Lawrence, Kansas Review

Thursday, 18 September 2008
Edit Note:  Tulsans may learn a great deal from other cities that utilize different forms of city government.  Tulsa Today began with the Little Rock review and continued with a review of Mobile, Alabama.  Today we review how Lawrence, Kansas deals with the ongoing challenges of urban administration and progress.   It is a rather rare form of city management.

That is how Rob Chestnut, born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas seems to describe it.  In addition to working a full time job, he serves as the city’s part time vice mayor.

He speaks of government in an evolving sense, due in part to its structure.  Every two years, three seats come up in what is a five person team that consists of a mayor, vice mayor, and three commissioners.  The mayor and the vice mayor have no greater authority than the three commissioners.  It’s called a council manager form of government.

"The way that our system works, is that you really run for a commission seat.  We don’t have a separate election for mayor or vice mayor.  It is just tradition that the person who gets the most votes becomes vice president," he said.  "Our typical rotation is that the person elected with the most votes serves their first year as vice mayor and their second year as mayor.  The third and fourth year they serve as a commissioner.  The two with the most votes receive four year terms."

Elections are held every April during odd years.  Candidates here have no precincts or party affiliations and run in non-partisan elections.

"Everyone runs at large," Chestnut said.  "I like that as it forces the elected officials to look at the dynamics of the community.  When it comes to government in general, priorities are often divided between different geographical locations .  When someone is elected that has a vested interest in just one population, it creates conflicting priorities."

For government to be successful in Lawrence, he says elected officials must adopt what is considered a consensus building mode.  "That simply means, that we have to ask ourselves how to make it better.  We have to ask what is in the best interest of the city?"

A pointed example is offered.  "I live on the west side of town, which is upper middle class.  There are different parts of the community outside of my area.  If I only cared about my group, it could lend itself to decisions that are not necessarily in everyone’s best interest," he said.

The form of government in Lawrence is said to operate well, but county issues create challenges. "The city of Lawrence is in Douglas County.  They have a three commissioner form of government and we have a five commissioner form.  Although it creates overlapping issues, we work together reasonably well," he said.

Questions have been raised about whether to have a unified government in Lawrence and Douglas County.  "If that were to happen, there would be all sorts of issues as a result.  There are two or three other communities that reside outside the county and it would make the transition difficult," he said.

Outside of county governmental processes, Chestnut describes the only challenge as time. “All five of the elected officials in Lawrence are part time.  It’s a challenge to address all the issues when you only have a few hours.  In an ideal world, you’d have full time elected officials," he said.  "The typical commissioner puts in 20 hours a week, along with working a day job."

For services in his part time job, Chestnut makes $9,000 a year.  Although he is paid little, he describes the work as a rewarding experience and says he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

In this system, the only person who works full time is the city manager, who is appointed by the commission. Most of the day to day business comes down to him whereas the mayor serves as the presiding officer for meetings and is considered the ceremonial head.  His responsibilities include signing documents, attending ribbon cuttings, and so forth.

Described as dedicated, David Corliss is the current city manager.  He has served the city of Lawrence for almost 18 years in various capacities and has been in his current position for two years.

"What I like best about my job is at the end of the day, you can believe you made a difference in making the community a better place.  You can see it in the great work that the employees do, from the park crews to those fixing the roads.  It’s good to see government working for its citizens," he said.  "It’s a good feeling to contribute to that."

As city manager, Corliss answers to all five commissioners “legally.”  He states, "I have a responsibility to work for all five of them, not just one of them.  I am very fortunate to have city commissioners that will listen to the advice of career professionals and I’m fortunate that we have elected officials that have the goals of the community at the top of their list.  Many are experiencing trying times with the tight housing economy, which is presenting a strong fiscal challenge to local government."

Corliss describes the day to day activities of city government as a public business.  "The public gets to participate and in many cases decide what we want to do and how we do it.  Yet, we utilize private business in everything. It’s almost always cheaper to use a private vendor for us," he said.  "We are always looking at what is cheaper or faster.  In some cases, it is difficult to privatize.  I don’t think most people want a privatized police force."

He continued, "It might, however, be entirely appropriate for a private company to drive and maintain our buses for the transit system as they offer better service than many cities can provide."

Another distinguishing trait about Lawrence is that the politicians are described as "being there to enhance the community."  They are not there for a lifetime political career.

"We have professional staff members that set the direction for the community.  They did not simply show up with yard signs and then hire all their friends.  It’s comprised of citizens that care that are working with like minded individuals and holding that professional accountable to make sure that it happens," Corliss said.

These individuals all work together to serve the community in various capacities. One such area is crisis management.

"I think we respond very well.  We have been fortunate that we have not had any incidents with all the natural disasters and we are well staffed to respond to most things.  Someth ing of this nature I think is best answered in the rearview mirror," Corliss said.  “When it comes to issues in the public eye, we try to address those as quickly as possible.  If something is accurate, we admit it and we move on.  If it is not, we try to get the facts out and the correct responses to the public,” he said.

He continued, “Either way, we manage it.  You have to take a look at our city and ask, is it better to have a city manager or a full time mayor?  That is something determined by different values and different expectations of accountability.”

There is discussion on the works of Alexander Pope. Corliss offers the first quote: "For Forms of Government let fools contest; whatever is administered best."  

Another quote follows:  “How shall I lose the sin, yet keep the sense, and love the offender, yet detest the offence?”

It’s a bit of a live debate, applied to this corresponding statement. “When it comes to government, you have to have some level of flexibility. The goal should be creating a better community. The form of government is the tool–not the goal," he said.

For now, he’s just going to enjoy this place where he lives and serve to the best of his ability, which at times is quite a task.

Lawrence, described as a Midwestern college town, has two universities, which bring a significant amount of ethnic diversity to this community with 80-90 thousand residents.  Various demographic reports reflect the current population at 83.80 white, 5.09 African American, 3.65 Hispanic, 2.93 Native American, 3.78 Asian, 0.07 Pacific Islander, 1.36 other races, and 2.97 from two or more races.

Known as the sixth largest city in the state of Kansas, Lawrence was named for Amos Lawrence and founded by Charles Robinson, who later served as Governor.

It is home to the state’s first railroad and telephone and believed to be one of the few cities founded purely for political reasons. It was also an important stop in the Underground Railroad.

Influences of the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University can also be felt here. A notable point is that Haskell, which offers post-high school education to members of registered Native Americans tribes in the United States, represents 150 tribes from all 50 states.  Said to be an20Indian boarding school originally, it was first constructed to teach Native Americans to be members of a dominant society.

In addition to its long list of historical ties, Lawrence is considered to be one of the best small art towns in America and is reported to have the greatest population of artists.  Here, "Great art is always just around the corner."

It is all of this and more that Chestnut, preparing to assume the role of Mayor next year, hopes to preserve.

"My life is wrapped around my commission work, doing my day job, and raising three kids.  There is a lot that I wish to accomplish and simple pleasures I’d like to preserve,” he said.

One of those things would include a vibrant showcase of local music.

"Lawrence has one of the most cutting edge music scenes.  A lot of bands on their way up come and play here. Two years later they are the next great thing," Chestnut said. "We’ve had groups like Nine Inch Nails before they were anything.  It is a cool scene."

Nine Inch Nails, described as the one-man band of Trent Reznor, brought industrial music to the masses with the 1989 Pretty Hate Machine Album, featuring the tremendous hit, Head like a Hole.

Despite the tempting venue of entertainment options, for Chestnut, it’s more of the Joe Walsh song, Life’s Been Good to Me So Far, flavor that he appreciates.
At 47, he confesses to prefer the music classics of the 70s and says a great day for him would include something along the lines of spending time on the lake or having a picnic. All of which, can be easily done in Lawrence.

"When it comes to our state, most people think of it as a big pancake. One thing most people don’t realize is that Kansas is really hilly,” he said.
That’s a notion that may stem from the ever popular musical-fantasy film made in 1939—The Wizard of Oz. Complete with its spinning bathtub, a tornado, and Toto the dog, the film brought national attention to those working farms in the Kan. area.
For individuals seeking that once upon a lifetime experience, Kansas might be the place where dreams due come true.  It is, at least, for a great number of filmmakers, reported to also reside in the area.  The community has a long history of film notoriety.

General amenities here are nice and Chestnut speaks highly of local restaurants.  “We also have an exceptional basketball team, who won the national title.  When they did that, it drew 40,000 people downtown after the game.”
He says, “There’s also a football team, ranked in the top 15, and a local stadium that holds up to 50,000.”

It is perhaps Corliss that sums it up best when he states, “There are a lot of remarkable features for a community of this size.  I’m looking out my window at the moment and I see a wonderful downtown area that is strong.”
He’s also proud that Lawrence is a safe community in a lot of respects.

"We will grow and prosper despite the national economy that is slowing growth,” he says.  “Our fundamentals are very strong.  Because of that, we will continue to be a remarkable, vibrant area. In my opinion, no other place really compares.”

About the author: Tracy L. Crain is a freelance writer. She holds degrees in English and Journalism from the University of AR at Little Rock and completed post graduate work at the University of Memphis in Tennesse. To reach her, send an email to
Last Updated ( Thursday, 18 September 2008 )