As Douglas County expands to 5-member commission, a look at nearby counties that have done the same

photo by: Douglas County

The Douglas County Commission adopted this map as the county's new five-member commission districts Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Though voters will have to wait nearly two more years to fill the two vacant seats on the newly expanded five-seat Douglas County Commission, at least one nearby county has completed the same process in recent years and could provide some clues about what’s to come here.

Douglas County voters approved a ballot measure that expanded the commission from three seats to five in November, and since then county leaders have crafted a new map of commission districts and have decided when the two new commissioners should be elected. Based on the commission’s recommendation, Gov. Laura Kelly gave her approval last month for those new commissioners to be chosen during the next general election in 2024.

Of the 105 counties in Kansas, just 18 of them now have a five-member commission following the November general election, according to data from the Kansas Association of Counties.

Of those, Leavenworth County, with around 80,000 people — the next most populous county with a five-member commission in Kansas after Douglas County, which has nearly 120,000 — joined that list relatively recently, in 2018. Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew previously told the Journal-World that Leavenworth County’s experience actually helped inform Douglas County’s process.

It’s been long enough since then that Leavenworth County is beginning to see what life after increasing the size of its commission looks like, which Leavenworth County Clerk Janet Klasinski spoke with the Journal-World about near the end of 2022.

There are a number of differences in how the process itself played out for both counties. For one, Klasinski said the Leavenworth County Commission opted to elect its new commissioners as soon as possible. The Douglas County Commission could have decided to go that route, too, and conduct a special election within 60 to 90 days of Gov. Kelly’s approval.

“Because that is what the citizens wanted, truthfully,” Klasinski said of her county’s shorter turnaround. “When the petition was presented, they had asked the board to have a special election, not to wait.”

That was the sentiment among voters who spoke at meetings about the expanded commission here in Douglas County, too. But county leaders voiced concerns that a quick turnaround for a special election might lead to less voter participation and less opportunity for unaffiliated candidates to successfully file petitions and appear on the ballot.

Leavenworth County didn’t have that issue, though. Klasinski said that aside from the candidates selected by the county’s Democratic and Republican parties, three independent candidates successfully petitioned to get on the ballot between their two new districts.

The folks who ultimately won the special election — the two Republican Party candidates — ended up being reelected for two-year terms in the next general election in 2020, Klasinski said. Since then, one of those two has left office, but the other, Republican Mike Stieben, was just elected to his first four-year term in November. He has appeared on three ballots since March of 2019.

“I think (citizens) are happy with them,” Klasinski said.


In another sense, the way the question got onto the ballot in the first place here in Douglas County varies greatly compared with Leavenworth County. Here, sitting commissioners adopted a resolution placing the question on a ballot, but in Leavenworth County it happened via a petition process.

Klasinski said the process there was spearheaded by a nonpartisan group calling itself “Give Me Five.” A social media page for the group says it was in favor of increased representation, a larger quorum and enhanced government at the county level. The “Give Me Five” petition began circulating in January of 2018, and the group collected enough signatures to get it on the ballot in that year’s general election.

One of the folks with that group had previously approached commissioners directly back in 2017 to ask if they would put the question on the ballot, Klasinski said, but they declined.

“They wanted the five-member commission because they felt there would be better representation for the county,” Klasinski said. “And I think that’s probably why many of the counties, their citizens, believe that more is better when it comes to commissioners.”

Much like in Leavenworth County, a group of citizens circulated a petition to get an expanded commission on the ballot last year in Pottawatomie County, a county of roughly 25,000 just northwest of Topeka. That petition circulated during the spring and summer of 2022, Pottawatomie County Clerk Dawn Henry told the Journal-World, and it eventually garnered enough signatures to get on the November ballot.

Expanding the commission otherwise wasn’t likely to happen there, Henry said. That’s because the current commissioners were worried about it costing the county more money.

Folks there were similarly worried about representation, Henry said, with some during the petition process focusing on securing more representation for the northern part of the county, which is composed of small cities and unincorporated communities. Henry said commissioners ultimately decided the new county map would have one district taking in the entire northern unincorporated area to guarantee that representation. Some folks in Douglas County expressed a similar desire during the map-making process, and one map option early on included one district that included nearly everything in the county outside of Lawrence.

Pottawatomie County, too, wanted a special election, but Henry said Pottawatomie commissioners took the same route Douglas County did and opted to wait until the 2024 general election.


Klasinski said that now, a few years down the line, she doesn’t notice a huge difference in how things are going in Leavenworth County with five commissioners compared with three, but the transition itself was a smooth one at least.

And similar to Leavenworth County’s advisory role for Douglas County, Saline County helped Leavenworth County out with a template of its own back in 2019. Klasinski said that county had done the same thing about five years earlier, another example that “you don’t always have to invent the wheel.”

It also seems that people in Leavenworth County got what they voted for, she said, as far as their desire for increased representation.

“I don’t think anyone is regretting moving to five,” Klasinski said. “… There was a smooth transition.”


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