In this hyperpartisan age, the Clay County Commission is a rare realm of bipartisan accord. For two of its three members.
Commissioners Gene Owen and Luann Ridgeway — he a Democrat and she a Republican — are in firm agreement on their opinion of presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte.
“He thinks he’s a king, and he’s not one,” said Owen, a former Navy SEAL who once threatened to deck Republican Nolte for publicly questioning his political courage to address tough issues.
“It’s his personality,” Owen said. “It’s ‘my way or the highway.’ ”
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Ridgeway, who did not respond to requests for comment, has more than once called out her fellow GOP member for grandstanding at commission meetings and putting his fellow commissioners’ staff members on the spot.
“I am horrified,” she told Nolte in February, “that you continually try to bring things up in public that embarrass Clay County.”
This month came the latest development in this long-running drama, when two county staffers were scheduled to appear in court on misdemeanor charges that they illegally cut Nolte’s signature off a series of documents. But more on that later.
Suffice it to say, the case of the sliced signature is further evidence of the bad blood that boils inside the art deco courthouse on Liberty’s town square. Even Nolte acknowledges the situation does not serve the public well.
“If I have one overall point on this whole thing,” he told The Star, “it is the people who are getting shortchanged on this. We need to set aside this petty political bickering and focus more on how it is we serve the people who elected us.”
Who would have thought things would turn out this way when Nolte was elected in 2014?
Ridgeway was familiar with Nolte from the time they both served in the Missouri General Assembly. She saw him as “a steady hand” who would promote greater communication and transparency in a county government that, in her view, had seen too little of that under Nolte’s Republican predecessor.
“I think Jerry Nolte will be a healing element,” she said at the time.
It’s been quite the opposite.
Ridgeway and Owen cemented their political marriage last year as Nolte grew more critical of what he saw as their misuse of county mailings to bolster political support for their re-elections.
Recently, a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by a Nolte supporter challenging the legality of those mailings.
But as that was only one of many flashpoints, tensions remain. Ridgeway and Owen can almost always be counted on to vote against whatever new proposal Nolte puts forth with regard to policy and process at their Monday morning meetings.
They either table them or strip them from the agenda. Be it his questions about why the power was nearly cut off from a county building because of late payments to KCP&L, or proposed restrictions on electioneering, his issues rarely get discussed.
Frustrated by the blockade, Nolte turned the commissioners’ comments section of the agenda into a bully pulpit to raise issues that Ridgeway and Owen didn’t want to discuss. But they shut down that forum, too, even though that also denied them a platform for their own comments and attaboys.
“It certainly gives the appearance that some of the actions that two of the commissioners are taking are done to upset Jerry,” former Commissioner Jay Lawson said.
Yet Nolte has not given in and does not apologize for being a divisive figure. He believes it’s his mission to guide a county government that he thinks has ceded too much power to unelected bureaucrats.
“We are supposed to be the watchdogs for the people,” he said. “We are supposed to make sure their voices are heard in government.”
He’s not sure why the three of them can’t get along better.
“I don’t think you can point to one particular issue where things went off track,” he said. “But as we worked through this, we found ourselves disagreeing on more and more things.”
This is Owen’s second go-round in Clay County government. He was on the commission for six years in the 1990s and won back the seat in 2012.
It’s not unusual, he says, for friction to develop between the presiding commissioner and the other two. What’s different this time is the intensity of the discord.
“I have served with four presiding commissioners,” Owen said, “and to a degree, every one of them had decided that ‘I am the presiding commissioner and what I say goes.’ ”
Except that’s not the system set up under Missouri law. The presiding commissioner chairs meetings and enforces decorum, but his or her vote carries no more weight than the district commissioners’ votes do.
Building alliances is the secret to success, but that has not been Nolte’s strong point.
“He needs to be able to count to two” votes, Owen said, “and he’s not been able to learn how to count to two.”
Nolte says he drew the ire of Owen and Ridgeway by publicly calling them out for using county funds and staff time for what Nolte considered improper electioneering.
At issue were mailings, which included a “government guide” and two free admissions to either the county-run Jesse James Farm and Museum or the Jesse James Bank Museum, sent out to a select group of their constituents: registered voters born between 1946 and 1950 who had voted in either the 2010 or 2012 general election.
Nolte complained repeatedly that the mailings were targeted at regular voters, and one of his supporters filed a lawsuit.
“As county commissioners, I think it was just awful they were spending tens of thousands of taxpayer money to run for re-election,” said Gary Markenson, the Gladstone resident who filed the lawsuit and also the longtime former head of the Missouri Municipal League.
Markenson lost the case but still supports Nolte in his efforts to make county government more accountable to the public.
“Jerry’s one of the good guys,” he said.
The turmoil hasn’t had much if any impact on county government’s ability to fix the roads, run the parks or deliver other services.
But Nolte maintains that those issues have a bearing on his ability, as the only member of the commission elected countywide, to represent the interests of all his constituents.
He’s feuded with the county administration as much as he has with his fellow commissioners.
He asked for County Administrator Dean Brookshier’s resignation last fall only to have the other two commissioners vote to expand his powers and approve a new contract in March that not only bumped Brookshier’s base salary by 44 percent, but added plenty of perks. One clause prohibits commissioners from criticizing him publicly.
It was one of those power shifts from the commission to the county administrator that’s behind this current court case.
One of the first ordinances approved this year gave Brookshier the right to sign off on most payments to vendors, as long as they are approved in the budget. Previously, it took two commissioners’ signatures.
“I voted against it,” Nolte said, “because I felt it was necessary that we should have the oversight to actually look at the bills. We are the ones that bear that responsibility.”
So he continued his practice of reviewing and initialing the bills only to discover later that his signature was missing from the bottom, left-hand corner where it normally would be.
Someone had cut it off.
“I thought that was wrong,” he said.
He complained publicly, but denies that he sicced the Missouri Highway Patrol on two women who work for the county now charged with tampering with public documents.
Owen doesn’t believe that Nolte had no hand in getting state authorities involved.
“He’s the one who got people to investigate that,” he said. “It’s all ridiculous.”
Nolte recently introduced an ordinance that would suspend any employee accused of a crime, but it never got a hearing. A few hours later, he learned that Brookshier was denying him and others keycard access to county offices during off hours, while launching an investigation of “one officeholder” after receiving “several disturbing reports regarding instances of unacceptable behavior.”
Brookshier, who declined an interview, did not name the officeholder or what the complaints were in his public statement on the matter. But Nolte says he got the message and told the news media that he was being kicked out of his office.
“I think it was retaliation,” Nolte said.
And so the back and forth continues with no end in sight. County spokeswoman Nicole Brown says Nolte was never in danger of losing his office space, and declined to give an update on the investigation, saying it was a personnel matter.
Owen said he just wishes the feuding would come to an end.
“There’s an election next year, and maybe somebody will run against him,” Owen said.
Nolte will be waiting for them. Right now, he has every intention to seek re-election.
“I feel there is a lot of work yet to do,” he said.