Three agenda items proposed for discussion by Clay County’s presiding commissioner were deleted March 6 before the meeting could begin.
The proposals by Jerry Nolte were set aside during approval of the commission’s work session agenda, the board’s first item of business.
As has been the case for a year, two Nolte items under “discussion” and another under the “regular agenda” heading were removed by a 2-1 vote. Nolte opposed the move; Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway and Western Commissioner Gene Owen approved it.
Nolte, Ridgeway and Owen have been locked in a feud that has ensured a majority of the most controversial Nolte proposals being voted down by a 2-1 margin.
“I make a motion that we remove the rules of procedure update, as well as the camping fees and the budget because they’re already on the website,” Owen said March 6, “(and Resolution) 2017-106, because it’s already been tabled.”
Since discussion was prevented, it’s not known what Nolte planned to say about camping fees at county sites or about the budget.
It was Ridgeway who proposed the rules of procedure item. She told the board that she had hoped to discuss several changes she plans to propose, but wasn’t yet ready to proceed.
In voting against the revised agenda, Nolte repeated his often-stated displeasure with what he views as the board’s tendency to dodge significant, politically heated topics rather than debate them.
“I think these are issues we should be discussing,” he said.
According to a tabulation of county commission minutes from Jan. 25, 2016 to the present, 55 board votes were decided by 2-1 margins, with Ridgeway and Owen joining forces to defeat Nolte’s proposals.
In addition, during the same period, Nolte abstained from voting seven times and voted “present” three times on issues he chose not to go on the record directly supporting or opposing.
In all, the board reached consensus — voting 3-0 — around 220 times during those 13 1/2 months. A majority of those votes, however, came on routine business, such as approving grant applications, moving agenda items from work to business sessions and giving approval to non-controversial rezoning applications.
Since early last year, Ridgeway and Owen have used a number of parliamentary maneuvers to silence Nolte. In addition to removing agenda items with 2-1 votes, the eastern and western commissioners twice motioned and voted to adjourn meetings abruptly, before Nolte could express his grievances during a commissioner’s comments agenda section.
Ridgeway and Owen later approved a reorganization of the board’s agenda format, completely doing away with comments by the commissioners themselves.
“Yes, I have removed commissioner comments because in the past the comments were used to build up the county,” Ridgeway said as the issue was being discussed. “You have abused the power of commissioner comments to hijack the meetings and tear down the county, tear down staff and the other commissioners.”
As presiding commissioner, Nolte conducts the meetings — deciding, among other things, who to recognize and when to give his fellow commissioners, other office holders and members of the public permission to speak. He also monitors decorum.
However, Ridgeway or Owen can make motions that call for a vote — either on an agenda item or to remove an item from the agenda. There’s little Nolte can do to avoid a vote in their favor.
Motions to delete agenda items are typically voted on early in meetings before the board votes on approving the agenda itself.
One of Nolte’s bones of contention – the use of county-financed mailings that Nolte views as politically motivated – has been proposed several times in slightly modified fashion and either removed from the agenda or tabled.
According to commission minutes, Nolte’s proposals to restrain commissioners from using county-financed mailings — constituent surveys and birthday cards — were either put off until a specific meeting or tabled indefinitely.
In 2016, for example, Nolte’s proposals to that effect were either removed or tabled three times in less than a month (March 21 to April 18 in 2016), and then again two months later (June 27).
One of the Nolte items removed from the recent agenda (resolution 2017-106 on March 6) was proposed more than once in 2016 and either removed from the agenda or tabled. It dealt with “Ethical Guidelines Related to Assistant County Administrators’ Participation in County Elections.”
Nolte has said he suspects political activities were conducted by the administration in the run-up to the November 2016 election, including a charge that the county administrator had assigned subordinates to assist with mailings sent by Ridgeway and Owen.
The ongoing political feud between Nolte and the other commissioners – as well as between Nolte and the county administrator – has resulted in a stalemate on Nolte-backed substantive issues, one that mathematically favors Ridgeway, Owen and the county administration.
On one side of the fault line, Ridgeway and Owen have criticized the presiding commissioner for grandstanding, and on the other Nolte has complained that the other commissioners have blocked his ability to legislate.
According to minutes at the board’s Sept. 19, 2016 meeting, Nolte used commissioner’s comments to put a laundry list of his grievances on the record. In addition to reiterating several of Nolte’s hot-button topics – removal of a wall in the courthouse without commission approval; rules preventing county employees from attending commission meetings, and commissioners using county-financed mailings for political purposes – he noted that each of his proposals that day had been removed from the agenda.
The three Clay commissioners were asked to comment on the frequency of 2-1 votes going against Nolte, including tabling or removing his proposals from agendas.
Ridgeway said she wouldn’t comment without conducting her own review of voting data. Owen didn’t respond.
Nolte responded, saying he was hopeful the board could discuss difficult issues and move toward consensus.
“I think we should take the issues up and not push them into executive session or delay them with parliamentary procedures,” he said. “I think we do a disservice to the public.”
Six months later, the same trend continues with neither side showing any intention of backing down.