Clay County Commission loses in another effort to ballot issue

10/08/2013 12:00 AM

10/08/2013 9:45 AM

The Clay County Commission has received another defeat in its attempt to keep voters from deciding whether to dramatically reshape county government in next month’s election.

On Thursday, the Missouri Supreme Court refused to take up a request from the commissioners, letting stand a recent ruling by Judge Roger M. Prokes that allows the proposed new county constitution to remain on the Nov. 5 ballot. Prokes said he will wait until after the election to hear arguments from Clay County commissioners who say the proposal is illegal. The Supreme Court did not say why it rejected the commissioners’ request to require Prokes to hold a hearing before the election.

The Missouri Court of Appeals also denied to a similar request from the commissioners.

“In rejecting the claims of the county commissioners, the courts made clear that the proposed constitution will provide an appropriate transition from the current government to the new one,” said Carol Suter, the Democratic chairwoman of the bipartisan constitutional commission that drafted the proposal. “The basis of the commissioners’ suit was their claim that government would be shut down. The courts found no merit in that allegation.”

The proposal would turn the three-member County Commission into a seven-member council, turn several elected offices into appointed positions and make all county elections non-partisan. Among other changes, it also would 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.

Prokes earlier 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.

“I am pleased that the judge agreed with us that the ballot language was designed to mislead the voters and that he changed it,” said Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway. “I respectfully disagree with his refusal to give us a hearing on the rest of the problems we foresee with this proposal. The taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for a train wreck that could be prevented.”

If the constitution is approved, 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 their leaders in August primaries and November general elections.

Supporters say a county constitution would promote a professionally managed government and is modeled after governments in Johnson County, Kan., and Jefferson County, near St. Louis. Opponents say the proposed measure does not conform to the state constitution.

The Clay County Democratic Central Committee voted last week to endorse the measure.

It needs a simple majority to pass.

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