Clay County voters say no thanks, we’ll keep the government we’ve got

11/12/2013 11:31 AM

11/12/2013 11:31 AM

Efforts to reshape Clay County government was likely dealt a fatal blow last week when voters said they were happy with the way their government operates.

The proposed county constitution was defeated by a vote of 9,017 to 15,242, according to unofficial results. It was the third time since 2002 that a measure to restructure county government has failed.

“Clay County voters have spoken for the third time in the last 11 years and the answer to the question is no,” said Presiding Commissioner Pamela Mason, who opposed the measure. “Chairpersons Suter and Porter failed to put the will of the people ahead of their own political power grab, while sacrificing our neighbors with disabilities.”

Disappointed supporters of the proposed constitution said they were not sure if a similar proposal would re-emerge anytime soon.

“I wasn’t surprised by the results considering we were out-spent 4 or 5 to 1 and everything that was said by the opponents was at best inaccurate,” said Craig Porter, the Republican chairperson of the bipartisan committee that wrote the proposal. “I don’t think any type of home rule government will come up again for a long time, if ever again.”

The proposal would have converted the three-member County Commission into a seven-member council, turned several elected offices into appointed positions and made all county elections nonpartisan.

Proponents said the changes would have made county government more efficient and more professional while reducing the possibility of corruption.

Opponents said proposal was illegal and misleading and would have left the county without a functioning government during a six-month transitional period, which proponents repeatedly denied.

“The county commissioners waged a very effective, very well-financed campaign of lies, fear and intimidation. It worked,” said Carol Suter, the Democratic chairperson who helped write the proposed constitution. “Pretty much, in American politics, whoever has the most money wins. It’s easy to have the most money when you have access to taxpayers’ dollars.”

Because the proposed changes were defeated, Clay County will continue to function under state laws.

“The voters did their homework,” sais Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway, who opposed the measure. “Common sense prevailed.”

A county constitution would have given Clay County the ability to change its operating rules without seeking the state legislature’s approval. Other changes would have placed county employees under a merit raise system and given voters recall, referendum and initiative powers.

Proponents said they modeled the proposed constitution after the way Johnson County, Kan., operates. They borrowed the ballot language from Jefferson County, Mo., which in 2008 adopted a home-rule charter that instituted a seven-member county council and a full-time, elected county executive.

But it was clear from the election that voters prefer electing the officials who run county government, Mason said.

Voter turnout was light, about 16 percent. Election officials had predicted a 20 percent turnout.

But the campaign was intense.

In the final days leading up to the election, opponents sent mailers saying that public schools in the county would shut down if the proposal passed. That prompted school districts in Liberty, Kearney, North Kansas City and elsewhere to release statements to the contrary.

Both sides conducted their own polls before the election. A poll by supporters in early September found a favorable view of the proposed constitution. Opponents conducted their poll the last week of October and found the tide had turned in their favor, showing 58 percent of voters would reject the proposed constitution.

Opponents said they sent multiple mailers to about 13,500 homes.

Suter said she doesn’t think that a single tactic tipped the balance against the proposal.

“Their campaign was not about the terms or conditions of the proposed constitution, it was about saving their (commissioner) jobs,” Suter said. “This campaign demonstrated that they would do absolutely anything to achieve their goal.”

“We get the government we deserve.” she said.

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