City leaders express support for asking voters whether Lawrence should move to directly elected mayor, but not districts
photo by: City of Lawrence
Story updated at 3 p.m. Wednesday:
With a majority of city commissioners expressing support, it is becoming more likely that Lawrence voters in November will decide whether the city’s mayor ought to be directly elected by the people.
But Lawrence city commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting weren’t sure if they wanted voters to decide whether city commissioners should come from geographic districts in the city, rather than the current system where all five commissioners are elected at large.
Ultimately, commissioners stopped short of taking the needed steps to put either question on the November ballot, but instead directed staff to bring back a new resolution before the Sept. 1 deadline to place items on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission discussed a resolution to put before voters the question of whether the city should transition to a system with a directly elected mayor. Currently, the mayor is one of five city commissioners who is selected by fellow commissioners to undertake the additional duties of mayor for a one-year term.
In addition to the mayor question, commissioners also were asked to consider whether the commission’s structure should be changed from five at-large members to a six-member council elected by districts. Under the proposal, all commissioner terms would also be changed to four years long. Currently, they are a mix of four- and two-year terms.
Any changes to the commission’s structure would have to be approved by voters before they could be implemented. Commissioners have targeted the Nov. 8 general election as a likely time to ask voters for approval.
Three commissioners expressed interest in districts, but two of those commissioners were interested in a hybrid system that included both leaders elected at large, or by the city as a whole, and leaders elected by district. However, the two interested in a hybrid system, commissioners Amber Sellers and Bart Littlejohn, did not necessarily think it was something the city should pursue at this time, and ultimately the consensus reached by commissioners was to only put the directly elected mayor on the ballot.
Mayor Courtney Shipley was not interested in pursuing districts or a directly elected mayor, while Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen favored only asking about a directly elected mayor at this time because the city wouldn’t be able to separate the two options on the ballot. Commissioner Brad Finkeldei was interested in putting a question on the ballot with both proposed changes and letting voters decide.
Shipley said her main concern was putting the changes on the ballot at the same time that the Douglas County Commission is asking voters to expand the number of seats on that governing body from three to five. She said having both questions could cause confusion among voters and also raise concerns about the cost of additional salaries for taxpayers.
“I think it will be confusing for people and it may endanger one or the other,” she said.
The city has not reconsidered its government structure in 70 years, and the City Commission created a task force last year to study the issue. In May 2021, the task force voted unanimously to recommend that the city consider a system with a directly elected nonpartisan mayor and a six-member commission elected by districts. The task force report notes the goals of providing fair representation, increasing voter engagement, encouraging more civil discourse, and, in the case of a directly elected mayor, providing more continuity on the commission.
Overall, Shipley said she heard from some residents that the proposed changes were “a solution in search of a problem,” and that she didn’t think people were dissatisfied enough with the city’s current form of government to support changes. She said she thought a directly elected mayor would make for a more expensive and therefore less accessible campaign, and if the goal was to have more consistency, then the commission could elect the mayor to a two-year term. Shipley was previously the chair of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods and also expressed concern about districts potentially lumping together distinct neighborhoods.
“I think you’re going to lose all of the very organized core neighborhoods that have managed all these years to keep it together,” Shipley said.
Larsen said she struggled with having both the question of a directly elected mayor and transitioning to a council system where leaders were elected by district on the ballot. She asked if the questions could be separated, giving voters the ability to pick one and not the other. Deputy City Attorney Randy Larkin clarified that the change to the city’s form of government must be one yes or no question and not multiple options. Larsen said she thought considering both changes at once was too much, and given the format she was only interested in seeing if voters wanted to have a directly elected mayor who served a four-year term.
Littlejohn asked why the task force recommended six districts instead of a hybrid system, consisting of four leaders elected by districts and two elected at large. Task force Chair John Nalbandian said that the task force thought six districts would provide for better representation than four districts, which he said in Lawrence would basically mean four quadrants of about 25,000 people.
“We thought that sort of mitigates the value of a district,” Nalbandian said. “A district that’s made up of (12,000 to) 15,000 people is much more likely to be representative of the geographic area than we thought four would.”
Sellers said she thought districts would create a more representational government, but she was only interested in a hybrid system. Sellers said districts would provide representation for the mixed housing types, incomes and demographics that sometimes occur in pockets throughout the city.
“We do have concentrated minorities,” Sellers said. “We have pockets of groups that are essentially tucked away in a lot of these different parts of our community, and so their voices are typically not heard.”
Ultimately, Sellers said she didn’t think there was enough time to review a proposal for a hybrid system ahead of the upcoming election, so she would only be comfortable putting the directly elected mayor on the ballot.
Finkeldei said he would support putting both aspects of the task force recommendation on the ballot. He said even it if wasn’t exactly what he would do, he thought putting it on the ballot and letting voters decide made the most sense. In reference to districts, Finkeldei said the broader an issue is, the less communication the commission tends to get on it, and he thought having districts or precincts would improve communication between elected leaders and their constituents.
In the end, there was only enough support for putting the directly elected mayor on the ballot, with some commissioners indicating the city could potentially look at districts in the future. Larkin told commissioners the city would have to wait four years before putting another change on the ballot.
Commissioners also agreed that they would like voters to consider making all terms four years long. Currently the commissioner who receives the lowest number of votes in the election receives only a two-year term. Commissioners currently elect the mayor to a one-year term, and by tradition they choose based on whoever received the most votes in the most recent election, though there have been exceptions.
The commission did not vote on the resolution Tuesday, and instead city staff will use the commission’s comments to draft a resolution that will be brought forward for a vote in the coming weeks. In order to put the question on the November ballot, the commission must approve a resolution and provide notice to the Douglas County Clerk by Sept. 1.