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Constitution decision nears in Clay County

Updated: 2013-11-03T00:40:56Z

By GLENN E. RICE

The Kansas City Star

For the third time since 2002, Clay County voters will decide Tuesday whether they want to restructure their county government or simply keep the one that’s been in place for generations.

The issue of adopting a new county constitution has become so contentious that the current three-member County Commission hired legal counsel to try to keep the measure off the ballot. The county collector secured her own lawyer and told school districts and other taxing entities that she wasn’t sure she would be able to collect taxes if the measure passes.

The proposal would convert the three-member County Commission into a seven-member council, turn several elected offices into appointed positions and make all county elections nonpartisan.

Proponents say the change is needed to make county government more efficient and more professional while eliminating possible corruption.

“Every time the power of current officeholders is challenged by introducing a more efficient form of government, they tell voters the current form of county government is fine,” said Craig Porter, the Republican chairman of the committee that wrote the proposal. “Unfortunately, the condition of the county tells a different story.”

Opponents say no other county in Missouri operates under a county constitution. The proposal, they say, is illegal and misleading and would leave the county without a functioning government during a six-month transition — something proponents deny.

“The election Tuesday is about whether voters should know about flaws in a document that may impact our citizens for years to come,” said Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway, who opposes the measure. “The document we will vote on takes power and accountability away from the people and places it in the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats.”

If approved, the constitution would give Clay County home rule and the ability to change its operating rules without asking the state legislature’s approval. Other changes would place county employees under a merit raise system and give voters recall, referendum and initiative powers.

It needs a simple majority to pass.

Proponents said they modeled the proposed constitution after Johnson County, Kan. They borrowed the ballot language from Jefferson County, Mo., which adopted a home-rule charter in 2008 that instituted a seven-member county council and a full-time, elected county executive. Voters there still elect various officeholders, which may have helped that measure pass, said Derrick Good, a lawyer who led the Jefferson County charter reform efforts.

“People wanted to continue to elect their county officials, at least that seemed to be the trend statewide, and it proved to be true here because ours passed with almost 70 percent of the vote,” Good said.

Clay County voters have twice rejected measures to adopt a county charter or constitution. In 2002, it lost by 201 votes. In 2005, it failed by more than 3,700 votes. Election officials are predicting about a 20 percent turnout Tuesday, about the same as for the two previous elections.

Last November, voters approved a measure to appoint a nonpartisan committee to draft the proposed constitution. Two of the county’s three commissioners set that in motion before leaving office.

“The current form of government has the potential for corruption that exists so easily when you’ve got a commission of three, so all you have to do is swing one more vote and you can wreak havoc on the county,” said Katee Porter, former eastern commissioner, who voted for the measure. “It is a good idea to expand the commission because it is a lot harder for four people to get corrupt than it is one, plus one.”

Porter said it was difficult for two of the three commissioners to meet to discuss county operations without potentially violating the Missouri open meetings law.

“It is more efficient to have a bigger commission so you have meaningful discussion,” she said.

As with previous efforts, the campaign has been intense, fierce and bare-knuckled, which is typical of Clay County politics, many observers say.

Opponents have sent out mailers warning voters that funding for disabled children, mental health services, law enforcement and senior citizens will be significantly reduced or eliminated if the constitution is approved. Supporters say the claim is false because separate levies not set by the county fund those programs.

“The well-financed (with tax dollars) no-vote campaign is based on outrageous lies and misrepresentations.” said Carol Suter, the Democratic chairwoman of the committee that wrote the proposed constitution. “Like, the government will be shut down, or social service agencies will be defunded. Completely false.

“I hope voters have the courage to stand up to this bullying, go to the polls and vote for a better future for Clay County.”

Supporters created a postcard mailer that reprinted an email that county collector Lydia McEvoy wrote instructing one of her workers to send a $10,000 check from county funds she controls to an attorney she hired to challenge the proposed constitution. She sent the email on a personal account to protect it from the state open records law, the email says.

The postcard flier says, “They are trying to hide the truth from you.”

In an email to a reporter, McEvoy said she hired the attorney to help her office with legal questions that may arise if the proposed constitution is approved.

“As a communication regarding hiring legal counsel, the message may have been legally protected from such wide dissemination, but transparency in government is good,” she said.

An opposition group, The Voters Have Spoken, has spent more than $32,600 trying to defeat the measure. Meanwhile, the group Yes for Clay County Constitution has spent $16,100, according to recent campaign financial disclosures.

In previous campaigns, the County Commission avoided taking a public stance on the issue. This year, county commissioners, two of whom were elected a year ago, hired an attorney to file a civil lawsuit to prevent the measure from appearing on the ballot.

Those efforts failed when the Missouri Court of Appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the commissioners, letting stand a ruling by Judge Roger M. Prokes that allowed the constitution to remain on the ballot.

Prokes said he will wait until after the election to hear additional arguments from Clay County commissioners, who say the measure is illegal.

“Once the proposed document was finalized, it was apparent that it had many flaws,” said Presiding Commissioner Pamela Mason. “Seeking the advice of experts in constitutional law on how to proceed with the county operations, since they were omitted in the proposed document, was the only responsible course of action.”

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

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