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Clay County commissioners spent nearly $36k to fight proposed constitution

Clay County commissioners spent nearly $36,000 in legal fees in an effort to remove a proposed constitution from the November ballot, according to county financial records.

Commissioners hired attorneys from the Stinson Morrison Hecker office in Jefferson City earlier this summer to file a lawsuit to fight the proposal, saying the measure was illegal and misleading and would have left the county without a functioning government during a six-month transitional period, which proponents repeatedly denied.

“Unfortunately, the proposed constitution and the accompanying ballot language presented profound concerns that the Commission felt would be best resolved in a declaratory judgment,” said Nicole Brown, spokeswoman for the County Commission. “The proposed constitution, and the manner in which it was initially proposed for submission to the voters, was riddled with profound constitutional and practical problems.”

Voters defeated the measure last month. They also rejected similar efforts to restructure county government in 2005 and 2002.

The recent 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.

Supporters of the measure said it would have made county government more efficient and more professional while reducing the possibility of corruption.

They also said it was improper and possibly illegal for the County Commission to spend tax dollars trying to keep the proposal off the November ballot.

“I don’t know what gives them the right to spend taxpayers’ money to stop an election,” said Craig Porter, a former Eastern Commission who served as the Republican chair of the committee that wrote the proposal.

“This was taxpayers’ funds and they spent it simply to keep their jobs,” he said.

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 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. Supporters then modeled the proposed constitution after the way Johnson County, Kan., operates.

Commissioners argued that the measure did not conform to the state constitution. In September, they filed a civil lawsuit to have the measure removed from the November ballot.

Instead, Judge Roger M. Prokes ordered the county election board had to reprint 77,000 ballots. Prokes said the ballot language about restructuring the county government improperly placed too much emphasis on some parts of the proposed change and ignored others.

Prokes later said he would wait until after the Nov. 5 election to hear arguments on whether the ballot legal was illegal. The lawsuit was dismissed after the measure failed.

“The people vindicated the Commission’s position by overwhelmingly voting against the draft constitution,” Brown said.