Commission moves ahead with government change committee

Discussion of a committee to explore a change in form of county government became tense Monday, Nov. 18, as commissioners interrupted one another and Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte rebuked county attorney Lowell Pearson’s legal opinion that creation of a committee does not violate the law.

CLAY COUNTY — After confusion from multiple amendment attempts, public comments and more than an hour of debate on the matter, a majority of Clay County Commissioners approved Monday, Nov. 18, creating a nonbinding committee to explore either a charter or constitutional form of government for the county.

The vote passed 2 to 1 with Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte being the lone dissenting vote.

The creation of an exploratory committee was first addressed by the commission two weeks ago when Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway pushed for the idea.

Multiple attempts by Nolte to amend Ridgeway's motion to create an advisory committee Monday failed 2 to 1. Failed amendments included gutting the intent of the resolution to pose a question to voters on whether they approve moving forward with a different form of government.

The reason for Nolte's opposition to the committee's creation, he said Monday, was rooted in his belief that the resolution may be illegal as Missouri state statute doesn't allow for public funds to be used for advocating for or supporting a public measure. Since voters may be asked if they would approve creation of a charter form of government and since Ridgeway publicly said she supports the measure and seeks a committee to explore options, Nolte said he thinks it either violates or straddles violation of the law.

Nolte said the item should removed from the agenda and added that similar arguments about legality were used against him to strike items from commission agendas in the past, including when he tried to create an advisory committee to explore options for the county Annex. The statute Nolte referenced states no contribution or expenditure of public funds shall be made directly by any officer, employee or agent of any political subdivision to advocate, support or oppose any ballot measure or candidate for public office.

“The writings you have sent to citizens and comments you have made publicly show that it is clear that you seek passage of this charter,” he told Ridgeway during the meeting.

Ridgeway said no committee has been created or approved yet, so there is no law violation.

“Nothing has been approved, so I don't know how we can be in violation of the law,” she said before asking the county attorney, Lowell Pearson, to weigh in.

“There is no ballot measure yet. The committee that is contemplated by the resolution would simply be an advisory committee — and as we discussed two weeks ago — with no authority to do anything,” he said.

Nolte rebuked Pearson's assessment, saying the commission is simultaneously considering putting the question to voters at a later date and proposing to support a charter form of government by way of committee creation and resolution language that also states the counselor will be at the committee's disposal.

“You are paid by the county are you not? … You would be on the county clock, and therefore, we would be putting county money forward to pass a ballot issue,” Nolte said.

Ridgeway took offense to Nolte's comments, essentially characterizing his assessment as a pivot.

“This is the reddest of red herrings I've heard in a long time,” she said, adding she opposed his tactics at the last commission meeting and continues to do so.

During public comment, citizens said the commission was moving too fast ahead of asking voters to pass a new form of government and that the committee's authority and work may be confusing for citizens who may not be able to tell the difference between the nonbinding committee and a commission that would be created by state law should a ballot effort to form a charter government pass by citizen vote.

Bobby Oakes of Gladstone said the commission seems to be “putting the cart before the horse” and should ask voters whether they want a change in the form of government before creating a committee, whose work may be for naught if voters voted down a change.

“Please get your priorities in order,” he asked of commissioners.

Her committee effort, Ridgeway said, is aimed at moving the county forward in a positive direction.

“This is the first step in kick-starting real change in Clay County,” she said.

Managing Editor Amanda Lubinski can be reached at amanda.lubinski@mycouriertribune.com or 903-6001.

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