City leaders express support for hybrid form of government with members elected by districts, at-large and a directly elected mayor

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., Thursday, July 7, 2016

Story updated at 10:16 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023:

City leaders have 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.

The Lawrence City Commission discussed the potential changes as part of its meeting Tuesday. The commission considered a task force recommendation for potential changes last year but did not come to a clear consensus on how to proceed and directed city staff to defer the discussion until this year.

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said he continued to be in favor of the task force’s recommendation, which called for six commissioners elected by districts and a directly elected mayor, but since there had not been enough support on the commission for that option, he was proposing the hybrid format as an alternative.

“For all the reasons I support six (districts), I think that setup would be better than the system we have now,” Finkeldei said.

Specifically, Finkeldei proposed, and other commissioners supported, a system with four commissioners elected by districts, two commissioners elected at large and a directly elected mayor. Commissioner Courtney Shipley proposed, and other commissioners supported, that the mayor would only vote in a tie-breaking situation. Shipley said she thought that format would be a great way to “balance the influence” of the mayor position.

To put the changes on a future ballot, the commission will need to adopt a resolution. The proposed changes would then have to be approved by voters as part of a future election.

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.

When the topic was previously discussed in August, there was interest among commissioners in moving to districts, but not enough support to move forward on the task force recommendation. Two commissioners, Amber Sellers and Bart Littlejohn, expressed interest in a hybrid system that included both commissioners elected by district and commissioners elected at large. At that time, the commission had been considering putting the question on the Nov. 8 general election ballot, and ultimately decided to delay the conversation because they didn’t want to move forward on a change that deviated from the task force recommendation without the opportunity for additional community input.

Sellers said Tuesday she continued to support a hybrid model, and she thought the addition of some commissioners elected by districts would give more people a voice.

“I’ve always, from the beginning, supported a hybrid model — there is equitability in that,” Sellers said. “… One hundred years ago we had 12 folks on the commission and a lot more Black and Brown people, and then something happened.”

As the Journal-World previously reported, available records indicate that Sellers and Littlejohn are the first Black council members or commissioners elected in more than 100 years. However, under a ward system that existed until 1914, at least three Black Lawrence residents — Green Keith, Fred C. West and David Logan — were elected to represent the sixth ward, which covered the eastern half of North Lawrence. All three were elected to multiple terms under the ward system, which, like districts, divided the city into geographic areas.

The commission also expressed interest in giving all members of the commission and the directly elected mayor a four-year term. Currently, some commissioners serve four-year terms and others serve two-year terms, depending on how they perform in the election. The proposed change in term lengths would not need to be approved by voters and could be accomplished through an ordinance approved by the commission.

The commission discussed putting the potential changes in the form of government on the 2024 ballot. The commission will need to pass a resolution with the particulars of the changes it would like voters to consider, and city staff said a draft resolution could come back to the commission for discussion by the first week of March at the latest.

Lawrence currently has a commission-manager form of government, which employs a five-member commission and an appointed professional city manager. 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.

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.


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