Frustrated Clay County residents are hitting the streets to get support for their effort to clean up local government.
The movement started when one resident of Kansas City, Jason Withington, became fed up with a variety of issues in the Clay County government.
“We’re a first-class county, but our county government is a joke, and I was tired of all the headlines being an embarrassment,” Withington said.
When Withington learned from a newspaper article that the county did not pay its electric bills on time and Kansas City Power & Light showed up to disconnect service, he decided to act.
That’s when Withington started a petition to request the Missouri State Auditor’s office to do a performance audit on the financial and regulatory practices of the county.
He soon found out he wasn’t the only one frustrated and looking for action. After connecting with like-minded people online, a non-partisan grassroots effort started taking off and organizing off-line.
Those involved announced the start of a new non-profit, Citizens for a Better Clay County Inc., in January. The group’s primary focus is the effort to get signatures on the petition. The nonprofit status lets them raise money to help with the project and possibly pay professionals to collect signatures at posts offices, license offices and other public places in the county.
Volunteers already working on the petition effort have collected about 2,500 signatures, or roughly one-third of the number needed to request an audit. Members of the group have set up an audit hotline and are distributing post cards for people who may have tips or questions for the state auditor.
The petition effort has a wide range of supporters, including John Juenger, a firefighter from Gladstone who said he is behind the effort because he believes a recent cut in the Clay County Sheriff’s Office budget could cost lives.
“My response times to people’s houses in Avondale could be affected by this because we have to sit and wait for a scene to be secured,” Juenger said. “If there’s a long delay, North Kansas City will respond, but seconds count when it’s a dangerous situation of life or death.”
More than 60 elected officials in the county — mayors, city council members, and state representatives — also have signed the petition.
Clay County’s presiding commissioner, Jerry Nolte, is among those who support the effort.
“We are spending a lot of money in areas that I have great concerns about and I am very concerned about the reductions to the Sheriff’s budget, and the money we put into our road system,” Nolte said.
Nolte, who is up for reelection in 2018, says he believes an audit would be healthy for county operations.
“I think it’s important that this kind of citizen involvement takes place,” he said. “There are things that people have questions about and they need to have those questions answered. Unfortunately, this seems to be the only avenue available at the moment.”
Members in the group have a wide range of complaints about county business —including claims of Sunshine Law violations, misuse of funds, not following state statues, misappropriation of budgets, and a recent ordinance that restricted public comments at county meetings.
The public-comment ordinance, which was passed in December 2017, eliminates the opportunity for the public to comment at county commission meetings. It allows for a separate public comment meeting on the third Friday morning of the month.
At that meeting, according to the ordinance, “Commissioners may attend, but their presence is not expected nor required. Commissioners in attendance will not be recognized to make comments or to respond to comments from citizens.”
The ordinance also allows the county administrator to restrict topics on which comments will be allowed. The county administrator also can decide that a particular person may be limited in their comments.
Nolte voted against the ordinance.
“The thing that bothers me is that, when citizens come, they should be able to express their opinion to their government,” he said. “Moreover, if you come to me as a constituent and you ask me a direct question, it’s my responsibility to give you a direct answer or try to find an answer. You can’t just eliminate that kind of thing.”
Citizens for a Better Clay County has until July 27 to collect the needed signatures for the audit.
For more information or to ask a question, citizens can call the audit hotline at 816-472-9200.
The group’s next meeting will be at 2 p.m. on March 4 at Mid-Continent Public Library’s Woodneath Library Center, 8900 N.E. Flintlock Road in Kansas City, Mo.