Editorial: Let’s make sure we think through any changes to the Lawrence City Commission
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
A couple of groups deserve thanks right now. One is the large group of candidates seeking election for the Lawrence City Commission and the Lawrence school board. Good government starts with people being willing to participate, and there is a strong number of candidates for each board.
The second group is the people looking at how elections ought to be conducted in the future. Specifically, this group is looking at how the Lawrence City Commission should be structured. It is important work, and current city commissioners should be congratulated for creating the task force, and task force members should be thanked for their service.
Let’s take our time congratulating and thanking because perhaps it will slow us down in implementing the changes recommended by the task force. Those recommendations are being delivered to the City Commission at its Tuesday meeting. Hopefully, commissioners adopt an appropriate pace on moving forward. That pace would involve more time for the recommendations to filter through the community and allow more robust discussion.
Ultimately, state law requires changes of this nature to be voted on in a citywide election. That could happen as soon as November, but it is not required to happen that soon. Let’s not focus on a date yet, but instead on the quality of the conversation. What do we really want to put in front of voters?
The task force’s recommendations can be broken into three parts:
• Create a new type of mayor in Lawrence. The mayor would serve a four-year term instead of the current one-year term. Importantly, the mayor would be elected directly by the people rather than through the current process where the five city commissioners choose one of their own members to be mayor.
• Start electing city commissioners by geographic districts. Currently, there are no districts.
• Increase the number of commissioners from five to six. With the addition of the mayor, who would be allowed to vote on all items, the total number on the commission would be seven.
At first blush, the idea of a directly elected mayor is more attractive than the idea of creating a set of City Commission districts. Perhaps the most important part of the directly elected mayor idea is the four-year term. It would raise the stakes of a mayoral election, and perhaps that is good.
While the mayor would still just have one vote and no veto power, the position could produce benefits. First, it would seem natural for the mayor position to take the lead in creating a vision for the city. Lawrence does not do well on the visioning front. We struggle to identify our competitive advantages as a community, and we rarely get past the point of saying we want to be a nice place to live. So does everyone else. What advantages do we have that will allow us to prosper enough to be that nice place to live? A focused mayor position could be helpful on that front.
Second, such a mayor could develop much stronger relationships with leaders in other communities. This is important. Lawrence struggles with understanding its role in the state of Kansas, and the community is far from beloved in all corners. A more active regional representative would have benefits.
As for districts, lets talk about them more. But a reasonable fear exists that the most significant change to come from districts would be a dilution of the hiring pool. If you have to choose six people with six geographic requirements, it seems likely you aren’t going to get the six best people. That should be the focus. How can we find people who have taken the time to learn the issues and have the ability and interest to serve? We’re not that big of a town yet. In a place of 100,000 people, you don’t want to put too many limitations on who you can choose to lead you.
It would be one thing if Lawrence was so big that it was truly difficult to find your city commissioner. That shouldn’t be a problem in Lawrence. Though, there is one simple thing commissioners could do on that front: Start meeting in person again. A simple way to find a commissioner is to go to a meeting and bend their ear after it.
It is a good reminder that a simple solution is sometimes the best one.