Editorial: City and county need to work on working together

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

The city of Lawrence and Douglas County have a lot of issues to work on. Being in the same room together appears to be one of them.

For those who have paid attention, it has been evident there has been a significant amount of disharmony between city and county leaders in recent years. It has become more evident in recent days as county commissioners are pretty irked at the process the city is using to hire the next chief of the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical department.

The county is upset it doesn’t have formal representation on the interview committee, while the city, which pays about 70 percent of the costs of the department, notes that the joint operating agreement says the city makes this particular hire. County commissioners have said the city is showing a lack of leadership, operating in a way that runs counter to the spirit of cooperation, and have questioned how the two parties can move forward in good faith.

It would be easy for this to become a brawl. Now, though, is not the time to get mad. It is the time to get together.

It seems that the city and county sometimes forget they already are partners — and always will be. Divorce is not an option here. The city of Lawrence always will be in the boundaries of Douglas County, and a portion of Douglas County always will be in the boundaries of the city of Lawrence.

That last part sometimes gets glossed over. Too often people think of the Douglas County Commission as that group that represents rural Douglas County. There is no organizational chart that exists for Douglas County government that shows rural residents at the top of the pyramid. It shows the public of Douglas County, and the large majority of that public is Lawrence residents.

Certainly, though, looking out for the interests of rural residents is part of the county’s role. The fire chief situation is a good reminder of that. Providing ambulance service to rural Douglas County is really important. The next chief will be responsible for overseeing that service. The county’s voice can be helpful in this process.

But hopefully there is a recognition this dispute goes beyond selecting a fire chief. What’s really needed is a better definition of roles. What responsibilities make the most sense for the county to take the lead on? Which ones for the city? Past city and county leaders have had success in dividing those responsibilities. It is simply time for a refresh.

To the city’s credit, leaders there have brought up the very preliminary idea of how the city and county could consolidate in some ways. The county has expressed the very realistic opinion that Douglas County voters are nowhere close to being in the mood to approve a single, consolidated government that would oversee the city and rural areas.

Isn’t that so often the case in life? Idealism and realism collide. But sometimes the energy of that collision can produce something positive. There doesn’t need to be a full consolidation of government to create meaningful efficiencies for residents and taxpayers. Indeed, consolidating the police and sheriff’s departments, for example, would make rural residents nervous about a decline in service. The same goes for a consolidation of the road maintenance departments.

But would the public have such nervousness about the purchasing departments of the city and the county combining? Or the payroll departments? Or risk management? Or the IT departments? There are many back office functions that can be critical and costly that perhaps can be combined with little negative impacts to the public.

These days, though, not even a shotgun wedding could bring the county and the city together to study such possibilities. Does anyone have a Howitzer?

Hopefully it doesn’t come to that. Instead, Lawrence and Douglas County residents — also known as constituents — should take every opportunity to tell city and county commissioners that we want them to work together.

After all, they are going to have to live together, whether they like each other or not.


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