Lawrence City Commission to consider putting changes to form of government on upcoming ballot

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

The Lawrence City Commission, with Commissioner Amber Sellers participating virtually, discusses potential changes to the city's form of government at its meeting Jan. 10, 2023.

Lawrence city leaders will soon consider asking voters to change the city’s governing body to include some seats elected by districts and a directly elected mayor.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will consider adopting a resolution to put the changes on the November 2024 ballot. The commission will also consider an ordinance to amend city code to establish four-year terms on the commission, a change that would occur regardless of the outcome of the ballot question.

In January, city leaders expressed support for asking Lawrence voters about changing the city’s form of government to a hybrid system that includes some commissioners elected by districts, other commissioners elected at large and a directly elected mayor with limited voting powers. The resolution would ask voters whether the city should adopt all the changes. If approved, the city would transition from its current commission-manager form of government to a modified mayor-council manager form of government. The proposed wording of the resolution is as follows:

(1) A directly elected nonpartisan mayor, who would serve a four-year term, and would only have the authority to vote to break a tie vote among the members of the governing body

(2) Six nonpartisan council members — four of whom would each represent one of four districts to be established within the city and two of whom would each represent the city at-large — each serving four year terms, with staggered terms so that no more than three seats on the governing body would be up for election at any one time; and

(3) The city manager, who would continue to advise the governing body and oversee the day-to-day operations of the city.

Deputy City Attorney Randy Larkin previously told the commission that if voters approve the changes, the election of the new government would occur in November 2025. The ordinance regarding term lengths, if approved by the commission, would amend city code so that all people elected to the governing body would have a four-year term. The ordinance would take effect immediately and be in place for subsequent commission elections. The commission has expressed support for increasing all terms to four years as part of a larger effort to improve continuity on the commission.

Currently, the city employs a five-member commission and an appointed professional city manager. Some commissioners serve four-year terms and others serve two-year terms, depending on how they perform in the election. Each year, the commission chooses one of its own members to serve as mayor. The city doesn’t have a system of districts that would require the commissioner for each seat to live in a certain geographic area.

The city has not reconsidered its government structure in 70 years, and in 2021 the commission created a task force 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.

In other business, the commission will consider finalizing ordinance changes that would prohibit landlords from refusing to consider the applications of tenants who receive rental assistance, such as Section 8 housing vouchers. The changes are part of the city’s non-discrimination ordinance and would prohibit landlords from having a policy that refuses to accept applications from potential tenants who would pay all or a portion of their rent with Section 8 vouchers or other forms of rental assistance. The commission has previously discussed the changes, hearing from people both for and against the changes. In addition to the source of income protections, the commission will consider making it unlawful to discriminate based on someone’s status as a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking or stalking, and based on someone’s immigration status.

The Lawrence City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.


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