Clay County sues to keep proposed government change off ballot

09/10/2013 11:38 AM

09/10/2013 12:12 PM

The Clay County Commission is suing to keep a proposed change to the county constitution off the November ballot, saying the measure is illegal and would leave the county without a functioning government for months.

A 14-member, bipartisan charter committee gave the proposal to the election board last month. Among other changes, it would increase the County Commission from three to seven members, turn several elected offices into appointed positions and make all county elections non-partisan.

In a civil lawsuit filed Friday, the County Commission says that if voters approve the new constitution, it would immediately abolish nearly all elected county offices and leave Clay County without a functioning government for at least six months.

“The ballot language is as misleading to the voters as was the entire process,” said Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway. “It’s an experiment we cannot afford.”

Supporters of the measure said the lawsuit is the latest attempt by some elected officials to maintain political fiefdoms and confuse voters.

“It is a very sad day for Clay County when its elected commissioners become so desperate to hold on to their high-paying jobs they are willing to sacrifice one of the most fundamental rights we have in this country — the people’s right to vote —to do so,” said Craig Porter, the Republican chairman of the committee that wrote the proposal.

The proposed shift to charter government would replace the three-member County 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 would no longer elect an auditor, county clerk, treasurer, assessor, tax collector, recorder of deeds or public administrator, as all of those positions would be appointed. Voters would still elect the county prosecutor and sheriff, but all county elections would become non-partisan. Voters would cast ballots in March and April, and winners would take office in May.

Clay County voters now elect their leaders in August primaries and November general elections.

The proposal calls for the new county government to be modeled after a city council-city manager form of government. The County Council would hire an administrator to manage day-to-day operations.

Proponents have argued that the county would be more efficient under a shift to appointed managers. And by approving charter government, they say, voters would give the county the authority to pass some ordinances that now require state approval.

But commissioners say a charter government would raise taxes, and appoint officials who would be loyal to the people who hired them rather than to taxpayers.

Opponents say the proposed measure does not conform to the state constitution. If voters approve it, they say, the new constitution would go into effect on Nov. 6, the day after the election, before absentee ballots could be counted and before the election results could be certified.

The new constitution would not exist until May 1, 2014. Without a county council or county commission, county government would be unable to pay salaries or fulfill other financial obligations, according to commissioners.

“This government experiment would shut down basic services for six months, rendering us unable to meet our financial obligations to our bond holders, and provide the payments to senior services and sheltered workshops,” said Presiding Commissioner Pamela Mason.

But Carol Suter, the Democratic committee chairwoman of the committee that wrote the proposed constitution said the measure includes a transition to the new form of government. It is modeled closely on the governments in Johnson County, Kan., and Jefferson County, near St. Louis.

“This is all ridiculous stuff,” she said. “Obviously these same constitutional provisions and constitution have been on the ballot twice. It was obviously deemed constitutionally valid by other people at other times and people had a chance to vote on it.”

Supporters of the measure said they were not surprised by the commission’s seek legal action.

“We fully expected these commissioners to do anything and everything they could possibly think of, sparing no expense, to prevent the citizens of Clay County from their constitutional right to vote for a new government,” Suter said.

Commissioners did not include a line item in this year’s budget for elections although voters had created a county constitutional committee.

The proposal needs a simple majority to pass. If voters approve it, the circuit court would appoint a bipartisan committee to draw boundary lines for the six districts.

Past efforts to restructure county government involved asking voters to adopt a county charter. This time the measure calls for voters to adopt a new county constitution, which no county in Missouri has previously done, said Jeremy A. Root, a Jefferson City based attorney representing the County Commission.


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