CLAY COUNTY — At the polls Tuesday, June 2, Clay County voters will decide if they want the circuit court to create a commission to frame a new form of county government that would be put to voters at a later date.
What passage of Prop C means
If the ballot question known as Proposition C passes, the appointed constitutional commission will look at how county residents want to define the structure and system of county government including the number of and power of elected and other officials and whether to include a system for elected leader recall.
According to the county's website, www.claycountymo.gov, if voters approve Proposition C, it will trigger the court's appointment of the commission within 60 days of the election. The commission would be made up of 14 county residents, half Republicans and half Democrats.
“The members of the constitution commission would be charged with drafting a county constitution, which would be need to be submitted to the voters of Clay County for approval or disapproval within one year of the date the constitution commission is formed. If approved, the constitution would go into effect in Clay County on the date specified in the constitution itself,” states the county site.
If Prop C passes, the commission would likely gather public input to help draft the document.
The idea to ask voters if they want to change county government came from a motion made by Eastern County Commissioner Luann Ridgeway, who said it is clear residents want better representation.
Western Commissioner Gene Owen did not return requests for comment on where he stands on the issue. Presiding County Commissioner Jerry Nolte said he is “not particularly for or against” the measure as he sees pros and cons to the effort and wishes that the process was brought forward under less politically tumultuous times than those currently experienced by the county.
If passed however, Nolte said one of the pros of possibly reconfiguring government operations would be to give the county more “home rule” as opposed to current statutory rule.
“For example, … if we wanted to have the option to recall (a commissioner), under our present circumstance, to put that into place, we have to go to Jeff City and get it to pass the House and Senate and the governor has to sign it,” he said. “Home rule means we have the latitude to make changes of that sort at the local level, within bounds of course.”
Recommendations from informal committee
In addition to asking voters if they want to create a formal court-appointed commission to explore a change, county commissioners created an informal government change committee last year. That committee, made up of 12 county residents with four appointed by each county commissioner, had a series of public meetings at various locations across the county to gather public input over the course of multiple months.
This winter, the committee, chaired by Greg Canuteson, presented its findings and recommendations to the commission. If voters pass Prop C, the created commission could take the informal committee's findings in account but it is not mandated to include its recommendations.
Canuetson said it's clear residents want an expanded governing body and the committee recommended replacing the current three-person commission with an elected council of at least eight. Council member pay should be structured, the committee recommended, so that no added financial burden is placed on taxpayers than currently is with a three-commissioner system. In addition, the committee recommends having an elected presiding officer that would vote to break ties of the commission and lead the daily operations of the county.
“We think that people should have excellent access to their elected representatives,” Canueston said as justification for the increase in leaders. “We believe the best way to do that in a rapidly growing county is to have a sufficient number of members to the council that will create a lot of access to the public.”
Other general reforms suggested by the committee include:
• all elected offices be nonpartisan;
• elected offices have “reasonable” term limits (specific limits were not presented);
• provisions to recall elected leaders should be included in the county’s form of government but required standards to trigger such action should be significant;
• a merit system of some kind, such as a human resources board, should be created to protect county employee rights and protect employees from patronage and politics; and
• ethics reform in relation to conflicts of interest, code of conduct, transparency, campaign finance limits and how open sessions are conducted, possibly to include live streaming online.
Multiple previous attempts to change the county's form of government have failed at the ballot box. The most recent attempt failed in 2013, when voters rejected a proposed constitution by nearly 63%. That constitution would have replaced the three-member commission with a seven-member elected council and change currently elected offices of assessor, collector, auditor, treasurer and recorder of deeds to appointments.