The Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday is set to decide whether to ask voters if they want to directly elect a mayor, and if they want to elect six commissioners by districts.
The city created a task force in February 2021 to study the form of local government. Currently, 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’s report, published in May 2021, recommended that Lawrence change its form of government to include a mayor elected at large who would serve a four-year term, and six city commissioners broken down by districts.
On Tuesday, commissioners will determine whether they want to put this question on the ballot for voters in the November election:
Shall the City of Lawrence, Kansas, modify the Commission-Manager form of government and adopt the Mayor-Council-Manager form of government and become a city operating under the Mayor-Council-Manager form of government?
If broken into six districts of about 16,000 residents, with about 11,000 voters each, the cost and barrier of campaigning for that office would be lower than attempting a citywide campaign, according to the task force’s report. That could encourage a wider range of candidates to seek office, and it could also increase engagement within districts, according to the report.
The 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. Task force chair John 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.”
Mapping out the approximate addresses of most of the elected commissioners from 2009 through 2021 reveals that areas of the city with higher levels of poverty have had less representation on the commission.
Just one commissioner has resided south of 23rd Street — about a block south — and none north of the river, nor east of Vermont Street.
If the commission moves forward to put the question on the ballot, and if voters approve:
- Districts must be created.
- The two sitting commissioners elected to four-year terms in 2021 — Lisa Larsen and Bart Littlejohn — would be placed in their districts, and would represent them effective November 2023.
- In November 2023, voters would elect a mayor and council members representing four districts.
- Following a few election cycles, all council members would be elected to four-year terms.
More details are laid out in the agenda item.
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, eight public commenters who spoke about the proposals during a May 31 public meeting on the topic, mostly in favor, were white men older than 40.
On a city survey included in the meeting agenda, 65.2% of 250 respondents said they want Lawrence voters to directly elect a mayor to a four-year term, 34.8% said they do not. The vote about commission districts was closer: 53% of 253 participants said yes, they support the creation of six districts; 47% said they do not.
There are numerous public comments included with the agenda item as part of the web survey, plus a letter of support from the Lawrence chamber.
A couple of Lawrence locals have also shared their opinions on the task force’s recommendations through a column and a letter to the Times:
The commission must make the decision on whether to put the question on the ballot before Sept. 1. If they choose to, the question will appear on the Tuesday, Nov. 8 ballot.
The Lawrence City Commission will review the proposal at its 5:45 p.m. meeting Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. See the full meeting agenda at this link. Meetings are livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel.
The commission accepts written public comment in writing ahead of meetings — comments must be received by noon the day of the meeting at firstname.lastname@example.org — and live public comment during meetings in person and virtually. Register to join the Zoom meeting at this link.