Lawrence city commissioners approved one change to city government Tuesday night and set the stage for another potential big change, though that one will be up to voters to decide.
Beginning with the 2023 general election, all Lawrence city commissioners will serve four-year terms. But how many commissioners the city will have in the future, and whether we’ll have a directly elected mayor, will be up to voters to decide in November 2024.
Commissioners decided to ask city voters to weigh in on the city’s form of government in the 2024 general election. They passed a resolution that will put several decisions on the ballot, all wrapped up into one question.
Here’s the question: “Shall the City of Lawrence, Kansas, abandon the Commission-Manager form of government and adopt a Modified Mayor-Council Manager form of government and become a city operating under a Modified Mayor-Council Manager form of government?”
Here are the questions within that question, under the resolution city commissioners approved unanimously on Tuesday:
• Should city voters directly elect a mayor?
Currently, the mayor and vice mayor positions rotate every year to the commissioners who receive the most votes in elections. If the ballot measure passes, beginning in November 2025, city voters would elect a nonpartisan mayor to serve a four-year term.
The main duties that mayors currently have, and that other commissioners typically don’t, are to preside over meetings, to represent the city in relations with other governments and to recommend community members for appointments to the city’s advisory boards. The commission then approves those appointments, generally as part of meeting consent agendas.1
If voters approve the ballot measure, it’s not entirely clear yet how or whether the mayor’s duties will change. According to the resolution, after the Nov. 5, 2024 election and prior to June 1, 2025, the commission will enact ordinances establishing the mayor’s duties and more.
Commissioner Courtney Shipley has shared concerns about the possibility of a directly elected mayor.
“Realize, always, that there are much stronger, much wealthier — much more frightening, in my view — interest groups who will be willing to outspend you, so be careful of the power that you wish for and the centralization that you wish for,” Shipley said during Tuesday’s meeting. “… So while it seems like you may have accountability, what you also have is the opportunity for interest groups to intervene in a way that they don’t necessarily right now.”
• Should the commission expand to include six members?
If the ballot measure is approved, the current five-member commission would expand to six members, plus the directly elected mayor.
Three commissioners would be elected to four-year terms every other year. City commission elections are held during odd-numbered years (and there will be an election this year).
All the positions are nonpartisan and would remain that way.
• Should the city elect commissioners by districts?
Right now, all city commissioners are elected at large, meaning the vote is citywide — any Lawrence voter can vote for any of the commissioners.
If the ballot measure passes, four of the six commissioners will represent districts of the city, which are yet to be mapped and two of the commission seats will be elected at large.
• Should the mayor only vote if the commission is tied?
The resolution states that the directly elected mayor will only have the power to vote if the other six commissioners are split on an issue.
Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said he was not a big fan of that part of the resolution.
“I think it allows the mayor to play both sides of the issue. Like the issue tonight,” he said, referencing an anti-discrimination ordinance change the commission passed, “they could have not voted and it could have passed 6-0, but the mayor wouldn’t have had to actually say if they supported it or not. So I don’t particularly like that.”
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So, how will all of this work if voters approve the ballot measure?
It gets a little tricky. The language from the resolution lays out possible scenarios:
• Following the November 2024 general election and prior to June 1, 2025, the Governing body shall enact ordinances establishing a Modified Mayor-Council Manager form of government, establishing four districts within the City, establishing the duties of the nonpartisan Mayor, establishing the duties of the nonpartisan Council Members, establishing terms of office for the Mayor and the Council Members, and establishing the duties of the City Manager.
• At the time of the November 2025 general election, the three present City Commissioners, who were elected at the November, 2023, general election to four-year terms, shall continue to serve in their elected capacities as Council Members. The two Commissioners receiving the most votes at the November 2023 general election shall represent districts in which they reside and the Commissioner who received the fewest votes among the three Commissioners elected at the November 2023 general election shall represent the City at-large.
• If the two Commissioners receiving the most votes at the November 2023 general election reside in the same district, then the Commissioner receiving the most votes shall represent that district, the Commissioner receiving the second most votes shall represent the City at-large, and the Commissioner receiving the third most votes shall represent the district in which that Commissioner resides.
• If all three Commissioners elected at the November 2023 general election reside in the same district, then the Commissioner receiving the most votes at the November 2023 general election shall represent the district and the remaining two Commissioners shall represent the City at-large.
The city commission would not be the only expanding local government body if the ballot question is approved.
Douglas County voters in November 2022 opted to expand the county commission to five seats from three. The two new seats will be filled in the November 2024 general election.
Commission approves 4-year terms
The commission voted 5-0 Tuesday to approve an ordinance making all terms four years. Currently, the commissioner who is elected with the third most votes serves a two-year term.
Commissioner Amber Sellers received the third most votes in the 2021 general election. She said she thinks expanding the term contributes to equitability.
“It gives that commissioner the opportunity to have those additional years to engage, to challenge, to relate, and to build a relationship with their fellow commissioners,” Sellers said.
Get involved in local government
Kansans can register to vote, update or double-check their voter registration, and/or request a mail ballot at KSVotes.org.
If there is a primary election on Aug. 1, 2023, the deadline to register to vote in that election will be July 11. The deadline to register in order to vote in the Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023 general election will be Oct. 17.
The filing deadline to run for local office — including Lawrence City Commission and the Lawrence school board — is noon Thursday, June 1. Find out more about filing for office from the Douglas County clerk’s website via douglascountyks.org.