Douglas County Commission to consist solely of Lawrence residents; concerns voiced about lack of rural representation

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Graphic

With two newly elected candidates taking their seats soon, the Douglas County Commission will have a much different look than before — and maybe an unprecedented one.

When Shannon Reid and Shannon Portillo take their seats to represent the 2nd and 3rd districts, respectively, they will both be Lawrence residents representing districts that include the rural parts of the county. Commission Chair Patrick Kelly’s 1st District is entirely within Lawrence city limits. That means the County Commission will consist solely of Lawrence residents.

That will be the first time that has happened in at least two decades, and it might be the first time ever.

But some county residents, particularly those in rural areas, may worry an all-Lawrence County Commission could mean the governing body will be too focused on issues related to the largest city in the county, rather than what residents in the countryside and smaller cities deal with on a regular basis.

photo by: Contributed photos

The incoming Douglas County Commission includes Chair Patrick Kelly, left, and newly elected Commissioners Shannon Portillo, center, and Shannon Reid, right. All three are Lawrence residents.

George Hunsinger, public policy chair for the Douglas County Farm Bureau, said that is indeed the fear of some rural residents. But he said he believes the incoming commissioners appear to be good people, and the rural residents will have to “wait and see” how things work out.

Meanwhile, the three commissioners recently told the Journal-World they are committed to learning about rural issues and representing all county residents.

“I’ve spent significant time listening to residents in our rural areas and always welcome the opportunity to learn more about rural Douglas County,” said Portillo, who will represent the western part of Douglas County. “I do not have the lived experience of many of our rural residents, which is why I think it is important that we have diverse identities and lived experiences represented on our boards and commissions throughout the county.”

Urban vs. rural

According to Douglas County’s recent election records, it appears this County Commission will be the first in at least the last 20 years to consist entirely of Lawrence residents. However, it could go back much further, and it’s possible the next County Commission will be the first ever to have only Lawrence representatives.

At a recent Lawrence City Commission meeting, while discussing the relationship between the City Commission and County Commission, Lawrence Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei said he believed the new County Commission would be the first ever to consist only of Lawrence residents. The Journal-World reached out to the Douglas County Clerk’s Office to confirm that is the case, but had not received a response as of Friday.

While the City Commission was discussing the dynamics of the County Commission in hopes that the relationship between the two governing bodies could be improved, especially while they are working together to fight the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, at least one commissioner noted that the flip side of that situation could be rural residents feeling left out.

“When the county government is taken over by city dwellers, and you ultimately have two city commissions, then those people don’t have any kind of feeling of direct representation,” Commissioner Courtney Shipley said, noting that issues of homelessness and poverty are experienced differently in urban areas than they are rural areas. “If you don’t have somebody representing you who understands that … you aren’t necessarily going to have someone who is looking out for that.”

Hunsinger said an all-Lawrence County Commission will certainly be different, adding it’s a “sad thing” that there won’t be any rural residents serving.

“There are a lot of people in the county out in the rural areas who are very sad that we don’t have someone living (among) us on the County Commission,” Hunsinger said.

But the commission will have at least one commissioner who has dealt with rural issues. Through his work on the commission so far and his previous experience serving on the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission, Kelly has considered many topics related to the rural areas of the county.

Those issues most commonly come in the form of conditional use permits, where property owners of rural land apply for a permit from the county to use the land for specific purposes that aren’t clearly allowed under county codes. Those issues have often brought up discussions between the landowners and their neighbors on how rural land should be used.

Despite being the only commissioner whose district is entirely within the city limits, Kelly said he has made a concerted effort to speak to rural residents and learn from their perspective.

“It is my hope and expectation that the entire Douglas County Commission approach our work as an opportunity to learn and come together around issues that are important across the community, including our rural residents,” Kelly said.

Additionally, Reid and Portillo said they want to hear from all kinds of people in their districts to make sure they make the best decisions for the county.

Reid — who will represent the eastern part of Douglas County, including Eudora and Baldwin City — said her career as a social worker has allowed her to work with people from many different backgrounds, and she wants to use that experience to serve as an advocate for everyone who lives in the 2nd District.

“While some of those interests vary from unincorporated rural areas to townships to municipalities, I believe that making decisions through an equity lens means making sure all of our community members have access to what they need,” Reid said in an email. “That’s actually what I think is really great about county-wide government, that we put tax dollars to work in service of so many varied communities.”

Hunsinger said he was happy to hear that the commissioners intended to make an effort to represent the urban and rural residents evenly, and he hoped they would follow through on that promise.

“I guess we’re going to have to wait a bit and see,” he said. “Time will tell.”

Urban growth

While it might have never happened before, a County Commission with only Lawrence residents might also have been an inevitability.

Lawrence has always been the largest community in Douglas County, but its growth appears to slightly outpace that of the rest of the county’s communities combined. It now is estimated Lawrence makes up roughly 80% of the county’s population.

In 2010, Lawrence had a total of 87,643 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At the same time, Douglas County had a total of 110,826 residents, giving Lawrence a 79% share of the county’s residents.

The Census Bureau now estimates that in 2019, Lawrence had a population total of 98,193 residents and Douglas County had a total of 122,259. That shows Lawrence slightly increasing its share of the county’s residents to just above 80%.

In light of that, Hunsinger said it might be time to expand the County Commission from a three-member board to a five-member board. That, in theory, could diversify the commission seats and give more opportunities for rural and urban residents to both be represented.

Next year could be an opportune time to do it as well, Hunsinger said, because Douglas County will have up-to-date Census numbers from the count that was conducted this year.

It’s an idea Portillo also mentioned as a possibility.

“Representation is an important consideration when we discuss redistricting in the future,” Portillo said. “There is likely no way to draw districts that do not include Lawrence in a significant way, but it might be worth discussing expansion of the commission from three to five seats as one way to potentially increase representation.”

Hunsinger noted that most Kansas counties only have three-member commissions, but that the more urban counties tend to mix it up a bit.

For example, Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita, has a five-member commission. Johnson County, which is the most populous in the state, has a seven-member commission.

However, counties more similar to Douglas County tend to also have three-member commissions. Shawnee County, which includes Topeka, and Riley County, which includes Manhattan, both have three-member commissions.

On the flip side, Leavenworth County, which has a smaller population than Douglas County, has a five-member commission.

Regardless of what other counties’ commissions look like, Hunsinger believes expanding to five would likely be a good thing for the Douglas County community.

“The more ideas you bring to the table, the better things are,” Hunsinger said. “If you bring five people to the table, you have five ideas and opinions and might be onto something.”

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