Matthew Herbert: 4 reasons why city commission districts are a bad idea for Lawrence (Column)

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The issue of changing the style of governance for the city of Lawrence has finally found its way front and center on the agenda of the Lawrence City Commission. 

I say “finally” because as I reflect upon my 2015 and 2017 campaigns, I recall these issues were the focal point of candidate questions at varying forums. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to squeeze this whole issue into a 30-second response. Undoubtedly, the issue has floated near the surface for a while now and, it appears, finally lives to see its day. 

Although there are several changes proposed, my focus is on only one of them in particular: districts. If this rant suffers from a classic TL;DR syndrome, let me break it down simply at the top: Districts are a bad idea for Lawrence, Kansas. 

I believe districts are a bad idea for the following four reasons: 

1. Accountability. From the start of my 2015 campaign, citizen engagement was a key focal point. I believed in expanding the means by which Joe Citizen could connect with me. 

As an elected official, I was accountable to the city as a whole and could be held accountable by the city as a whole because they held the power to elect/reelect me or not. If we move to districts, your reality as a constituent is that you will go from 100% of the commission being accountable to you to 20% (or less, if districts inevitably lead to the expansion of the seated members). Effectively, the supermajority of your local government will govern with no direct interest in your opinions. If you think your commissioners are bad at responding to you now, just wait until you have no power to directly elect them. 

2. Issue focus. Directly related to point No. 1 is the concept of “issue focus.” This is probably the single reason to reject districts. Under the status quo, commissioners represent the entirety of Lawrence. As such, they are tasked with making decisions for the entirety of Lawrence based, presumably, upon the feedback of the entirety of Lawrence. Under a system of “districts,” the first portion of this sentence remains true; commissioners will be tasked with making decisions for the entirety of Lawrence. What changes, and changes dramatically, is the second portion of this sentence. Now, seated commissioners will be tasked with making decisions for the entirety of Lawrence but will do so from a position of accountability to their district only. 

When considering this area of concern, I’m reminded of a constituent meeting I had once that I have never been able to get out of my mind. In roughly 2017 (give or take), I met with Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, at Aimee’s Coffeehouse on a Tuesday morning before our evening meeting. Ted was always good about keeping track of issues coming before the commission and making sure his neighborhood’s voice was heard. I always did and still do respect Ted for that level of engagement. At this particular meeting, though, Ted and I saw eye to eye on the particular issue he wanted to meet with me about. Thus, our conversation was over long before my coffee cup was empty, so, having a few more minutes on the meter, I asked him if he wanted to discuss any of the other issues on the docket for that evening. I will never forget his response that day: “Do whatever you want on those things. I’m here for North Lawrence.” 

This encounter is exactly what districts will look like. You will seat commissioners based upon them winning and maintaining the approval of their tiny little piece of the Lawrence puzzle, and yet you will act surprised when their focus isn’t on the other 80% of the town. 

3. Voter turnout. 12%. That was the voter turnout at the first election I was ever on the ballot for. TWELVE. 

You see, from my experience as both a government teacher and as a candidate, I have learned that there is a direct connection between how directly impacted you are in an election and how little voters will turn out. Give someone a presidential election with an electoral system that renders their vote essentially useless, and by god, they will turn out at 60%. Give them a state issue that will impact their lives and you’ll see 40. Put a local matter in their hands that will change their day to day life and you’ll beg for 20%. Just don’t bet on it, because you’ll likely be disappointed. 

Twice I won elections to be seated as a member of the Lawrence City Commission, and as I recall, never once did I receive 8,000 votes. Now, take 80% of the city and render them ineligible to vote for you (or more, when districts lead to expansion of seated commissioners … which they will). How many individual votes are we supposing it will now take to earn a seat on the Lawrence City Commission? 

Perhaps think of this another way. Suppose you live in west Lawrence. Do you know who all won seats on the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association board in the last election? More than likely you do not, because why would you? Now suppose the individual(s) who won seats on the ELNA board (that you were ineligible to vote for) get to make decisions for you and where you live with no accountability from you or your neighbors. This is the reality of districts.

4. Candidate turnout. Two years ago-ish, I sat in a meeting where we discussed (and voted to) raise commissioner pay as a way of drawing more interest into the job and getting more candidates. At the time I was the lone vote against raising pay for a wide variety of reasons, but for the purpose of getting to the point I’ll just note that “it won’t work to increase participation” was definitely one of them. Though an admittedly small sample size of one election in, I would say I was right … it has not helped. 

The awkward conversation no one wants to have is that we lack candidates because the job is awful. Among the many reasons that could fill its own column are that you are separated from your family for long periods of time as all of your time not spent earning your actual living is spent doing your job as a commissioner (if you do the job well), people receive license to treat you like crap seven days a week, throw bricks through your windows, and you get to wake up to phone calls from the local publisher wanting to make sure you look like an idiot in his morning newspaper. I don’t dare dive into the conversation of total candidates versus viable candidates — rather, I’ll just leave it at “we do currently have enough candidates to hold an election.” 

Now break the city into five (or more) pieces. Do you really believe that we will garner enough interest in the job from viable candidates (that you would like to have lead your city) that districts will have competitive elections? To do so would require realistically 25-30 individuals in the community to file for seats, and to do so in a relatively geographically equal distribution kind of way. I was part of the election that broke city records for the number of candidates. There were 14 of us. And you are telling me that double that number of people will run? I don’t believe you. 

What happens when individual districts end up with one or two candidates TOTAL on the ballot? This is not a hyperbolic scenario. Now, imagine when of those one or two candidates, one or two of them are unfit to hold public office. You have to seat one. 

Have fun with that new and improved government!

— Matthew Herbert spent a little more than a decade teaching high school civics, politics, government and debate before serving two terms on the Lawrence City Commission from April 2015 to December 2019. In 2017, Matthew left the classroom to focus on running his two growing businesses, Renaissance Property Management and Renaissance Painting. He runs a Facebook group called Civil Discourse with Matthew Herbert.

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