City to get public input on potential change to directly elected mayor, 6-member commission elected by districts

photo by: City of Lawrence

Members of the Lawrence City Commission discuss a recommendation from the City Government Study Task Force with task force chair John Nalbandian, far right, during the commission's meeting June 15, 2021.

The City of Lawrence will soon be asking residents what they think about a task force’s recommendation that the city consider a form of government with a directly elected mayor and a six-member commission elected by districts.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission received the recommendation of the City Government Study Task Force and directed city staff to proceed with a process to engage the public on the issue ahead of potentially putting changes to a public vote. Commissioners did not give their personal thoughts on the potential changes, but all four commissioners at the meeting — Commissioner Jennifer Ananda was absent — agreed that the next step would be to get input from residents about the task force’s recommendation ahead of potentially putting the issue on the ballot.

Mayor Brad Finkeldei said the task force recommendation has started to generate discussion in the community, which is what the commission wanted. Finkeldei said the next step would be to inform residents about the recommendation and get their input about what the best option is for the city.

“If you talk about all the different options and look at different cities, there is clearly not a right answer,” Finkeldei said. “It’s what’s the answer for Lawrence and what’s the best answer, and there is going to be pluses or minuses.”

Vice Mayor Courtney Shipley said she reached out to about 30 people for their opinions, and that the people she spoke to were overwhelmingly uncomfortable with the idea of having districts or said that the city was not ready to make that change at this time. Shipley said she would definitely want to hear more input from residents before deciding to put a change on the ballot.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen said if there were controversies about aspects of the recommendation, such as the idea of districts, she thought that might be all the more reason to put potential modifications to the city’s form of government on the ballot.

“I’m at this point just ready to move forward with public engagement and go from there,” Larsen said.

If the commission decides to put the issue to a vote, Larsen asked whether the different components of the potential changes would be separate questions on the ballot. City Attorney Toni Wheeler said her understanding was that it would be one proposal, but that she would need to research that question and bring the answer back to the commission.

Based on the input, the commission will decide whether to go forward with an election and what the potential changes would be. The commission discussed the possibility of putting the question on the Nov. 2 ballot, which would require the commission to submit the ballot language to the Douglas County clerk by Sept. 1, but commissioners agreed that it would be better not to rush the public input process. In response to questions from the commission, Wheeler clarified that the issue could also be included on the primary or general election ballot in 2022, and that regardless of when the election was held, the changes would not go into effect until at least 2023.

Currently, the commission consists of 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 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.

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. 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 recommended that the city consider changing to a directly elected mayor who serves a four-year term. The task force also recommended 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.

A city staff memo states the input process could include a phase to inform the community about the recommendation followed by a phase to gather feedback about the task force recommendation. Commissioners agreed that an educational component that explains how the commission currently operates and the task force’s recommendation would be a beneficial first step.


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