Power struggles are once again marring the work of Jackson County government. Lawsuits and blame are painting the backdrop of what appears to be intractable differences between the Jackson County Legislature and County Executive Frank White and his chief of staff, Caleb Clifford.
There are nine legislators and only one executive. One would assume this small group of thoughtful people could effectively address the myriad challenges we face, like fixing or building a new jail, or hiring new directors for programs approved by our constituents. So we should.
There are currently ad hoc discussions occurring around very serious changes — proposed by some, not all, members of the legislature — which would drastically change Jackson County’s form of government. We agree the Jackson County charter needs real, vetted updating. However, we are not comfortable with a small number of folks — most of whom appear to be on their way out — deciding what the taxpayers need and want in county government.
The proposals that eventually make it to the ballot should be discussed openly and frankly by the members of the legislature, the executive, the prosecutor, the sheriff … and most importantly, the public.
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Public input and buy-in are crucial. Without them, we have the appearance of a hand grenade being thrown into the fray as some members walk out the door. Who among us can trust that strategy?
Some of the proposed changes include term limits for the legislature and executive. We are not opposed to a proposal to limit terms, but the question of how many four year terms should be publicly discussed.
The larger issue being discussed behind closed doors is doing away with the county executive and moving Jackson County to a weak-executive form of government similar to Kansas City’s. Intelligent, informed people can disagree on whether this is an appropriate direction for our county, but this would be a monumental change.
We cannot expect issues of this import to be decided upon by a handful of privileged people. The fissures we are experiencing are likely happening because our county charter has flaws, particularly in the areas of financial management and appropriations power. Battles between the legislature and previous Jackson County executives have been stuff of legends for decades, and we believe the taxpayers have had enough nonsense.
We’ve demanded transparency within our legislative dealings, but we still continue to see that demand thwarted by the simple math of the legislature. Five votes rule the roost, and little appetite has existed to work collaboratively.
While we applaud our fellow legislator Greg Grounds’ initiative calling for widespread change on the August ballot, as noted in a March 2 Kansas City Star editorial, it appears there is little to no intent to engage the public in this conversation before placing it on the ballot.
Telling you what you will be voting on, and not getting constituent feedback beforehand, would be business per usual for the veteran lawmakers at Jackson County.
Some of our colleagues have served for decades without concern about the weaknesses in the charter. Why, exactly, now? We don’t have an answer for that question.
One thing we do know, based on extensive conversations with our incredibly engaged and smart constituents: They have no patience for the old, tired political machine.
If it isn’t working, fix it — collaboratively, openly and fairly.
Crystal J. Williams is Jackson County 2nd District legislator at large. She co-authored this with Tony Miller, 3rd District legislator at large, and Theresa Galvin, 6th District legislator.