Inaction, personality conflicts muddy government change discussion

In what has become a common sight at Clay County Commission meetings, Western Commissioner Gene Owen, at left, looks away and seems uninterested Nov. 4, as Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte and Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway heatedly debate Ridgeway’s idea of creating a committee to explore a different form of government for Clay County.

CLAY COUNTY — A public discussion on possibly changing the county’s form of government was punctuated by inaction and personality conflicts during a Clay County Commission meeting Nov. 4.

During discussion of the merits of the county changing to a possible charter or constitutional form of government, the idea for a committee to explore options was brought up by Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway.

Ahead of the meeting, Ridgeway sent a letter to constituents saying she previously opposed an attempt to craft a charter form of government because the proposal was flawed, but she is open to the idea now because the county’s current government, headed by three elected commissioners, is regularly a negative public spectacle.

“Simply put, changing the faces occupying county offices has not ended controversy or headlines. Clay County is mired in rotating the same people in and out of various county offices and retreading new generations for office. It’s like political musical chairs — seats change, but the poisonous game never does. So far, nothing has changed the culture of controversy in Clay County,” she wrote. “Fundamental change, not in who governs but how we are governed, must occur for Clay County to get out of the mire and on a positive, professional trajectory.”

In the letter and again at the Nov. 4 meeting, Ridgeway said she spoke with people involved in the previous efforts to form a charter form of government, which failed at the ballot box, and the main reason they provided for past failures was lack of time to allow a committee to fully vet a proposed constitution or charter.

The proposed committee, Ridgeway said, would be appointed by county commissioners and would explore logistics of a different form of government, pros and cons of the forms and possibly provide recommendations. The committee, she said, would be nonbinding and would not hinder and be separate from another committee that would be officially created by state law should a ballot effort to form a charter form of government be put forth by public petition and get approved by voters.

“I am trying to get this out from behind this dais and in the hands of the public,” Ridgeway said of her committee effort.

Nolte, who attempted to amend Ridgeway’s proposal but was outvoted by Ridgeway and Western Commissioner Gene Owen, equated Ridgeway’s committee proposal to a bait and switch where it may look to citizens like the commission seeks public input but is really is looking to further micromanage the process by selecting their own political operatives.

“You should trust yourselves,” he told those in attendance, adding if the commission really wanted citizens to lead the discussion, it should put the matter to voters on the April 2020 ballot.

Ridgeway took offense to Nolte’s comments, saying the type of infighting displayed at the meeting is what the new form of government she seeks would try to eradicate.

“Every single time that you strike out to punch me, Clay County is the one that suffers the blow,” she said.

Like Nolte, residents in attendance of the Nov. 4 meeting criticized Ridgeway’s proposal, saying she and Owen were the reasons for current county leadership dysfunction.

“Current commission actions have gotten to the point where the public seeks to remove two commissioners,” said Jesse Leimkuehler, referring to Ridgeway and Owen.

Gladstone resident and frequent meeting commentor Bobby Oakes said Ridgeway’s effort should be voted down by the commission and called Ridgeway and Owen lame ducks who were on their way out office.

Rather than vote down the effort, the commission agreed to discuss it further at the Monday, Nov. 18 commission meeting.

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

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