With limited interest from residents, county leaders have no immediate plans to expand commission from three members to five
photo by: Douglas County
Unless they hear from more Douglas County residents interested in the idea, county commissioners will not move forward with an election to increase the number of seats on the commission.
As part of its meeting Wednesday, the commission discussed increasing the number of seats from three to five, which would require holding a public election. Commissioners said they had gotten limited feedback from the community on the topic, and unless that changed they did not think it warranted an effort to ensure the question got on the November ballot.
“It sounds like it may make sense for us to see if we do hear a lot more from our community, and if we don’t, we don’t move forward with this conversation now,” Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said. “If we do, then we can bring it back up.”
County Clerk Jamie Shew told the commission that if it were to try to put the question on the November ballot, it would need to submit the ballot language by Sept. 1. Commissioners also asked about how district maps would play into the election, and Shew said that while some counties have chosen to provide voters examples of potential maps, that process generally happens after the election.
Commissioners also asked about the cost and staff time needed for such an election. While putting the question on the general election ballot would not be an additional cost, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said that the county would have to pay those salaries if additional commissioners were to be added and pay for some renovations to the meeting space. Plinsky said if the commission were to put the question on the November ballot, county staff would need to begin work soon.
“We would be spending some time here in the next several weeks looking at ballot language, looking at educational materials, preparing educational materials, talking about that process,” Plinsky said. “And we would make sure we added that to our schedule.”
The public discussion about the size of the commission arose following the last election, which resulted in a commission composed entirely of Lawrence residents. George Hunsinger, public policy chair for the Douglas County Farm Bureau, said that some rural residents worried that could mean the commission would be too focused on Lawrence issues. The county has about 120,000 residents, with about 100,000 of those residents, or about 80%, living in Lawrence.
As the conversation continued, some also spoke to the larger issue of representation, since each commissioner represents about 40,000 people. However, only a few residents spoke about the topic when it was on the commission’s agenda in March, and commissioners said they’d had only a small number of people send any correspondence.
Portillo said that she’d heard from some folks in the rural communities that are “very excited” about the possibility of expanding the commission, but did not have a strong sense of how residents felt overall. Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he’d only received one email and had limited conversations, and that it would be helpful to hear from more people.
Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid said the topic did come up while she was campaigning, but she has had only had one person get in touch with her about the topic since beginning her position in January. Reid said given the limited interest expressed at this time and the amount of staff time needed to get the question on the ballot — all while the county is still working on its 2022 budget and preparing to distribute federal pandemic relief funding — she did not see a reason to rush the question to the ballot immediately.
“So I think I have some concerns about staff capacity, and I’m not quite sure it makes sense for us to rush it or move forward with it right away,” Reid said.
An election to increase the number of districts could be accomplished through a resolution passed by the commission or from a public petition. While commissioners didn’t necessarily think a petition should be required, they generally agreed that they would not move forward with an election until they heard a bigger push from the community.