City Government Task Force to recommend consideration of directly elected mayor; discussion of districts ongoing

photo by: City of Lawrence

The City Government Study Task Force meets with members of city staff on April 29, 2021.

A task force of Lawrence residents that has been reconsidering the city’s form of government has come out in favor of having a directly elected mayor.

As part of its meeting Thursday evening, the City Government Study Task Force voted 7-0, with a few members absent, to recommend that the city consider changing to a directly elected mayor who serves a four-year term. Currently, the City Commission chooses one of its own members to serve a one-year term as mayor each year — by tradition, commissioners choose based on whoever received the most votes in the most recent election, though there have been exceptions.

In summarizing the reasons for the recommendation, task force Chair John Nalbandian began with the issue of choice.

“A directly elected mayor will give a direct voice to the residents about who they want to be their mayor,” Nalbandian said.

The task force agreed to mention some other potential advantages in the recommendation, too: that a four-year term would provide continuity, and that an election in which candidates ran specifically for mayor would result in a more issue-oriented campaign. Task force members also agreed that the election for mayor, like the rest of the commission, should remain nonpartisan.

The Lawrence City Commission decided to create the task force in January to study alternative structures to the city’s current commission-manager form of government, including having a directly elected mayor, election by districts, or changes to the number of commissioners. Commissioners agreed that they did not want to consider abolishing the practice of having a professional city manager to run the day-to-day operations of the city. Commissioner Jennifer Ananda initiated the discussion in December, following her yearlong term as mayor, when she suggested Lawrence consider whether a directly elected, full-time mayor would benefit the city.

The current commission-manager form of government employs an elected commission and an appointed professional city manager. Currently, commissioners serve either two-year or four-year terms, depending on how many votes they received in the election; the top two vote-winners serve for four years, and the third-place winner serves for two years. The mayor presides over commission meetings and has ceremonial duties, but has no additional powers and, like other commissioners, works part time.

As part of its meeting Thursday, the task force also discussed the idea of electing commissioners by geographic areas, or districts. Currently all five commissioners are elected at large, meaning that they all represent the city as a whole. A system of districts would require the commissioner for each seat to live in a certain geographic area. The task force discussed various pros and cons of districts, such as the potential benefit of districts contributing to a more diverse commission and the potential disadvantage of commissioners becoming too focused on district issues instead of what is best for the city as a whole.

The task force has not identified a particular structure for potential districts. City Manager Craig Owens, a city staff liaison to the task force, said that in addition to the option of creating an equal number of districts and commissioners, there could be more than one commissioner per district. For example, Owens said there could be three districts, each represented by two commissioners on staggered terms, for a total of six commissioners.

The task force will continue discussing the issue of districts at its next meeting on May 17, with the goal of voting on a recommendation at that time. The task force also plans to continue a discussion of the roles and responsibilities of a directly elected mayor.

Once the task force completes all aspects of its recommendation, it will go to the commission for consideration. Two methods exist under Kansas law for a city to modify its form of government: a citywide election or a charter ordinance, which would have to be passed by four of the five commissioners and could still be put to a citywide vote if a valid protest petition were filed. Commissioners previously agreed that any changes the commission proposes to the city’s form of government should go to a public vote.


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