Editorial: Do the math on expanding the Douglas County Commission
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
A public meeting last week made it clear that a segment of Douglas County’s population would like to see the County Commission expanded from three members to five.
County commissioners should delay putting that idea on November’s ballot until a deeper discussion occurs. Part of that discussion should be an exploration of this piece of math: Five is not the most important number in this debate. Rather, 80 is.
Approximately 80% of Douglas County’s entire population resides in Lawrence. That’s important because the driving force behind the idea of expanding the commission is geographic diversity. The County Commission for the first time in a long, long time doesn’t have any member who lives outside of Lawrence.
That is a reason for concern for residents who live outside Lawrence. The issues in rural Douglas County are different and people who have lived them bring something to the table. Plus, let’s state the obvious: There is a perception that residents in Lawrence are quite a bit more liberal than many residents who live elsewhere in Douglas County. That perception might be a bit simplistic, but it is not off by much.
But the fact that 80% of all residents live in Lawrence, coupled with the state law that says county commission districts must be roughly equal in population, make it impossible to create a district system where the majority of districts will be dominated by rural residents. Nor should such a system exist.
The best a five-district system could do is create one district that would include Baldwin City, Eudora, Lecompton and all of the unincorporated part of Douglas County. That would ensure one non-Lawrence resident is on the commission. But it also would ensure that four Lawrence residents are always on the commission. That would be a terrible trade for non-Lawrence residents to make.
It would be far better to stick with the current three-district system, where one district is entirely in the city limits and two have a mix of Lawrence and non-Lawrence territory. That gives non-Lawrence residents an actual chance to have the majority of seats on the commission, if there are non-Lawrence candidates who have enough appeal to voters in Lawrence. There have been many such candidates in the history of the County Commission.
But before changing the number of seats on the commission, let’s have a discussion about the current state of politics in Douglas County. It is quickly becoming a one-party system, which makes the August Democratic primary the most important election in the county, rather than the November general election.
The August primary is far more likely to be dominated by liberal, activist members of the party. That probably has more to do with discontent in the hinterlands of the county than the number of commissioners. A better solution than expansion might be for moderates to become more active and organized in the local Democratic Party and for moderates to become far more active in the local Republican Party and do the hard work of making it competitive in Douglas County again.
However, there have been arguments the commission needs to be expanded because each district at nearly 40,000 people has become too large. Each County Commission district is about twice as large as a Kansas House district. But that shouldn’t be too concerning. County commissioners do have a highly skilled county administrator at their disposal, and she has multiple staff people at her disposal. The ratio of staff members to lawmakers is better at the county than at the Statehouse. Plus, it is worth noting that at $38,300 per year, Douglas County commissioners do make significantly more than most legislators, who bring in a little more than $20,000 most of the time.
Still, talk of a County Commission expansion deserves more discussion. But perhaps non-Lawrence residents should focus on an expansion to seven members. Consider this math: You create four districts entirely in Lawrence. That would leave three districts that roughly would each have 9,000 city of Lawrence voters and 8,000 non-city of Lawrence voters. That would give non-Lawrence residents a decent chance of controlling three of the four seats. More importantly, it might change the election dynamics to make the County Commission a more moderate body for the long term.
There are plenty of online programs that let you create different map scenarios. County officials should create multiple scenarios and share them with the public before deciding whether to put this on the ballot. The only problem with that plan is those mapping programs may be running slow these days due to demand.
After all, it is gerrymandering season in Congress.