Your Turn: Time to consider changes to Lawrence government

At last the national elections are over, which makes for a good time to shift our attention to the government nearest at hand — Lawrence.

In the past year and a half, Lawrence has displayed a notable lack of political leadership. In the April 2015 city elections voters did not re-elect two incumbent city commissioners. They instead elected three new city commissioners — Leslie Soden, Stuart Boley, and Matthew Herbert. The mayor, Jeremy Farmer, chosen by his fellow commissioners, resigned amid allegations of financial mismanagement at the local nonprofit he led, and he has since plead guilty to matters related to misuse of the nonprofit’s funds. Lisa Larsen, also new to public office, was appointed by the commission to replace Farmer. As the only commissioner with experience, Mike Amyx was chosen to be mayor by his fellow commissioners.

During this time the city manager, David Corliss, resigned to take another city manager position. Assistant city manager Diane Stoddard served for 10 months as acting city manager until the appointment of a new city manager, Tom Markus, in March 2016.

The political churning of the past year and a half and the resulting vacuum in political leadership can be understood, in part, as the rather predictable result of one feature of the form of Lawrence city government: the city manager-commissioner model, in which the mayor is chosen by the commissioners from among its members for a one-year term.

In 1952, the city manager model was adopted by Lawrence. The city manager model provides for five nonpartisan commissioners elected at large. The elected commissioners choose one of their number to be mayor and another to be vice mayor for one-year terms. The mayor’s position is primarily ceremonial, a part-time figurehead conducting meetings, appointing committees, representing the city at civic events. The commission chooses a full-time professional city manager selected solely upon the basis of administrative ability. All department heads are selected by and report to the city manager, as do all administrative staff. Only the City Commission can dismiss the city manager. It is understood that the City Commission, representing the people, makes the law (city ordinances) and city policy and approves an annual budget, including taxes, and does not engage in the day-to-day administration of the city. In turn, the city manager does not engage in electoral politics and limits involvement in policy-making to giving advice. The distinct emphasis in the city manager model is order, efficiency and honesty. Although there has been noticeable churning in Lawrence political leadership in the past year and a half, the city has been managed smoothly and efficiently.

The concept of “home rule,” in Kansas and in other states, enables local residents to choose the form of city or county government they prefer. And local residents can change their minds. These changes can be wholesale, swapping the mayor-council model for the city manager model as Lawrence did in the 1950s, for example. Or changes can be incremental tweaks to a model that is generally agreeable to city residents.

The most common change or adaptation to the standard structure of the city manager-commissioner model is the direct election of the mayor. In this adaptation the mayor is elected at large, is not a member of the City Commission, is nonpartisan, and ordinarily serves a four-year term. The city manager is selected by the city commission and the mayor and reports to the commission. The city manager is responsible for the administrative operations of the city. Of the approximately 3,500 American cities with city manager or manager-commission charters, fully 65 percent elect their mayors directly. Lawrence is a notable outlier.

A mayor chosen directly by Lawrence voters could more clearly define the expectations of political leadership. A directly elected mayor would have enough time in office to formulate and articulate policy and lead the processes of goal setting and strategic planning. A directly elected mayor should strengthen the capacity of the city to respond effectively to rapidly changing demographic, economic, technological and political changes. The political processes by which a directly elected mayor is selected would sharpen political discourse and political engagement with Lawrence residents. A directly elected mayor should strengthen intergovernmental relations with Douglas County, the University of Kansas, the state of Kansas, the Mid-America Regional Council and the many jurisdictions in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area.

As Lawrence city leaders gear up for strategic planning they should put the possibility of a directly elected mayor on the agenda for deliberation.

— H. George Frederickson is an emeritus distinguished professor of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas.