816 North

Clay County Charter Commission ready to unveil new constitution

Updated: 2013-07-24T03:14:35Z

By GLENN E. RICE

The Kansas City Star

After months of internal debate and scores of public meetings, the Clay County Charter Commission is poised to release its recommended county constitution, which would change county government drastically.

The 14-member commission is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Gladstone City Hall to review and possibly vote on the proposed constitution. If no revisions are needed, a measure would be forwarded to the Clay County Election Board to meet the Aug. 27 certification deadline for a November vote on the issue.

“We have been totally surprised at the hearings. We did four public hearings, and every single person there was in favor of a new constitution,” said Carol Suter, the Democratic chairwoman. “A lot has changed in the universe, and a lot has happened with Clay County Commission that has been extremely off-putting to way too many people.”

Under the proposal, the county would replace its current three-member commission with a seven member county council — six members representing districts and one chairman representing the entire county. The chairman would have the same voting power as other members but no veto power.

Voters no longer would elect an auditor, county clerk, treasurer, assessor, tax collector, recorder of deeds or public administrator, as all of those positions would become appointed. Voters would continue to elect a prosecutor and sheriff, but all elections, including those for the council, would shift to nonpartisan and take place in March and April, with winners taking office in May.

Currently, county voters elect their leaders in August primaries and November general elections.

Supporters argue that this charter form of government would be more efficient by shifting to more professional, appointed managers. They also say by establishing charter government, the county would gain more power and have the authority to pass some ordinances that currently require state approval.

Critics say a charter government would raise taxes, and the appointed officials would be loyal to the people who appointed them, not to taxpayers.

Voters in November approved a plan to form a bipartisan committee to draft a new county constitution.

The proposed change reflects an election calendar used by municipal governments throughout Clay County and the region, said Craig Porter, the Republican chairman.

No one who attended the public hearing spoke in favor of the current system of partisan county elections, Porter said.

“I think some of this is a reflection on Washington and Jefferson City. They (voters) see all of the partisan bickering going on, and I think they just want it out because they’re tired of it.”

The new county government would be modeled after a city council-city manager form of government. The council would hire a county administrator to manage day-to-day operations of the county.

The council would not have the power to raise property taxes without voter approval.

Council candidates would have to be U.S. citizens and registered voters, and they could not owe county taxes or have been convicted of a state felony or a federal felony or misdemeanor, according to the proposal.

County employees would work under a merit system for appointments, promotions and raises.

Citizens would have the ability to bring forth ballot initiatives or referendums to reject county ordinances. Voters would have the authority to recall members of the county council and other elected officials.

There is no provision currently in place to give voters the ability to recall an elected official in Clay County. A recall provision is needed if it is determined that a new officeholder was untruthful about his or her qualifications.

Voters rejected previous attempts to shift to a home rule form of government in 2002 and 2005.

“This is probably the best shot that we would’ve had in the last 30 years to get this passed,” Suter said. “We feel that we are in tune with what the public is telling us. We are optimistic that we have a good shot.”

To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to grice@kcstar.com.

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