MANSFIELD -- Jason Lawrence's decision to switch political parties three years into a four-year term led Mansfield City Council to do, well, a political thing.
It was a different look for an elected body whose members have often stated there are no "Rs" or "Ds" by their names once members take office.
Democrats control the voting members on council by a 5-3 edge. When Lawrence, who will seek a third term this year, moved to the minority party in December, Democrats made the decision Feb. 16 to replace him as chair of the streets committee and public utilities committee.
The vote on the new committee chairs was precisely along that political fault line, a rarity for a City Council that votes unanimously more often than not. Democrats met in their own caucus last month to develop the assignments presented at the February meeting.
Lawrence was the only council member to speak about the move during the Zoom council meeting. Mansfield City Council has not met in person since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Ohio in March 2020.
"This is just a comment. I am not expecting an explanation. I am going to oppose this bill. I feel the changes that were made were clearly political," Lawrence said before the vote. "I feel Councilwoman (Stephanie) Zader and Councilwoman (Kimberly) Moton were ample enough to fill in the spots (on the) committees for the people that left those.
"I know we will do do this all over again in January of next year."
Democrats retained control of 10 of City Council's 12 standing committees, moving Lawrence, who represents the 5th Ward, to chair of the claims committee and keeping Republican Laura Burns (1st Ward) heading the rules committee.
New at-large council member Zader, a Republican, is the only council member who doesn't chair at least one committee. She and Lawrence, along with Democratic 3rd Ward Council member Jon Van Harlingen and Republican 1st Ward Council member Laura Burns, are seeking re-election in 2021.
Richland Source sent emails to all City Council members seeking comment on the decision. Most responded, though some declined comment.
Lawrence, first appointed to council by Democrats in 2014, said he has always worked with fellow council members from both parties.
"However, a few bills and issues have drawn a line in the sand over the last couple years. I believe the party a person choses best reflects their beliefs and that I work for any citizen of Mansfield, no matter what party affiliation," he said.
"I do not believe the move to make these changes in committee leadership was in the best interest of the City of Mansfield. I had built strong relationships with street and utility leadership. Street pavement and dry dam Projects were moving in a positive direction," Lawrence said.
Council President David Falquette said in the past that a new council member like Zader, who replaced him during a recent series of domino GOP decisions that reached across the street to the county commissioners' office, would assume their predecessor's committee assignments.
Falquette, who runs City Council meetings as president, but only votes in the case of a tie, acknowledged Democrats have the majority and have the right to determine committee chairs.
"In the past, the (new) appointee would have assumed the seat's assignments. Historical decisions do not make the rules and do not set precedence, only expectations," Falquette said. "The voters determine the council members and ultimately the party that holds the majority on council, it makes sense that they control the majority of the committees.
"I believe I have always worked with my fellow council members from both parties however, often the topic drives the relationship based on the committee assignment the council member holds," he said. "However, working with people of differing opinions is politics and I believe the party a person chose best reflects their beliefs and I am not asking anyone to change their core beliefs. I do ask for compromise again, politics."
Democrat Alomar Davenport, who represents the 4th Ward, said the goal for all council members is to create a better Mansfield for all residents, though he acknowledged parties play a role in decision-making.
"So in this sense, once on Mansfield City Council, the 'R' or 'D' besides one's name does not really matter," Davenport said. "However, despite having a common goal, it does not change the fact that each of us, regardless of party, have different ideas on how best to go about creating a better community.
"The two-party system was created, in part, to help identify like-minded individuals. We each decide which party best aligns with our personal opinion on how to move a community forward. There is no right or wrong in government, simply an opinion on how best to move forward."
Davenport said Lawrence's decision to change parties is an indication he doesn't hold the same opinion as the Democrats who elected council members into office. He said the decision to remove Lawrence from the chair of the two committees was in the best interest of people who selected a Democratic majority.
"The decision to promote Councilman Lawrence to the chair of the claims committee should also reflect we have the upmost confidence he will continue to do what is best for the people of Mansfield. The move was not personal, it was political," Davenport said.
Cheryl Meier, a Democrat who represents the 2nd Ward, said it was not her place to decide if Lawrence was doing a good job as head of the two committees. She now heads three committees -- streets, zoning and also parks & recreation.
"We have been elected by the citizens and therefore, they are the ones to declare whether we are doing a good job by re-election," Meier said.
"I believe you will find over the last dozen years and more, the majority party has maintained the chair positions on standing committees. This is nothing new. On a personal level, while I have been on council just over a year, I am comfortable working with all of my colleagues," Meier said.
Burns said Lawrence was doing a good job on the two committees he chaired.
"Councilman Lawrence has been very mindful to establish the relationships necessary to lead committees during his time on council. He began his work representing the 5th Ward as a Democrat and has continued the same quality of work following his decision to run as a Republican," she said.
"I am of the opinion that by shuffling around the committee members like this could be disadvantageous to the residents in that working relationships between council members and departments had already been established, confidence and communications built," Burns said.
She said she hopes party politics ends once council members are elected.
"Of course we have our personal viewpoints that will influence votes and opinions, but to me, that doesn't matter. Our end goal is to support our community by serving as their voice," Burns said.
Zader said the decision to change committee leadership was premature, since council made such assignments just two months ago. The only personnel change on council since then was her taking Falquette's seat when he moved to take the president's seat vacated by now Richland County Commissioner Cliff Mears.
"It seems like a premature change, especially considering that it will most likely change again pending the results of the election in November," Zader said.
She said she hopes party lines don't influence council decisions, "but I cannot say with certainty that this is always the case. In my opinion, it is best to make committee assignments based on qualifications to best serve the citizens, regardless of political party affiliation."
Zader said she was recently asked if she would support keeping Van Harlingen as finance committee chair if the GOP had the majority on council.
"Without hesitation, I responded, 'I understand that the decision of whether he stays chair or not is not solely my decision, but I would absolutely advocate for Councilman Van Harlingen to remain the finance committee chair because I do not believe there is another member of council who knows the City of Mansfield budget better than him," Zader said.
"I think that committee assignments should be made based on qualifications, not political affiliation."
In his emailed response, Van Harlingen said, "The only comment I have is that the committee assignments were handled as they always have been in the past."
Moton declined comment. At-large council member Phil Scott didn't respond to emailed questions from Richland Source.