New Clay County constitution will stay on November ballot, judge rules

10/02/2013 8:47 AM

10/02/2013 9:50 AM

A proposal to restructure Clay County government will remain on the November ballot, a judge has ruled.

Judge Roger M. Prokes wrote last week that he would wait until after the Nov. 5 election to hear arguments from Clay County Commissioners who say the ballot issue is illegal. The Missouri Court of Appeals refused to consider a request from the commissioners to order Prokes to hold a hearing, and Commissioners have appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

The proposal would turn the 3-member County Commission into a 7-member council, make county elections nonpartisan and switch some offices from elected to appointed. Among the other proposed changes, it also would 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 county constitution up for review every 10 years.

In their civil lawsuit, commissioners Pamela Mason, Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen say the proposal is illegal, misleading and would leave the county without a functioning government for six months.

“I think he (Prokes) is wrong that we are not entitled to a hearing before the election,” said Jeremy A. Root, the attorney for the commissioners. “The concerns raised by the proposed constitution are profound and severe. We would like to protect the voters of Clay County and the continuity of the government services that they enjoy.”

Root said he expects the state Supreme Court to make its decision within the next week or so.

“Time is running short and if we are going to have a hearing that is going to be meaningful then we need to have it as soon as possible,” he said.

Supporters of the proposed changes praised Prokes’ decision to allow the election to proceed.

“I am pleased the citizens of Clay County will have the opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote on the new county constitution,” said Craig Porter, the Republican chairman of the constitutional commission that drafted the proposal. “Obviously, the judge did not find any merit in any of the outrageous claims of commissioners Mason, Ridgeway and Owen. The new constitution is a sound, well-constructed document, just as we have said from the beginning.”

Prokes recently ordered the county election board to throw out and reprint 77,000 ballots because the ballot language improperly put too much emphasis on some parts of the proposed constitution and ignored others. He then wrote new ballot language that asks voters whether the county should adopt a new constitution, without elaboration.

If the proposed changes are implemented, 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. Elections would be held in March and April, and winners would take office in May. Clay County voters now elect office-holders in August primaries and November general elections.

But commissioners say the proposed measure does not conform to the state constitution. It is misleading, riddled with errors and requires an election that would squander county resources, they say. If voters approve it, they also say, the new constitution would go into effect the day after the election, before absentee ballots could be counted and before the election results could be certified.

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