Lawrence City Commission to discuss recommendation for directly elected mayor, 6-member commission elected by districts
photo by: Mike Yoder
City leaders will soon consider how to move forward following a community task force recommendation that the city consider a system with a directly elected mayor and a six-member commission elected by districts.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will receive the recommendation of the City Government Study Task Force and decide whether to proceed with a process to engage the public on the issue ahead of potentially putting the recommended changes to a public vote.
The city has not reconsidered its government structure in 70 years, and the commission created the task force earlier this year to study the issue. Commissioner Jennifer Ananda initiated the discussion in December, following her yearlong term as mayor, when she suggested that Lawrence consider whether a directly elected, full-time mayor would benefit the city. 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 or the practice of having a nonpartisan commission.
After consulting academic research on the topic and other resources, the task force voted to finalize its recommendation last month. The task force recommends that the city consider changing to a directly elected mayor who serves a four-year term. The task force also recommends that the city consider changing to a six-member commission in which the commissioners are elected by geographic districts, with each serving a staggered four-year term.
As part of Tuesday’s meeting, task force chair John Nalbandian will present the task force’s report to the commission. Regarding the recommendation of a directly elected mayor, the report states in part that about 70% of cities with the council-manager form of government have adopted the direct election of their mayor and that task force members agreed that the lack of continuity under the current one-year mayor term and the absence of direct election, mayoral leadership potential is weakened compared to the mayoral role in other council-manager jurisdictions.
“The task force agreed that a four-year mayoral term would provide both greater focus and continuity, and campaigns for mayor might well improve the discourse over the city’s future and increase resident interest in municipal government in contrast to our current election of commissioners, none of whom directly campaign for mayor,” the report states.
The report notes that when the current form of government was adopted in 1951, the city had about 10,000 residents, as compared with the approximately 100,000 residents today. Regarding the recommendation of a six-member commission elected by districts, the report states in part that six districts would mean that each commission represented approximately 16,000 people, and having districts would reduce costs and barriers for some candidates, encouraging a wider range of candidates to seek office, and provide better representation and engagement for geographic areas of the city.
“These relatively small units of representation would allow citizens a direct point of contact with the commission,” the report states.
Currently, the commission is five members, serving four- or two-year terms, and all five members are elected at large, meaning that all represent the city as a whole. The City Commission chooses one of its own members each year to serve a one-year term as mayor — by tradition, commissioners choose based on whoever received the most votes in the most recent election, though exceptions have occurred.
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.
A city staff memo to the commission states that after reviewing the report, the commission may direct staff to engage the public with the task force’s recommendation. The memo states that process could include a phase to inform the community about the recommendation followed by a phase to gather feedback about the recommendation, and that a more specific plan could be developed at the commission’s direction.
The City Commission will convene virtually at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday with limited staff in place at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. Residents can participate in the meeting in person or virtually. A link to register for the Zoom meeting and directions to submit written public comment are included in the agenda that is available on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.