Lecompton — When you have arrived in the 300 block of Elmore Street, you indeed have arrived at the power center of this northwest Douglas County town of about 600 people.
On one end of the block, right next to the park, is the community’s largest media mogul: the public bulletin board. It is here that you’ll find messages ranging from Vote on Tuesday to Chili Feed on Wednesday.
In the middle of the block is City Hall. Don’t be confused, a local may tell you. It was the fire station. But when the firefighters got new digs, a few fellows did a little remodeling. Now it is the headquarters for the city’s employees — both of them.
And then, there’s the other end of the block. That’s where most mornings Roy Paslay will walk out the front door of his home and make the few paces down the sidewalk to City Hall. He’ll check the mail, say his morning hellos, and see if there is anything he can do before he heads off to his carpenter’s job.
It is not likely that the 300 block of Elmore Street is going to change anytime soon. But make no mistake, the political landscape of Lecompton sure will.
For 26 of the last 30 years, Paslay has either been mayor or a council member in Lecompton. But that will soon end. Paslay did not seek re-election in the most recent campaign. At Monday’s City Council meeting, he’ll swear in the new mayor — and probably smile a little bit too.
“I think I’ll be relieved. Of course now,” he says with a laugh, “I’ll have to sit out there in the audience and stick my hand up and ask the council when they’re going to get something done.”
He knows the routine, for sure.
In the big cities like Lawrence (remember, even Eudora is 10 times bigger than Lecompton), the sticky issues facing politicians may be about tax abatements or Walmarts or how tall a multistory building ought to be.
In Lecompton, they’re a bit different. The city has a clerk and a maintenance man. That means there is no administrative army to protect the mayor and council members from the day-to-day issues of city government.
Peruse the recent minutes of the Lecompton City Council and you will find the group has heard the following:
- A report about a certain resident’s horses that keep getting out and causing extra work for the maintenance man;
- An inquiry about why the city’s dump truck doesn’t have the city’s logo on it. (Answer: The magnetic sign must not have been on that day.)
- Multiple requests from residents who wanted a refund on their water bills because there had been waterline breaks that inflated their totals.
- One resident, who wasn’t seeking a refund on his water bill, but did want the council to check to see if he had paid last month’s bill.
So, no, they’re not exactly big city issues. But if you think they’re small, evidently you’ve never tried to deal with them.
“Oh, I can tell you it has gotten kind of heated down here from time to time,” Paslay, 61, says.
Paslay, like many small-town government officials, can point to one type of issue in particular that can get testy in a hurry: telling a fellow resident that he needs to clean up his place.
But it is definitely one of the more frequent and important chores that government undertakes in a small town, Paslay said. Nothing hurts a small town’s growth prospects worse than getting labeled as “dirty.”
He said the key in those cases is to treat people like you would want to be treated, and to be able to point to a specific city code. This is one instance where governing on a case-by-case basis will produce a lot of headaches. It is a shame that it sometimes has to come to all this, Paslay said. The world would be a simpler place if folks just took to heart the words he has said many times before.
“If you just keep your yard clean and your house painted, chances are we’ll get along fine,” Paslay said.
Doesn’t all of this sound like fun?
No? Evidently, lots of other Lecompton residents feel the same way. This year’s ballot for the Lecompton City Council was pretty thin. One person did file for mayor, but there was only one candidate for two spots on the City Council. Eventually, a couple of folks did make a few homemade signs and start write-in campaigns so that the final spot was decided by the voters rather than appointed by the council.
But the lack of interest was noticeable, and a concern to some.
“Honestly, nobody probably really wants the job,” said Mark Tunstall, who was elected mayor last week with a total of 72 votes. “But it is a job somebody has to take an interest in for the good of the community.”
Tunstall comes to the position after having served several terms as a City Council member. He does have dreams for the town — a McDonald’s or a Wendy’s would be nice, he said — but really he would settle for folks just becoming more involved.
“We ask for public opinion,” Tunstall said. “We put up notices on the bulletin board down at the park, but just getting people to attend meetings can be frustrating. I just wish people would come here and let us know what they’re thinking before we make decisions. Otherwise, we just do what we think is best.”
For a lot of years now, figuring out what is best for Lecompton has involved Paslay’s voice.
Paslay said for the most part he has been pleased with what he and council members have come up with. During his tenure, all the side streets have been converted from gravel to chip and seal. The playground equipment at the city park has been upgraded. Land has been annexed to give the city — which abuts the Kansas River and the Douglas County line — room to grow.
None of it is real splashy, but that’s fine with Paslay.
“We try to keep it as simple as we can here,” he said.
Probably the biggest project in recent times has been a $1.1 million overhaul of the city’s water system. It has involved a new water tower and equipment to deal with the city’s longtime problem of hard water.
Paslay and the council were successful in securing grant money for part of the project, but it certainly has involved a significant increase in water rates too. Those increases also have sparked plenty of public comment. That’s the way it usually works. Feedback is plentiful once the decision has been made.
“I think Roy has done a good job for us,” Tunstall, the newly elected mayor, said. “But he has taken a lot of grief over the years. It is pretty clear the job is not a popularity contest.”
But that is OK with Paslay. He says he never dwells on any of the criticism.
“We probably lost a few friends through the years,” Paslay says. “But I know we made a lot of new ones.”
Not bad pay for a job so few people want.