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Meeting on city government restructure draws comments from several in favor of changes

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A community engagement meeting to discuss a proposed city government restructure drew significantly more public interest than the last meeting, and most public commenters indicated they were in favor of making changes.

John Nalbandian, chair of the City Government Study Task Force, and city spokesperson Porter Arneill heard from eight public commenters. Several others were in attendance via Zoom.

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The task force’s report, published a year ago, recommended that Lawrence change its form of government to include a directly elected mayor who would serve a four-year term and six city commissioners broken down by districts.

Lawrence City Commissioners will need to decide whether they want to put this question on the ballot for voters in the November election. City staff members are trying to gather input in order to advise the commission of whether the public wants that vote to go forward.

Though the task force cited a goal of increasing representation of the people of Lawrence and encouraging a wider range of candidates to run for office, the eight public commenters who spoke Tuesday, mostly in favor of both proposals, were white men older than 40. Three of them had run for seats on the commission in roughly the past decade, but none had won.

Under Lawrence’s current system of government, five total city commissioners are elected at large — meaning by voters across the whole city — rather than by voters split into districts. The mayor and vice mayor positions rotate every year to the commissioners who receive the most votes in elections.

The task force is recommending that the mayor be elected at large, and that six commissioners be elected to four-year terms by districts, staggered so that three are elected every two years. If broken into six districts of about 16,000 residents, with 11,000 voters each, the cost and barrier of running for that office would be lower than attempting a citywide campaign, according to the task force’s report.

“I really think this is a solution that may not be perfect, it may not bat a thousand for us, but it will move us in the correct direction of more representative government,” said public commenter Rob Sands, who ran for city commission in 2015 and 2019.

The task force’s report did not include recommendations regarding whether candidates would need to live in the districts they were running to represent, which could be pertinent to how some members of the public would vote on the issue. Nalbandian told Lawrence city commissioners last year that it would be “very unusual” for a candidate to live outside of the district they’re running to represent, but it was not unheard of and “there really are no rights and wrongs here.”

One topic of discussion among task force members was a “hybrid” election that would have included four city commissioners elected by districts and two elected at large, but the task force nixed that option “due to the potential to cause confusion among voters without much apparent benefit,” the report stated.

Barry Shalinsky, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association, raised the suggestion of a hybrid model again on Tuesday.

“If you’ve got a council with, say, six people and you’ve got your one district representative, they might be a very effective representative in some ways, but they could very easily get outvoted 5 to 1 on certain issues,” Shalinsky said. “And so what good does it do you to have this person who represents you if they can’t get a majority to go along with them?”

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Shalinsky also said the demographics of the city are “not necessarily geographically based in some ways.” For instance, he said recently elected Commissioner Amber Sellers lives on the west side of town but won with a large number of votes on the east side.

“So under our current system, people do feel represented, in some cases, by folks who do not necessarily live in their part of town,” he said.

Public commenter Sven Alstrom said he believed voter turnout was important, and that certain precincts might turn out more regularly than others. He said when he ran for the commission in 2011, he came in second or third in all precincts east of Iowa Street, but last in every precinct west of Iowa. Another candidate was last in all precincts east of Iowa, but he had won a seat on the commission because he got votes west of Iowa.

Alstrom also said the mayor makes appointments to city advisory boards. The mayor nominates people who are interested in serving on advisory boards, and the city commission must approve before those positions take effect, but those appointments are rarely discussed during meetings.

Though some commenters voiced more questions than comments, none voiced strong opposition to the proposed restructure.

Not too late to share your thoughts

There is a Lawrence Listens web survey on the proposed government restructure available until 11:59 p.m. June 6.

So far, of the 179 responses received as of Tuesday evening, 67.4% of respondents were in favor of a directly elected mayor, and 32.6% were opposed.

The survey showed that 55.1% were in favor of six commissioners and districts in Lawrence, and 44.9% were opposed.

Find the survey at this link, and more information is available from the city’s website at this link.

It was not clear Tuesday exactly when the Lawrence City Commission will consider the public input gathered on this topic, but a tentative schedule in the May 17 meeting agenda shows “Consider certain provisions of the Commission Manager form of government” slated for Aug. 9. City Commission meeting agendas are available via this link.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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