Government & Politics

Legislators put term limits, pay raises for Jackson County officials on ballot

Proposed changes to the Jackson County charter would shift some powers  from the county executive to the county legislature. The legislature's 6-3 vote Monday indicates that the legislature could override any potential veto by County Executive Frank White (above).
Proposed changes to the Jackson County charter would shift some powers from the county executive to the county legislature. The legislature's 6-3 vote Monday indicates that the legislature could override any potential veto by County Executive Frank White (above). File photo

Jackson County legislators decided Monday to let voters decide on proposed changes to the county charter that would set term limits on elected officials and shift some of the county executive's powers to the legislature.

Legislators approved the ballot measures by a 6-3 vote after a sometimes contentious discussion. The two-thirds approval indicates that the legislature could override any potential veto by County Executive Frank White, whose power would be diminished if voters approve some of the proposals.

But some legislators on the losing side are hopeful they can convince someone in the majority to switch sides and uphold White's expected attempt to strike down the measure calling for the Aug. 7 vote.

Republican Greg Grounds, who is retiring from his 5th District seat after 12 years, drafted the reform package, which for legal reasons will appear as six separate questions on the ballot.

Several of those ballot questions have multiple components that might pose a dilemma for some voters, who might like some of the proposals but not all.

Question 1, for instance, would limit legislators to two, four-year terms. Current legislators with decades in office would not have to step down, however, because the clock wouldn't start ticking until next Jan. 1. If approved, question 1 would also grant the legislature new powers, such as the ability to overturn interim staff appointments made by the county executive.

It would also result in a 43 percent pay raise for the part-time legislators at a time when many county employees, such as jail guards, make less than their counterparts working for other local governments. Under the proposal, legislators would make one third of what Missouri Circuit Court judges are paid, raising legislators' salaries from the $34,881 currently to $49,908.

The county executive, prosecutor and sheriff would also face new term limits: two four-year terms for the executive after Jan. 1, and three each for the prosecutor and sheriff, except those limits wouldn't kick in until Jan. 1, 2021, when the current terms for those offices run out.

Each would also get a pay raise, receiving a salary equal to what Missouri Appeals Court judges are paid: $158,848 a year.

Currently the county executive gets $145,350, the prosecutor $133,432 and the sheriff $103,771, according to a county spokeswoman.

Here are some of the key changes proposed in the other ballot questions:

Question 2 would restrict the county executive's ability to hire consultants without legislative approval.

Under question 3, the authority for running the jail would shift from the county executive to the sheriff, which is how it was done prior to the creation of the county's charter form of government in the early 1970s.

The legislature's earlier vote to shift authority for overseeing the county anti-drug agency COMBAT from the county executive to the prosecutor's office would under question 4 become part of the charter and not subject to the whims of the legislature.

If voters approve question 5, the legislature would have the power to appoint and remove the county's top legal adviser, known as the county counselor. That person is now appointed by the county executive. Under this plan, the executive would send the legislature three names from which to pick.

Finally, question 6 concerns the county municipal court. With this change, the chief judge would have to have at least three years of experience as a judge hearing cases in the county court. Currently, all that's required is a law license and county residency.

White did not comment on the legislature's decision to put the measures up for a public vote, but his chief of staff Caleb Clifford issued a written statement saying his boss had concerns.

"The County Executive has stated from the beginning of these discussions that he was concerned with many of the dramatic changes being proposed," Clifford said. "For example, any voter who wants to either move oversight of the jail to the County Sheriff, change the administration of the COMBAT tax, or impose term limits, must vote to increase the pay for elected officials."

Legislators Crystal Williams and Alfred Jordan both faulted the process that led to the proposed changes. Rather than go through a formal charter commission process with public hearings, Grounds drafted the proposal based on discussions he'd had with other officials.

Clifford said that White shared that same concern.

"Due to the lack of community involvement and pace at which this was rushed through," Clifford said, "this ordinance has what I can only imagine were accidental, but serious and obvious errors ... that will add to the confusion in the County and could lead to more costly litigation."

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