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August 6, 2013

Proposal to restructure Clay County government will go to voters

Clay County voters will get a chance in November to decide whether they want to restructure their government by adopting a county constitution that would give them home rule and make other sweeping changes.

Clay County voters will get a chance in November to decide whether they want to restructure their government by adopting a county constitution that would give them home rule and make other sweeping changes.

The 14-member charter commission recently unanimously approved the final draft of the proposed Clay County constitution. The measure was forwarded to the county election board and will appear on the November ballot.

“I am very satisfied with the Constitution as it accomplishes several things that are sorely needed in our county,” said Craig Porter, the Republican committee chair. “It will also make county government more accountable and allow us to make many decisions at the local level rather than depending on the Missouri legislature to decide what they feel is best for those of us residing in Clay County.”

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 and 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. The county prosecutor and the sheriff would continue to be elected. But all other county elections, including those for the council, would become non-partisan 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.

The proposal needs a simple majority to pass. It if does, the circuit court would then appoint a bipartisan apportionment committee to draw boundary lines for districts.

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

Among other key provisions, the proposed constitution would lower property taxes and makes it impossible to raise any type of tax or introduce a new tax without a vote of the people, said Carol Suter, the Democratic committee chair.

“One of the biggest objections has been the lie that your taxes are going to up as soon as you vote for this,” Suter said. “That has been answered because your taxes will go down. We have put a cap on this and it is lower than what the current levy is.”

The tax levy would be reduced from 80 cents to 14 cents per hundred dollars of assessed valuation. The 2013 county tax levy is 21 cents per hundred dollars of assessed valuation, according to the proposed constitution.

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

“The opportunities for cronyism and corruption will be exponentially increased because the actual people that are doing the work of the people will no longer answer directly to the people,” said Clay County Collector Lydia H. McEvoy. “The residents of Clay County shouldn’t give up their unique opportunity to have an individual voice in the government of a large, urban, Missouri county.

“Clay County voters personally get to hire the people that represent them, and personally get to fire them as well. That is an incredible amount of power.” she said.

The proposal calls for the new county government to 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.

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

A campaign committee will be formed to drum up support and tell voters on the new constitution. Suter said one of the lessons learned from previous efforts to establish charter government is that there was no coordinated campaign to raise public awareness about the measure.

“Nobody made sure there was a committee to advocate for this; it was hit or miss,” she said. “I think one of the lessons learned was that you just can’t put it out there and say, ‘Hey,vote for this.’ You have to have an active campaign to help educate people and help motivate people to get out and vote for it.”

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