Third Quarter 2012

Making A Local Impact: A Look Back At Our City’s Female Mayors


Women MayorsRunning for local, elected office is perhaps the most effective place to make an impact on our community. Local elected officials have a say regarding laws, regulations, fees and programs that are part of the daily lives of their constituents. They are most likely to personally answer a concerned citizen’s phone call or, you might even bump into your City Commissioner while shopping for produce at your local grocery store. Either way, City Commissioners are your connection to local government, a government that strives to increase the quality of life for each resident and make Lawrence an outstanding community in which to call home.

Running for elected office, no matter what level, is daunting. You are challenged by your convictions, your connections, and you must define what makes you the best candidate for the community. In 1973, Lawrence elected its first female mayor, Nancy Hambleton. Eight women have served the Lawrence community as Mayor since then and each has made an impact in their own way.

Of the eight women who have served as Mayor, Marci Francisco, Shirley Martin-Smith, Bonnie (Augustine) Lowe and Sue Hack met for lunch to discuss their experiences.

Passion, vision, commitment to community were the primary themes discussed as the ladies gathered for lunch in downtown Lawrence. Each of the three women were brought to public service through different paths but each found that once elected, they were ready to face the great responsibility the community had entrusted to them.

“The best elected officials do not have an agenda or specific issues to champion,” Bonnie Lowe, Mayor in 1997, says. “Those who voted for us for City Commission knew we would make decisions that were in the best interest of the community.”

The common theme of job growth and economic development quickly became a priority for the women while in office.

“My professional capacity was helping people find jobs,” Shirley Martin-Smith, Mayor in 1990, says. “I was concerned about job growth and decided I wasn’t encouraged by local efforts in regards to job creation. Once elected, any time there was a valid request that focused on job creation, I backed the project as long as the cost-benefit analysis showed that it made sense.”

Lowe served as an Executive Vice President in banking when elected to the City Commission. She cites jobs and economic growth as her top priorities while in office.

“My strong suit was finance,” Lowe says. “I knew where to go to find others on the Commission or in the community that were experts in other areas where I was not. That is key. I didn’t have to be an expert on everything. It was about knowing where to go to find that expert I needed to make a decision.”

Sue Hack, Mayor in 2002 and 2007, first took office as the city finished formalizing policies related to tax abatements and incentives for businesses. She served on the City Commission when a formalized plan was adopted for tax abatements, which is traditionally a spirited debate among elected officials and community members. “When I ran the first time, there was a lot of conversation about growth in Lawrence,” Hack says. “Those conversations continue today. Communities do not just stay the same – they either grow or decline. I believe there is still a lack of understanding about the fact that a community can grow, and grow wisely. Without growth, the things we take for granted in Lawrence would not happen.”

Just as growth continues to be an issue, keeping neighborhoods and downtown vibrant remain strong points of discussion in Lawrence. Marci Francisco, Mayor from 1981 to 1983, took office at a time when neighborhood issues took center stage at many discussions. Much-needed neighborhood amenities including sidewalks, bike paths and storm water drainage were identified in neighborhood plans. Francisco also served during the time that zoning for a “cornfield mall” was rejected. Francisco also served during the time that downtown development was a major issue.

“When I was on the Commission, we adopted the downtown plan as part of our overall Comprehensive Plan,” Francisco says. “We added our efforts to the work of prior Commissions and left a framework for future Commissions to follow.”

MayorsFrancisco was also involved in creating some of the first recycling and sustainability programs for the city.

“Timing is everything,” Francisco says. “Sometimes you get things done by throwing out an idea and seeing what interest is there. I wanted the city to look at recycling; a relatively new concept in the early 1980s, and it just so happened that the EPA required the city to identify a new location for our landfill. The Parks and Recreation Department was going to be charged to haul trees to the dump. Instead of paying for the landfill costs, the city decided to start chipping tree limbs and reusing that material in Lawrence. This was our first targeted effort at recycling.”

The women agree that being welcoming and open to constituents was a key.

“I always felt like it was intimidating to go to the City Commission meetings,” Martin-Smith says. “You should always want people to come to the meetings and make their voice heard.”

“I never wanted people to feel nervous or unrecognized,” Hack agreed. “I wanted to acknowledge citizen participation and ensure that they felt they were listened to.”

Each of the women felt that their time on the City Commission was worthwhile and that their efforts made an impact. The ladies are quick with encouragement and enthusiasm for future elected officials.

“Serving on the Lawrence City Commission is a fabulous education,” Francisco says. “You really put yourself in a good place to be a better citizen and help people after you have served your term.” Bonnie Lowe cautioned future leaders.

“Educate yourself first then do it,” she says. “Speculation went viral when I started to talk about running. If you think you don’t have the finances to run, you would be surprised how the community is willing to support you if you are a good candidate. And, don’t shy away from running if you’re not from Lawrence.”

“Enjoy the ride,” Martin-Smith says. “Remember to have a sense of humor and realize that you serve unofficially even after you are out of office.”

“It is absolutely critical that we have a diverse group of people who want to serve on the City Commission,” Hack says. “It is a lot harder than it looks and decisions are a lot more difficult to make than you think.”

The next City Commission election is in April 2013 in Lawrence.

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