Local leaders to discuss expanding Douglas County Commission from three members to five

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Courthouse is pictured in September 2018.

Amid some public concern about whether rural residents are adequately represented in county government, leaders will soon discuss the possibility of expanding the Douglas County Commission from three members to five.

As part of its meeting Wednesday, the County Commission will discuss legal requirements to increase the number of districts on the board of commissioners, which would involve holding a public election. County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said that the information was being brought forward at the request of the commission based on comments from the community.

The public discussion about the size and makeup of the commission arose following the last election, which resulted in a commission composed entirely of Lawrence residents — perhaps the first time this has happened in the governing body’s history, as the Journal-World reported. George Hunsinger, public policy chair for the Douglas County Farm Bureau, said that some rural residents worry that could mean the commission will be too focused on issues in Lawrence, rather than issues faced by rural and township residents.

Lawrence makes up 80% of the population of Douglas County, according to census data. Under the current districts, the 1st District, currently held by Commissioner Patrick Kelly, consists of central Lawrence and is the only district entirely within the Lawrence city limits. The 2nd and 3rd districts also include parts of Lawrence, but they include the county’s other cities and its rural areas as well. The 2nd District, currently held by Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid, consists of eastern and southeastern Lawrence and the eastern part of Douglas County, including Eudora and Baldwin City. The 3rd District, currently held by Commission Chair Shannon Portillo, consists of western and southwestern Lawrence and the western part of Douglas County, including Clinton, Lecompton and Lone Star.

Under state law, a county can be divided into three, five or seven districts, according to a memo from county staff to the commission. Increasing the number of districts of the governing body would require an election, which could be accomplished in two ways. The commission could vote to pass a resolution to put the issue to a public vote, or the public could force a vote by getting 5% of the registered voters in Douglas County — about 3,900 people — to sign a petition. The deadline to place a question on the general election ballot would be Sept. 1 of any year, or a special election could be held.

The vast majority of counties in Kansas have a three-member governing board. According to the Kansas Association of Counties, 88 of Kansas’ 105 counties have a three-member commission. Fifteen counties have a five-member commission, including Barton, Butler, Coffey, Finney and Franklin counties. Johnson County, the state’s most populous county, is the only county with a seven-member commission. The unified government of Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County is an exception to the rules; it has a 10-member commission.

The county staff memo states the procedural information regarding how to increase the number of districts and seats on the commission is being provided for informational purposes only, and the commission is not scheduled to take any votes on the topic as part of its meeting Wednesday.

In other business, the commission will:

• Consider approval of the 2021 Douglas County Noxious Weed Management Plan and the 2020 Annual Noxious Weed Eradication Progress Report. As the Journal-World recently reported, the commission heard concerns from three local environmentalist groups about the county’s reliance on chemical herbicides to control weeds, and county staff is recommending that the commission direct staff to develop a vegetation management plan prior to the 2022 weed control season.

• Receive a presentation about the city-county Sustainability Office as part of its study session. The presentation will include information about the county’s Food System Plan, agritourism in Douglas County and the development of sustainable policies.

The County Commission will convene at 4 p.m. for its study session and 5:30 p.m. for its regular business meeting. The meeting will be open to the walk-in public at the county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., but a link for the public to watch live online is available on the county’s website, douglascountyks.org. Residents may also call in and listen by phone by dialing 1-312-626-6799 and entering meeting ID 988 9943 6733.

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