and sewage requirement. We could talk about public-private partnerships in developing the downtown with a new library.
As things stand now, our mayors rotate yearly, and thus, every two years, whoever got the second most votes in the previous election ordinarily becomes mayor - the central figure in Lawrence government with no real electoral base and few immediate ties to the debates in the past campaign.
Electing a mayor would encourage more meaningful discussions over the future of the city, while offering a focal point for issues that arise during the term of office, to say nothing of providing someone to hold accountable if and when problems arise. As for the details, I'd elect a mayor for two years, and add one more at-large member to the City Commission, so that there would be six commissioners (three elected each year, thus eliminating the current arbitrary two-year term for the third-place finisher). The mayor would run the commission meetings, but vote only in the case of a tie. The mayor's office would be a half-time position, paying (say) $35,000 per year, with a modest staff.
Given a two-year term and half the commission elected every two years, voters could oust a mayor and gain an overall commission majority if they were upset with the direction of city government. And what about the city manager, in this bastion of council-manager government? Most cities with managers also have elected mayors, a situation that usually works well.
Indeed, directly electing a mayor is scarcely a radical move. Rather, it's commonplace, and we need look no farther that Overland Park for a great example. Ed Eilert won several terms as mayor, and John Nachbar served effectively with him as city manager. Both won great respect, as their respective bases of power and their different skills complemented each other.
At its best, council-manager government reflects an effective working partnership between elected officials and professional staff. Electing a mayor could provide a much-needed dose of vigorous politics and focused debate that could offer a stronger sense of direction for the city. In the end, both the citizens of Lawrence and the city's professional staff would benefit from this direction and the enhanced accountability that an elected mayor would bring.
- Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at Kansas University.