CLAY COUNTY — As nearly 100 eventgoers listened from the audience, candidates for the offices of Clay County clerk, recorder of deeds and presiding commissioner answered audience questions about cooperation in government, Annex building construction, economic development and other topics during the Courier-Tribune’s candidate forum Wednesday, Oct. 24, at Woodneath Library Center in Kansas City.
The forum, held at 8900 NE Flintlock Road, began with questions fielded by incumbent County Clerk Megan Thompson, a Republican. Her opponent, Tom Brandom, a Democrat, had surgery and could not attend.
If elected, Thompson said one of her top two priorities would be expanded technology usage, creating a verification portal for citizens to allow them access to county documents for licensing and notary information. The second priority, she said, would be to focus on civility and cooperation in government, something she strives for.
“We have to work together to give you the government you deserve,” she said.
When asked what the clerk’s office could do to better serve residents, Thompson said she strives for resident input because residents are “her boss.”
“You tell me what you want and I provide that for you at very little cost and to the best of my ability,” she said, adding she wants to improve transparency in working with other officeholders.
Resources the clerk’s office needs to best serve residents, Thompson said, are civility and cooperation among all county offices and funding.
“There’s a lot we do together with other offices and we do a great job, but we are lacking in some funding. My office (budget) was cut pretty drastically and we’re running low on funds, to be quite frank. I am hopeful we are going to restore this money and not let it interfere with the businesses and citizens of the county. So basically, we need more civility and cooperation within our courthouse.”
To promote civility and cooperation, Thompson said she and her staff hold pancake days.
“You are welcome to come into my office and we have an open door policy. If you have anything you need from me, you can come and talk to me. We’re going to find common sense solutions for these problems. These are not Republican versus Democrat issues, these are just good government issues,” she said.
Thompson said she would assist the state auditors in finding areas of potential government waste and misuse of taxpayer dollars as she signed the petition for the audit and believes one is needed. Thompson added she believes in standing up for residents and did not succumb to previous pressures put on her office to charge residents more for access to resources despite it costing her some of job responsibilities that were subsequently taken away by county leaders.
Recorder of Deeds
Recorder of Deeds candidates Katee Porter, the incumbent Republican, and Bruce Cantwell, her Democratic challenger, fielded questions about resource needs, construction of a new Annex and potential conflicts of interest.
In regards to the top challenge facing the recorder’s office, Porter said it’s replacing the institutional knowledge that is coming with the retirement of two longtime employees.
Of her office staff, all have more than 12 years of experience, she said.
“Their ability to help people find documents and their knowledge of every in the office is just amazing,” she said.
Another priority, Porter said, needs to be keeping recorded documents safe from hacking.
“That’s always going to be a priority and a challenge,” she said.
Cantwell said it’s premature for him to say what challenges exist as he’s never been in the office.
“I think once I get in there, I can see things and work with the staff to see what is happening and what the future will hold,” he said.
Resources needed to better serve residents, Porter said are a slightly bigger office in the Annex building, which houses a satellite office for the recorder at 1901 NE 48th St., Kansas City.
“It’s basically a closet,” Porter said. “I have to very carefully map out where we can put a desk and a printer and all the things that we have to have to be able to record your document.”
A larger office, she said, would provide much better access for residents, which Cantwell agreed with.
“The Annex is a great thing because it keeps people from having to come up to Clay County (Administration Building in Liberty.) ... Maybe we could have another space outside the two places that are available at this time.”
Despite needing more space in an Annex office, both candidates said it should not come in the form of a new Annex building with potential costs of upwards of $20 million that has been linked to the recently approved $50 million county infrastructure and amenity improvement plan being paid for with certificates of participation.
“Absolutely not... It’s ridiculous. What I’ve heard they want to do is way more than what the county needs,” Porter said. “Do not build a new Annex for the recorder because we do not need one that bad.”
Cantwell said the county shouldn’t build anything to give anyone a bigger office.
“There’s no reason for it,” he said. “The county doesn’t need to waste the money on this. They can use it somewhere else.”
In regards to conflict of interest that may come from marriage, other career responsibilities or possible tax debt that may impact their ability to perform the duties of recorder of deeds, both candidates said they had none.
Porter, who is also an attorney, is married to and handles real estate transactions for Craig Porter, one of the biggest developers in Clay County, said although she’s married to a developer, as a lawyer she is bound by strict ethical standards higher than those set by the Missouri Ethics Commission. She would never treat herself differently than other county resident and would not jeopardize her law degree, she said.
Cantwell said he simply has doesn’t have a conflict.
“No, I don’t.”
When addressing conflicts that have arisen among commissioners resulting in 2-to-1 votes, both candidates for presiding commissioner discussed how they would work with other commissioners to achieve their campaign promises. In the race, incumbent Jerry Nolte, a Republican, faces Democratic challenger Wendi Bridges.
“I feel like what’s going has nothing to do with politics or policy, but it’s a personal issue, what’s going on with the 2-to-1 votes,” Bridges said. “I don’t have that background with the other two commissioners so I would be coming into this with a clean slate.”
Nolte, being the one of the 2-to-1 votes, said communication among commissioners has deteriorated, resulting in conflict.
“One of things I’ve been working on to try and resolve some of those is to find issues where we can come together,” he said. “... One of things I’ve been working on is to open a carbon fiber manufacturing operation in the northern part of the county. Manufacturing jobs in the county are something I think we can all agree is a good thing.”
Nolte said by continuing to finding commonality in issues, he hopes to better the working relationship with other commissioners.
In discussing Smithville Lake, and making sure it remains a top area attraction, Bridges, an avid user of the lake and nearby golf courses, said if funds are lacking and county staff do not have the knowledge to maintain it as it should be, other means to manage the lake should be sought.
“We would need to think about maybe turning that property back over to the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) or maybe selling the golf course(s),” she said. “We are in the business to bring people and money to the county, but that doesn’t mean we have to be the manager of all that.”
Nolte said the county is in process of doing work at the lake to repair an eroding shoreline, but lots of deferred maintenance needs to be done that hasn’t been addressed in years.
“Deferred maintenance is just laziness,” he said, adding work suggested under the $50 million debt plan, which he voted against, does not need done, but the lake does need maintenance to keep it the area attraction everyone loves.
“We do not need a new Annex or any of these other large construction projects, we need to take care of what we have,” he said.
When asked how voters can trust a candidate’s judgment if the candidate has no public service record, Bridges said the presiding commissioner position should not be considered a political office.
“What’s going on now, the 2-to-1 votes and all the fighting and things, has nothing to do with politics, it’s personal. ... I respect Republicans and what they want to do and I respect Democrats. In this position, I don’t see it as political, it’s not. It’s about doing what’s best for us, for everyone in the county,” she said.
Nolte said it is hard to judge someone and what they may do with no political record, but everyone in any job had no experience at one point. Nolte also said he does have a record, and it shows a history of job creation, lowering taxes and being a good steward of people’s money.
“I think it’s only fair when someone does come before that you look at their record and see what it is they’ve done. You should see what they’ve done, not what they say they’re going to do,” he said.
In regards to their vision for transparency in county government, Bridges said job duties previously taken away from some county offices, like the clerk’s office handling Sunshine Law requests, should be reinstated.
“I’m not sure why were paying law firms for things that have always been done by offices in the county for years,” she said, adding there should be no closed doors in regard to government.
“There should only be a very minute amount of things that we can’t discover if we wanted to. Nothing should be hidden,” she said.
Nolte said he was proud to work to create the transparency portal, but it’s not enough.
“That’s a good start, but it’s a start that has not been pushed through like it needs to be pushed through,” he said, adding he is planning to ask for more ordinances to allow for publication of audio and video recordings of commission meetings. Nolte said he would also like live streams of commission meetings on social media so residents can pose questions to commissioners.
The last question of candidates asked what immediate economic developments needs exist in the county.
Bridges said work with municipalities needs done to bring tourism and shopping opportunities to the county.
“We need to be on board with bringing it in, but we don’t need to be on board with funding it all. Business developers and retailers, they all have stake in it as well, not just us,” she said.
Bridges said she would like to see growth similar to what has happened in recent years in Johnson County, Kansas.
“It’s amazing. They have everything,” she said.
Nolte said in addition to working to bring a manufacturer to the county, closer work with municipalities needs done to encourage business growth because growth is primarily taking place inside city limits, not in the outlying county.
“I have proposed a county-municipal job creation program where we would make that partnership much more solid,” he said. “... There’s a lot of ways we can work together to better serve the constituents.”