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Hurry up and wait for new commission

Parties to pick nominees next week, but election won’t be until Nov. 5 and districts may be challenged

Staff writers

Adding two new county commissioners is about to enter a hurry-up-and-wait phase.

Gov. Jeff Colyer decided last week to forgo an opportunity to elect new commissioners this spring and instead set their election for Nov. 5.

Still, party nominations for the positions will be made just a week and a half from now, at conventions scheduled for Jan. 19 at Marion Community Center, which ironically is in neither of the two new districts.

The 9½-month delay between nominations and the election will do more than allow for vigorous campaigning, as urged by some party officials.

It also will allow public policy experts, at least one of whom characterizes the new districts as “not passing the sniff test,” more time to determine whether to mount a legal challenge that could considerably muddle the election process.

At stake, as the districts now are configured, is who will represent two areas of the county:

  • District 4, which includes from Randy Dallke’s current district the city of Florence and the townships of Doyle, Fairplay, and Wilson and from Diane Novak’s district Centre and Gale Townships plus the southern half of the City of Marion. (The north half of Marion, surrounded by the new district, will remain in Novak’s district.)
  • District 5, which includes the City of Goessel and West Branch Township from Dallke’s district, and, isolated a few miles away, the western portion of the City of Hillsboro from Kent Becker’s district.

Changing districts but not electing new commissioners, will be Logan Township, moving from Becker’s district to Novak’s, and Liberty Township, moving from Becker’s to Dallke’s.

Instead of a primary election, both political parties will nominate their candidates at conventions open to all party members from each district, not just precinct committeemen and committeewomen.

Democrats will meet at 10 a.m. Jan. 19 to elect their nominees for Districts 4 and 5. Republicans in District 5 will meet at 1 p.m. and Republicans in District 4 will meet at 1:30 p.m.

Republicans also will have one additional task: selecting a new county attorney to replace Courtney Boehm, who is resigning to become a district court judge.

Although commissioner candidates will have to wait until Nov. 5 to stand for election, state law provides for Boehm’s position to be filled immediately by whomever the party selects.

That vote is planned for 2:30 p.m.

Possible challenge

All except the county attorney vote could be thrown into doubt if the legality of the new commissioner districts is challenged in court.

State law requires that commissioner districts be as compact and as equal in size as possible.

The new districts are very close equal in size. However, three of them are not contiguous.

Parts of the City of Hillsboro and the City of Marion are isolated “islands” attached to Districts 2 and 5, which do not abut the cities. District 4 includes a “donut hole” from which the City of Marion “island” has been excised.

“I like Krispy Kremes as much as the next guy,” James Franko, policy director of the independent Kansas Policy Institute, said last week, “but things like islands and donut holes seem more than a bit odd.”

According to redistricting experts at both the Kansas Legislative Research Bureau and the Kansas Association of Counties, state law does not specifically state that districts must be contiguous, only that they be “compact.”

None of the experts contacted was aware of any legal cases in which compactness of commissioner districts had been challenged in Kansas.

However, legal precedent elsewhere would suggest that districts such as these might not be considered compact.

Because no official opinion has been sought, the Kansas attorney general’s office declined to comment specifically on the Marion County case.

Spokesman Jennifer Montgomery did, however, cite a previous legal opinion, issued in 2002, when the City of Paradise questioned redistricting of Russell County.

The non-binding opinion states that districts do not have to be contiguous but strongly suggests that non-contiguous districts should be considered only when no other alternative exists and only if there is no ulterior motive for rejecting a plan that might feature more compact districts.

In Marion County’s case, an alternative plan, with districts of statistically equal sizes, was not considered by commissioners because it would have placed Novak and Becker, who live relatively close to each other, in the same district, forcing new elections in their districts as well as the two new districts.

Whether this would be a valid reason for creating less-than-compact districts is what could be challenged in court.

No lawsuit is pending. However, an expert at a private think tank suggested that a new public interest justice institute, now being established, might find Marion County’s redistricting the type of situation it would go to court to challenge.

Because the election will not be until November, there would be ample time for the institute or concerned citizens to take up the cause. There also would be time for affected governments — probably, the City of Marion, divided in such a way as to become a minority in two districts rather than a majority in one — to ask for an opinion from the attorney general.

“There have been some kerfuffles in the recent past about state law on going from three districts to five,” the expert said. “This might be exactly the type of thing the institute would want to investigate taking on.”

Although there is no statutory procedure for how to draw commissioner districts, various legal journals suggest that redistricting proceeds by first considering concentrations of population, then radiating districts out from them.

In Marion County’s case, the City of Hillsboro contains more than one-fifth of all county residents, so it typically would be in placed in two districts, radiating out from Hillsboro.

The next largest concentration of population is the City of Marion. Combined with nearby county lake residents and other residents of Centre Township, which surrounds Marion, they also constitute about one-fifth of the county and therefore would become the third district created.

That would leave the northern and southern portions of the county to be divided into two remaining districts. However, because Novak and Becker both live in the north and Dallke lives in the south, this notion was rejected.

Redistricting isn’t the only area in which state law involving procedures for selection of county commissioners is vague, policy experts agree.

Marion County was able to use the same state law that will be used to replace Boehm when it selected Becker as a replacement for Lori Lalouette after she resigned from the commission in 2017.

However, if Novak, elected as independent, were to resign, no provision exists for how she would be replaced.

Independents like Novak will also be able to file to be listed on the Nov. 5 ballot for commissioner in the two new districts.

Nominating petitions, available in the county clerk’s office, must be properly completed and returned by Jan. 28 for an independent to qualify.

Thereafter, the only way to run for commissioner will be as a write-in.

The existing commission will remain unchanged, with three members, until after the November election.

Commissioners’ pay

What new commissioners will be paid still is a matter of debate.

Paying new commissioners the same as current commissioners which might cost the county as much as $50,000 more annually, but changing the pay would mean current commissioners would have to accept a pay cut.

Commissioners now are paid $18,000 a year plus, if they choose, employee health insurance (which can add around $6,000 to that) along with contributions on their behalf to a public employee retirement system. Becker is the only current commissioner who uses the insurance.

At a meeting last week, Novak argued, as she had in the past, that commissioners should be paid less because they would be serving smaller districts once the county shifts to having five commission districts.

While not specifically suggesting an amount, Becker and Dallke countered that commissioner pay was an important inducement in attracting high-quality candidates.

Eileen Sieger, chairman of the county Democratic Party, agreed.

“A few thousand dollars is a lot to many people,” she said.

Sieger suggested that a fall election would allow more time for candidates to campaign, but Novak questioned this.

“I’ve had a lot of phone calls from people who are not happy with November,,” she said. “People are saying, we voted for it; what’s the delay?”

She questioned whether “the small cost” of running a special election in spring was sufficient reason for Colyer to choose to schedule the election in November.

Last modified Jan. 15, 2019

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