Lawrence City Commission delays asking voters about changes to city government, wants to discuss options

photo by: City of Lawrence

Mayor Courtney Shipley, from left, Commissioner Brad Finkeldei and Commissioner Amber Sellers discuss potential changes to the city's form of government during the commission's meeting Aug. 16, 2022, at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

Updated at 11:53 a.m. Wednesday

Lawrence city leaders want to take more time to consider changes to the city’s form of government and therefore will not put potential changes on the upcoming ballot.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted 4-1, with Mayor Courtney Shipley opposed, to defer discussion until 2023 of a resolution that would have asked voters in November whether the city should transition to a system with a directly elected mayor. The move to a directly elected mayor was the only component of a two-part community task force recommendation that commissioners could previously come to a consensus on, and ultimately they didn’t feel comfortable moving away from the full recommendation with so little time before the election.

“I don’t think this truly reflects even the consensus of what this commission wants, and that can be dangerous, especially when we’re putting it on a ballot,” Commissioner Amber Sellers said.

The city has not reconsidered its government structure in 70 years, and the 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 cites 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.

Commissioners initially discussed the resolution last week. At that time, the proposed resolution reflected the task force recommendation, and included both the question of a directly elected mayor and whether city commissioners should come from geographic districts in the city, rather than the current system where all five commissioners are elected at large. However, there was not enough support on the commission to proceed with that option. Two commissioners, Sellers and Bart Littlejohn, were not opposed to districts but were interested instead in a hybrid system that included both commissioners elected by district and commissioners elected at large. Ultimately, the commission asked city staff to bring back a new resolution before the Sept. 1 deadline to place only the question of a directly elected mayor on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

However on Tuesday, more commissioners expressed doubts about proceeding that way. Commissioner Brad Finkeldei, who supported putting both changes recommended by the task force on the ballot, said that since last week’s discussion, he’d heard from more residents who were supportive of both districts and a directly elected mayor. Finkeldei also said he’d gotten questions about the commission moving forward with a ballot question that differed from the task force recommendation, especially given the quick timeframe.

“Well now we’re putting a different plan out in front of people and they’ve only had a week to think about it, and it’s different than what’s been out there for six months,” Finkeldei said. “So it’s worth pausing to think, is this the right time to do it, or should we have more (community) engagement?”

Sellers said she’d also looked into the issue more and that after further consideration she did not think putting only the directly elected mayor on the ballot truly reflected the consensus of the commission. Like Finkeldei, she said she’d also gotten additional comments from residents and she wasn’t comfortable putting the question on the ballot as it stood.

Littlejohn and Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen also agreed that delaying the ballot measure would give the commission more time to consider the topic, including the issue of districts. Shipley continued to express opposition to the change, saying that she thought a directly elected mayor represented a more top-down approach that she didn’t think was consistent with Lawrence values. Shipley said she thought a directly elected mayor would bring more attention to the position, making a campaign more expensive and therefore less accessible.

“I have to speak a little in defense of what we have now,” Shipley said.

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. Under the proposal, the directly elected mayor would be elected to a four-year term.

Commissioners also discussed terms for all members of the governing body. They agreed that they wanted to do away with the two-year term for commissioners — the third-place finisher in the election currently receives a two-year term while all others receive a four-year term — though Shipley said she did not want to see a four-year term for a directly elected mayor. The commission was in favor of four-year terms for all members to provide more consistency, but Shipley said she thought four years was too long for the mayor position and could contribute to the possibility of corruption and entrenchment in that position.

The commission also heard comments from Kansas Sen. Marci Francisco, who asked questions about the process should a sitting commissioner run for mayor and the benefit of eliminating the two-year term. She suggested the commission delay the ballot question to give the issue more consideration.

If the resolution would have gone forward and been approved by voters in the November 2022 election, then the first election for a directly elected mayor would have occurred in November 2023. Now, if the commission moves forward with a resolution, the question would go on the November 2023 ballot, and an election under the new form of government would not occur until November 2025.

The proposed change would have represented a move from the commission-manager form of government to mayor-commission-manager. Neither the task force nor commissioners have called for moving away from the city’s practice of employing a professional city manager to oversee the city’s day-to-day operations. The directly elected mayor would have the same amount of power and duties as the mayor does currently, including presiding over meetings, recommending appointments to city advisory boards and representing the city in ceremonial roles.


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