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  • Writer's pictureTim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

House panel passes bill altering county commission elections when boards go to 5 members


Rep. Carrie Barth, R-Baldwin City, said she supported a House bill clarifying election requirements for elections when county commissions were expanded from three to five members. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Legislature’s YouTube channel)


By Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector


TOPEKA — Controversy in Pottawatomie and Douglas counties about expansion of county commissions to five members surfaced Monday with a Kansas House committee backing a bill mandating new seats be filled at the next general election and that terms of expanded commissions be staggered to avoid conflict with state law.


Both counties engaged in lengthy political battles over transitioning their county commissions from a three-member board to a five-member board. Voters in both counties approved the concept of a five-member commission in November 2022, but complexities of state law prompted delays in election of additional members until November 2024. Individuals elected this fall would be sworn into office in early 2025.


A trio of Kansas Republican legislators — Rep. Kenny Titus of Manhattan, Sen. Kristian O’Shea of Topeka and Rep. Francis Awerkamp of St. Marys — picked up the torch for Pottawatomie County on behalf of House Bill 2661, which would require commission expansion vacancies be filled at the general election following a vote by county residents to endorse the change from three to five commission members.


The Pottawatomie County Commission adhered to existing law and created the five new districts and asked Gov. Laura Kelly to determine whether the new seats would be filled at a special election or at a general election.


“The commission wanted to wait until the next general election, which they believed would come in the fall of 2023,” the three legislators said in a letter to the House committee, “but the governor’s office determined that the next general election would be held in fall of 2024.”


The legislators said the governor’s directive meant the November 2024 ballot would include candidates for the two new seats as well as two of the three existing seats. That would create an ongoing violation of state law forbidding more than a simple majority of commissioners to be elected at the same time.


Douglas Kern, who was lead organizer of the Pottawatomie County petition drive leading to voters’ decision to go to a five-member commission, said part of the problem was that two of three current commissioners in Pottawatomie County didn’t favor expanding to five members and there was heartburn about spending an estimated $20,000 on a special election.


He said Kelly could have resolved the ballot logjam and responded to sentiment of county voters by directing Pottawatomie County to conduct a special election for the new seats.


Under the bill endorsed by the House Local Government Committee, special elections to fill newly created county commission seats would be prohibited. It would strip Kansas governors of authority to declare when a county commission election was held. In addition, the bill would stagger terms of commissioners to avoid conflict with state law forbidding election of more than a simple majority of commissioners at any general election.


“I do support the changes to clean up and clear up the confusion of going from a certain amount of commissioners to an additional amount of commissioners,” said Rep. Carrie Barth, a Baldwin City Republican and member of the House committee.


However, she said the legislation didn’t grant counties the option of conducting special elections for openings on the county commission. She said the bill also didn’t address decisions by the three-member Douglas County Commission to draw five district boundaries opposed by some residents.


Rep. Mike Amyx, a Democrat from Lawrence on the House panel, said he was assured by legislative staff enactment of the House bill before July 1 wouldn’t undermine Douglas County’s plan to conduct elections for the two new county commission seats in November 2024.


In Douglas County, the movement to expand from three to five members centered on rural opposition to development of solar or wind energy projects planned for southern Douglas and Johnson counties.


This article was reprinted with permission from the Kansas Reflector. The Kansas Reflector is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.kansasreflector.com.

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