Local leaders express interest in expanding Douglas County Commission from three members to five

photo by: Jackson Barton

The Douglas County Courthouse and downtown Lawrence are pictured in an aerial photo Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Douglas County leaders are open to increasing the number of seats on the County Commission, and will soon develop a plan to gather public feedback on such a change before potentially taking further action.

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. The issue came to the commission following some public concern about whether rural residents are adequately represented in county government, but Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said that to her, the issue spoke to broader questions about representation.

“I think that we need to think about that question of representation not just as a rural-urban one, but one where we can have districts that are a bit more compact,” Portillo said. “So that we have the chance for more variety and more diversity in our representation, which may include the rural piece of that.”

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.

Portillo said because Lawrence makes up 80% of the population of Douglas County, portions of Lawrence would likely be in every district no matter how boundaries were drawn, but that increasing the number of districts would provide better representation for everyone in Douglas County.

Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid agreed with the point about representation and said she was excited to have the conversation. Reid, whose district includes parts of Lawrence as well as Eudora, Baldwin City and several townships, said she hadn’t considered the number of people that each commissioner represented before she ran for office.

“I was just kind of blown away to realize that each county commissioner represents approximately 40,000 people,” Reid said. “And what does that look like in terms of accessibility of elected officials to constituents?”

During public comment, Baldwin City Mayor Casey Simoneau said that he was supportive of expanding the commission for that reason and others. As Douglas County has only three commissioners to represent its population of more than 120,000 people, Simoneau said the commissioners represent more people than state representatives. He said more representation allows for different ideas, perspectives and experiences to inform the commission’s decisions, and that it was time for the discussion.

“We’ve had a lot of growth in the last 10, 20 years in Douglas County, and I think that’s led us down this path to have this discussion,” Simoneau said.

Hunsinger, who first raised the concerns about rural representation, also spoke during public comment, and agreed that growth of the county’s population warranted the discussion. However, Lawrence resident Chris Flowers had different concerns. He said that before the current commission, rural Douglas County was actually overrepresented and that he was not sure adding more seats would address the rural representation concerns. Before the current commission, two of the three commissioners were rural residents.

Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he shared some of the same thoughts as Portillo and Reid, and all of the commissioners said they would like to discuss ways to gather feedback from constituents about expanding the commission. All commissioners also said that providing some examples of what district maps might look like with five commissioners should be part of those conversations, as should the cost of additional commissioner salaries.

Increasing the number of districts requires an election, which could be accomplished through a resolution passed by the commission or from a public petition, according to information County Clerk Jamie Shew provided the commission. The County Commission will discuss a communication plan for gauging public interest in expanding the commission at a meeting in approximately 30 days.

In other business, the commission:

• Voted unanimously to direct county staff to develop a vegetation management plan prior to the 2022 weed control season following concerns from three local environmentalist groups about the county’s reliance on chemical herbicides to control weeds.

• Received a presentation about the city-county Sustainability Office and its various efforts as part of its study session.

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