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Final tidbits from Tuesday’s Lawrence City Commission election

It is time to clean out the City Commission election refrigerator. There are canned speeches, moldy questionnaires and calorie-laden political advertisements in here. But I’ve had enough of all that, so I’ll just pass along some leftovers of a different type — leftover notes from my notebook.

• Let’s set the table for who is who in this new City Commission. First, Hugh Carter and Aron Cromwell will finish their terms at next Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. Mike Dever and Bob Schumm were the two incumbent commissioners who were not up for re-election. Mike Amyx and newbies Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan will be sworn into their terms at next week’s meeting. That’s your five.

• Schumm’s one-year term as mayor will end on Tuesday. If tradition holds — and it will — vice mayor Dever will be elected by his fellow commissioners to serve a one-year term as mayor. Also, it is expected that Mike Amyx, as the top vote winner in the election, will be elected as vice mayor. That means he’ll be in line to be the mayor in April 2014. If tradition holds, Farmer, as the second-place finisher, is in line to be the vice mayor in April 2014, which means he’ll be mayor in April 2015.

• There was so much action with the political newcomers last night — Farmer, Riordan and fourth-place finisher Leslie Soden — that it was easy to overlook the accomplishment of Amyx. The downtown barber shop owner won his fifth term on the City Commission. His first term on the commission was a two-year term in 1983. All the rest have been four-year terms. So, at the end of this new term, he will have served 18 years on the City Commission, although not consecutively. I’ll have to brush up on my history to determine who, if anyone, has served longer on the City Commission. In addition, Amyx served four-plus years as a Douglas County commissioner in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“I woke up at 1:15 in the morning (election morning),” Amyx told me at last night’s vote counting. “I was so excited I couldn’t go back to sleep. I’m as excited today as I was in 1983.”

• Political pundits (in Lawrence, I think that is just code for guys who sit on bar stools and talk about politics) will spend a bit of time figuring out what impact the new political action committee Lawrence United had on the race. Two of the three candidates it endorsed won election, but the question will be whether they won because of the PACs endorsement or in spite of it? The PAC endorsed Farmer, Riordan and unsuccessful candidate Rob Chestnut.

For Farmer, the numbers didn’t change much from the primary election, when he finished second by about a 400-vote margin. On Tuesday, he finished second with about a 440-vote margin. Farmer was solidly in the top three all night long, and that pretty much was the case during the primary election too.

For Riordan, the situation was different. He won third place only by 97 votes after having secured third place in the primary by 310 votes. And Riordan definitely had a tension-filled night. Until the last West Lawrence returns came in, it appeared he was going to lose to Soden, who was seeking to become the first candidate in recent memory to go from sixth place in the primary to the top three.

Riordan told me last night that he thought some voters did react negatively to a well-funded PAC becoming involved in a City Commission race. But Riordan, a Lawrence physician, also pointed out that people who believed PAC funding would influence him perhaps were forgetting something. The biggest contributor to Riordan’s campaign was Riordan himself. He estimated that once all the figures are totaled, he will have provided about 60 percent of the funds — about $18,000 — for his campaign.

The third candidate endorsed by the PAC, Chestnut, certainly didn’t get a boost. He was in fourth place after the February primary but fell to sixth place on Tuesday. One difference between Chestnut and the other two is that Chestnut also was the subject of a supportive mailing by the Americans for Prosperity group in the days before the election. Perhaps the takeaway is that help from Americans for Prosperity is no help at all in Lawrence city politics. Or that may just be hokum as well. It is worth noting that Chestnut finished last in the ballots that were voted in advance as well, and a good number of them likely were cast before the AFP mailer. So, I don’t know. That’s the thing about political punditry — there’s a lot of guessing involved.

• Speaking of guessing, that's what some people will be doing to try to figure out Soden’s rise in the general election. Was it — as she suggested — an indication that Lawrence residents still are pretty divided over this proposed recreation center? Soden and Amyx were the most outspoken candidates on the issue. Or, was it that the Lawrence electorate really does want to have a female voice on the commission? There hasn’t been a woman on the commission since Sue Hack left the commission in 2009.

In the primary election there were two female candidates — Soden, who finished sixth, and Judy Bellome, who finished seventh. Between the two, they got 19.6 percent of all the votes in the primary. In the general, Soden, the lone woman in the field, got 16.3 percent of the vote. What does that mean in relation to our question? I don’t know, but I got the abacus out to create a number, so I’m darn sure going to use it.

• Finally, it is worth remembering that we have these elections to create a City Commission that presumably will go out and do something. Now the question is: What will this next commission do? It will be interesting to watch. I can tell you that some of the first words out of Riordan’s mouth involved discussion of a new police headquarters facility. The idea got more talk in this election than it did in the last election. For what it's worth, the three candidates endorsed by the police officers political action committee won the election.

But the new facility could cost between $20 million and $40 million to build. If it moves forward, it will follow an $18 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library, a $25 million recreation center, a $64 million sewage treatment plant that will come with a multiyear increase in sewer rates, and a new curbside recycling program that comes with a $2.81 per month rate increase.

Probably one of the bigger issues the next City Commission will have to figure out is the mood of the public. Does it still have an appetite for large projects or will it want to take a pause?

• One last number for the election: the 16.3 percent voter turnout rate. The number is what it is, but Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said it is worth noting that the rate is affected by several precincts that are dominated by KU students. It has been tough to get them interested in city commission or school board elections. The Burge Union, for example, had three voters, which produced a turnout of 0.25 percent.

Four Lawrence precincts saw turnouts higher than 30 percent:

• Brandon Woods, 1501 Inverness Drive: 33.6 percent.

• American Legion, 3408 W. Sixth: 32.9 percent.

• Liberty Memorial, 1400 Massachusetts: 31 percent.

• Pioneer Ridge Assisted Living, 4851 Harvard: 30.7 percent.

Who knows, this could be one of the last elections we have in April. There continues to be talk at the Statehouse of moving city and school elections to November. I asked Shew what he thought about that. He said he had concerns about combining the races with the partisan presidential and gubernatorial races that take place during the even-numbered years. He said that would make for a multipage ballot, and would add complications for both voters, who would have far more races to become educated about, and for election workers.

But he said an idea to move the city/school elections to November in odd-numbered years — when they would still have the ballot to themselves — is intriguing. He said it is possible that if residents knew that there would be an election every November, it might be easier for folks to remember to vote. But he’s unsure. It will be worth watching to see if such a proposal advances at the Statehouse.

This confuses me. Surely everyone already eats, sleeps and breaths Lawrence City Commission election news. My favorite item in the paper today is the On the Street question where we ask — on Election Day, mind you — how interested folks were in the City Commission race. One guy answered: “I’m interested. I didn’t realize the election was today, but I’ll definitely read about it tomorrow.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Nah, I think I’ll just find my seat and become a political pundit for the rest of the day.

UPDATE: I just recently received a new spreadsheet from the Douglas County Clerk's office showing the voting totals by precinct for the election. Click here to see them for yourself. They provide a lesson in Lawrence election mathematics: What's most important is not winning a precinct but always finishing in the top three.

Don't get me wrong, winning is good. Just ask Amyx. He won 41 of the 64 precincts in the city in route to a runaway first place finish.

But the next most frequent winner was Soden, and by a lot. Soden won 14 of the 64 precincts, but finished fourth in the vote totals. That's because in several precincts, she finished out of the top three.

To show how unimportant winning a precinct is, Farmer and Riordan — the second- and third-place overall winners — each finished first in just two precincts.

Riordan won the precincts at Langston Hughes Elementary and a very small precinct at the Lawrence Union Pacific Depot that had six votes.

Farmer won the precincts at the Lawrence Bible Chapel on Monterey Way and a small precinct at Prairie Park Elementary that had 21 votes.

Chestnut won at Corpus Christi Catholic Church and a small precinct at Free State High School. Soden won the precincts at: Pickney, Douglas County Senior Services; Carnegie Building (2 precincts); Trinity Lutheran Church (2); Hillcrest Elementary; Central United Methodist Church; Cordley Elementary; Centennial Adult Education; Liberty Memorial; Haskell Stidham Union; East Lawrence Center; New York Elementary. So, a strong East Lawrence and central Lawrence base.

Amyx won all the remaining precincts.

Lawrence City Commission elections aren't decided by wards. All five seats on the commission are at-large positions. If the city had a ward system, it seems likely the results would have been different this year.

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Advance voter turnout at highest level since 2005; update about which PACs have to report their spending for local races

Your time to have some Lawrence City Commission election fun is quickly winding down. For example, if you were hoping to vote in advance, you’ve just missed your window.

Advance voting ended at noon today for the April 2 local election, which also includes races for the Lawrence school board and the school bond election. Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew reports that 1,583 advance ballots were cast for the general election.

Those advance ballots are sometimes a good predictor of voter turnout, and, if that is true this year, then we should expect a few more people than usual to come to the polls for a local election.

The 1,583 advanced ballots represent a 49 percent increase over the number of advanced ballots cast for the 2011 city/school board election. In fact, this year’s total is the highest since 2005, when 1,619 voters turned out in advance.

Higher numbers for this election wouldn’t be a surprise because there is a school bond election on the ballot. That has provided a boost to voter totals in past years.

Couple that with the fact that a snowstorm created a very lightly attended primary election in February, and political observers have several questions about how tomorrow’s race will shake out. I would guess that the race for the third and final seat on the Lawrence City Commission will be a tight one.

We’ll know by tomorrow evening. The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, and this time it appears unlikely that voters will have to deal with snow.

• When it comes to election questions, a few of you have had some about political action committees. As we have reported, a new PAC formed this year, Lawrence United, to promote a pro-jobs/pro-business platform. We’ve detailed its fundraising activities, as they have been reported to the Douglas County Clerk’s office.

But there are other PACs out there as well. The most visible in the last few days have been the PACs created by the local employee associations (basically unions) of the Lawrence police officers and Lawrence firefighters.

Perhaps you have noticed they have been running advertisements asking you to vote for a slate of candidates. Both groups have endorsed City Commissioner Mike Amyx, Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan. Those three candidates were the top three finishers in the primary election.

But some of you have wanted to know how much money those PACs have raised and spent on this election. Well, you’ll find out, but not right now.

An oddity of state law gives those PACs until Jan. 10, 2014, to report their spending and fundraising during this election. That’s because both those PACs are registered as state PACs, meaning they can expend money on state legislative races, in addition to local city and school board races. The Lawrence United PAC, in contrast, registered only as a local PAC.

Local PACs have a reporting period that falls during the local election season. State PACs do not. That state law quirk has been a source of frustration for some.

“It puts the public at a disadvantage because you don’t know how much money is being raised or how much is being spent,” said Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.

But Williams stressed the groups are meeting all of the state laws. And it would be hard to argue that the groups should register only as a local PAC. With some of the bills before the Legislature this year, it is easy to see how police and firefighter groups may want to become involved in some Statehouse races. If they registered as a local PAC, they would be prohibited from doing so.

As for these two PACs, the police and firefighters, their past reports indicate their fundraising activity is pretty straightforward. During the 2011 local elections, the police PAC had $5,000. All of it came from the police association itself, rather than from special interest groups. The Lawrence Professional Firefighters PAC had $5,975. All of its donations came in the form of donations of $50 or less.

Both groups generally give $500, the maximum under state law, to each of the candidates ndorsed. The groups also generally run a few ads asking people to support those candidates. (UPDATE: Rob Neff, treasurer for the police PAC called me today and said that has been the case this year too. It has given $500 to the three candidates it has endorsed, and has spent a little less than $1,300 on advertisements and fliers related to the election.)

At least one other group makes a point to publicly announce endorsements. The Lawrence Board of Realtors has endorsed Amyx, Riordan and Rob Chestnut.

The Lawrence Board of Realtors doesn’t have its own PAC. But there is a Kansas Realtors Political Action Committee, and it has given donations to candidates in this race and in past city commission races. The Kansas Realtors PAC is a good example of how a truly statewide PAC sometimes will dip its toe into local races. The Kansas Realtors PAC in 2011 had just under $240,000.

Then there are some groups that do some election-season advertising but don’t have to report their expenditures because they aren’t specifically advocating for the election of a particular individual. Williams said that often is how the group Americans for Prosperity structures its advertisements. I haven’t seen it, but Jim Mullins, a field director for Americans for Prosperity, confirmed to me that the group did send out a mailer this weekend that dealt with some Lawrence City Commission topics and also had some mention of candidate Rob Chestnut. Again, I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know the specifics on its content. (UPDATE: I asked the folks at AFP to send me one, and they did. The mailer doesn't mention the election but instead talks about Chestnut's role in balancing budgets when he was on the commission. Instead of asking you to vote for him, it asks you to call him and then lists his cell number.)

The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission has a website that lists all the state political action committees and their most recent finance reports. There are about 250 of the PACs.

The only other one that clearly is Lawrence-based is the Lawrence Teachers PAC, which had $2,928 available during the 2011 campaign.

It will be interesting to see if more are formed in Lawrence in the future. The list from Governmental Ethics makes it clear that the idea of a PAC to support local jobs or local business growth isn’t unique. The Wichita Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Kansas City Area Chamber of Commerce are both examples of local chambers of commerce that have political action committees. Lenexa also had what was called a “Business Issues” political action committee, and the homebuilders in the Kansas City area had a couple of PACs.

What is unique about the new Lawrence United PAC is that it has registered as a true local PAC, meaning it has to show its fundraising activity now, rather than well after the fact.

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