Three affirmative votes Wednesday evening meant that thousands of Douglas County voters will soon decide whether the county commission should expand to five members.
If all goes as planned, the commission will consider ballot language to put the question before voters for the Tuesday, Nov. 8 general election. The timeline is not terribly tight for the language of the question to be decided — commissioners must vote on the question before Sept. 1.
After the election, however, if voters do determine that there should be two additional seats on the dais, the commission must adopt maps of new districts by Jan. 1, 2023.
The vote for the public is “a pretty straightforward question” — only asking whether to add two additional commission districts. Voters’ role is not to determine how the maps will be drawn, County Clerk Jamie Shew said during Wednesday’s meeting.
One concern from the public that has led to this discussion is that all three current commissioners are residents of Lawrence. Many rural county residents have called for more representation. The commission heard from a few public commenters Wednesday, too, who spoke in support of putting the question on the upcoming ballot.
However, the city of Lawrence comprises 80% of the county’s population, and under state law the commission districts must be “as compact and equal in population as possible.” The three current commission districts include a small one that contains a portion of the city and two larger ones, area-wise, that include the remaining parts of the city and essentially split the remainder of the county in half.
One of Wednesday’s speakers was Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister. He said he was “here in the name of transparency.” He said he wanted to make sure it was clear to voters that because of the way the population is distributed and the way maps would have to be drawn, it would still be possible for Lawrence residents to be elected to all five seats.
Commissioner Shannon Portillo said she was on board with those who wanted to put the question on the ballot.
“I think it would be good to put this in front of the voters and see what the voters have to say,” she said.
Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he agreed, but he said they will have to continue to make it clear to the public what five districts would look like in Douglas County — “I just want to make sure people know what they’re voting for there,” he said.
Commission Chair Shannon Reid agreed.
“I think that there are a number of really great points and issues that have been brought up by folks in our county about the benefits of this, and so I’m really eager to see what voters at large feel about this question,” she said. “And I’m hopeful that the time between now and then will involve a lot more robust public conversation about those nuances, education around what electoral processes look like, what running for office entails.”
Portillo made a motion to ask county counsel John Bullock to draft the ballot language and the commissioners unanimously approved.
If they had not agreed to put it on the ballot, voters would have had the option of gathering signatures on a petition to do so. Nearly 4,000 signatures out of Douglas County’s 78,642 voters — 5% — would be necessary to put the question on the ballot.
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.