Judge orders new ballot language for proposed new Clay County constitution

09/24/2013 2:54 PM

09/24/2013 2:54 PM

Clay County had to throw out and reprint 77,000 ballots after a judge last week ruled that language in a question about restructuring the county government improperly put too much emphasis on some parts of the proposed change and ignored others.

Judge Roger M. Prokes issued his order Friday — four days before absentee balloting began. Clay County Commissioners Pamela Mason, Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen are suing to keep the proposed new county constitution off on the Nov. 5 ballot.

They say the proposal is illegal, misleading and would leave the county without a functioning government for six months.

“This is a significant win for the citizens of Clay County,” said Presiding Commissioner Pamela Mason. “The proposed constitution is riddled with fundamental errors and we hope that the citizens of Clay County do not have to squander our precious resources on an election for a proposed constitution that can never be lawfully implemented.”

Defenders say they carefully crafted the proposed constitution to allow for a smooth government transition. “It was not the (charter) commission’s intention to cause a controversy with what was simply a brief summary of the most critical features of the constitution,” said Craig Porter, the Republican chairman of the committee that wrote the proposal.

“We are grateful to the judge for providing his assistance in preparing ballot language so that the voters of Clay County can have the opportunity to vote on the constitution, despite the continued efforts of the Clay County commissioners to block the election,” Porter said.

Prokes wrote new ballot language that asks voters whether the county should adopt a new constitution, without elaboration.

Previously, the language said the change would increase the County Commission from three to seven members, drop the maximum property tax from 80 to 14 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, ban tax increases without voter approval, mandate a balanced budget and put the constitution up for review every 10 years.

The Missouri Supreme Court has appointed Prokes, a Nodaway County circuit judge, to preside over the civil case. He did not rule last week on whether the proposal is legal, but he asked both sides to file briefs on whether the current county government would terminate the day after the election the day after the November election.

A 14-member, bipartisan charter committee gave the proposed constitution to the election board last month. Among other changes, it would turn several elected offices into appointed positions and make all county elections non-partisan.

Proponents say the document and ballot language they created borrowed heavily from proposals written in 2001 and 2005. They also used language similar to the wording that restructured government in Jefferson County, Mo., several years ago.

The proposed shift to charter government would replace the three-member County Commission with a seven-member

County Council — six representing districts and a chairman representing the entire county. The chairman would have the same voting power as other members and no veto power. The County Council would hire an administrator to manage day-to-day operations.

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. Elections would be held 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.

Supporters of the measure said the lawsuit from the County Commissioners is the latest attempt by some elected officials to maintain political fiefdoms.

“It is all fear and intimidation,” said Carol Suter, the Democratic chairwoman of the charter committee. “That is their strategy to confuse people and it is all intended to prevent the citizens of Clay County from their right to vote for a new government.”

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, such as how the county spends money from fines for late taxes.

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.

They also allege 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 change would not take effect until May 1, 2014, when the new county council is in place. That would mean the government would be unable to pay salaries or fulfill governmental and other financial obligations until then, according to commissioners.

Supporters point to language in the measure that says current commissioners would keep their seats on an interim basis until the new government is in place. But opponents say the interim duties aren’t spelled out, and that the new constitution would illegally cut short current office holders’ terms.

County Collector Lydia McEvoy has said she might ask the court to clarify how her office should generate and distribute tax bills this year.

Critics of the proposal say if levies are set too low, funding the county provides for area agencies such as Sheltered Workshops, Tri-County Mental Health and the Senior Services Board would be eliminated.

Groups such as the North Kansas City School District, which receives over $100 million through taxes collected by the county, are closely monitoring the pending court battle. Paul Harrell, the district’s chief financial officer, said school officials aren’t taking a public stance on the issue, but they are watching developments.

“We are not looking to have any interruption of service in the collection of our taxes,” Harrell said.

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