Corruption at the Jackson County courthouse is out of control. Reform is necessary.
Here’s a place to start: Jackson County voters should impose a two-term, eight-year limit on how long members of the legislature and the county executive can serve.
Yes, term limits are not a panacea for all that ails the county, or any government. But the need for changes in Jackson County is clear, and term limits could help.
For months, members of the Jackson County Legislature have battled County Executive Frank White over issues large and small. Those disputes — over the jail, the anti-drug sales tax known as COMBAT, staffing needs, purchases — have left county residents bewildered and angry.
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Former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders just pleaded guilty to a federal felony, as did his former chief of staff. Other county executives have faced legal problems.
Why do mischief and malfeasance appear commonplace at the Jackson County courthouse? Here’s one reason: Legislators and the executive can remain in office for decades, yet they have few real policy responsibilities.
The county runs the jail, pays for the sheriff and prosecutor, appraises property and collects taxes. It’s responsible for the stadiums, a few parks, some roads.
It adopts a budget. That’s about it.
Those jobs are important, but they’re largely ministerial. When the county functions properly, the county legislature has few important decisions to make.
That leaves elected officials with lots of time to argue. That tendency is exacerbated when legislators spend decades in their seats, giving them a special understanding of which political buttons to push, and when.
Fred Arbanas, who retired in 2014, served for more than four decades.
There is no reason a Jackson County legislator should serve more than two consecutive four-year terms. The most common explanation — that longtime legislators provide necessary “experience” — rings hollow when one considers the horrible state of the jail, or the petty squabbles at the courthouse.
New legislators bring new perspectives and energy, with a full understanding that their jobs should not become careers. They could hardly do worse than the current occupants of those seats.
While things can change, it’s also hard to contemplate Frank White in his job for decades.
Opponents predicted disaster. There have been rocky moments, but Kansas City’s government did not collapse.
Five years ago, a special charter committee studied term limits in Jackson County and voted 4-3 against them. Voters never got to consider the issue.
That should change this year. The legislature should put term limits on the November ballot. Voters should decide if cleaning up Jackson County government regularly requires new faces and new attitudes at the courthouse.