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No directly elected mayor for now, Lawrence City Commission decides

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Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday decided not to put a question on voters’ November ballots asking if they want to directly elect a mayor.

The question was about potential changes to the city’s form of government. A task force suggested that rather than the current five commissioners who are elected at large — meaning by voters across the whole city, rather than by districts — the city should have six council members who each represent a district of Lawrence, plus a directly elected mayor. Commissioners decided last week that they did not want to include the question of districts on ballots.

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Currently, the mayor and vice mayor positions rotate every year to the commissioners who receive the most votes in elections. A modification of the task force’s recommended change — if commissioners had put it on the ballot, and if voters had approved — would have led to four-year terms for four commissioners and one mayor elected by voters.

Marci Francisco, a Democrat who represents Lawrence in the Kansas Senate, shared some concerns during public comment. She said commissioners who are in the middle of four-year terms could choose to run for mayor, and if they lost, they’d still get to serve two more years — but if they won, the commission would have to appoint someone to fill the remainder of their commission term.

In addition, a four-year term for a mayor would mean the same person suggesting who should be appointed to all the city’s advisory boards for four years, Francisco said — “This could reduce the impact of the full diversity of the commission.”

Mayor Courtney Shipley said she was concerned that for people she’d heard from in the community who wanted this question to be on the ballot, it was about the perception of status, “which isn’t real.” She said she has thought about local organizations and movements led by young people, and they’re decentralizing.

“They’re not thinking of ways to make things more top-down; they’re trying to think of ways to be more collaborative,” she said. “And in defense of what we do now, however strange it is to people, it’s collaborative. I don’t have any more sway out there in the community than anyone else sitting here does. We take turns, which, again, is strange, but pretty egalitarian.”

Commissioner Amber Sellers said the task force addressed some aspects of this topic in its report, but also raised many more questions for her. She said commissioners have also done their own research and they’ve heard from the community, but that hasn’t been enough.

“Instead of rushing to put something in place based on what we think the community wants, and there’s not a sense of surety, then I would hesitate — and I don’t have surety right now,” she said. “… We may potentially have individuals vote on something in November, if we push this, that may not work out.”

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said he would have supported putting the task force’s recommendations of six commissioners elected by districts and a directly elected mayor on the ballot, but he had heard from confused constituents about the changes to that proposal.

“If we put what they recommended and everyone’s known about for six months (on the ballot) and it passes, then we have something,” he said. “… My only concern is what we’re putting on the ballot is something that we’ve only talked about for a week. And the more I thought about that, I wasn’t sure about that.”

Timing of the question was also an issue, with the November election just around the corner. Commissioner Bart Littlejohn said he would like to revisit this earlier in the year next year to “give people a good runway” to discuss this.

Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen moved to defer the discussion until 2023, and commissioners voted 4-1 in favor. Shipley voted against the motion.

Are you ready to vote? You can register, double-check your registration and/or request an advance ballot by mail at KSVotes.org. The deadline to register to vote in the Tuesday, Nov. 8 general election is Oct. 18.

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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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