Government & Politics

Amid turmoil in Clay County, Northland rep says he plans to run for a commission seat

Concerned about Clay County’s political turmoil — allegations of corruption, lack of transparency and attempts to stave off an examination by the Missouri State Auditor — Missouri Rep. Jon Carpenter plans to run for a commission seat in 2020.

Carpenter, a Northland Democrat first elected to the Missouri House in 2012, said this week he will run for the three-member Clay County Commission’s western district seat, currently held by Gene Owen.

Carpenter said he wants to get the county leadership refocused on its fundamental responsibilities: infrastructure and funding for public safety and social services.

“What we’ve seen is a lot of arguing and bickering,” Carpenter told The Star. “We’ve seen a lack of transparency, we’ve seen a lot of money that I think is ultimately being wasted. Taxpayer money on pretty outrageous legal bills.”

Those concerns were shared by enough Clay County citizens to prompt a petition for an audit by Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway. Clay County residents supportive of the audit believe the county’s leadership wastes money, wields power for political retaliation and rebuffs the public’s efforts to learn more about the activities of elected officials.

Galloway’s effort to examine the county’s government has been greeted by resistance from two of the three commissioners. The county filed a lawsuit earlier this month to try to stop Galloway from enforcing a subpoena—a mechanism rarely used by the auditor’s office—to obtain financial records. Her office has since asked a judge to dismiss the case.

“It’s particularly concerning to me that the commission is resisting the audit and bringing lawsuits at taxpayer expense to stop our auditor Nicole Galloway from continuing,” Carpenter said.

Clay County doesn’t employ its own attorney and instead retains outside firms, including Spencer Fane. When The Star asked for the firm’s billing records, partner Joe Hatley said the request would cost $4,200.

Hatley has not directly responded to several requests to itemize costs that would justify a $4,200 fee.

The Star reported last year that Clay County has spent $555,000 on outside counsel since 2016. At the time, Clay County Commissioner Luanne Ridgeway objected to Galloway’s audit, saying its $100,000 to $150,000 cost to the county was too expensive.

Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte has broken with his colleagues on the issue and called for the county to drop its resistance to the audit. On the three-member commission, Nolte often votes alone.

“I have consistently been in favor of the State of Missouri’s audit of Clay County,’ Nolte said in a statement. “I support the county withdrawing the lawsuits and having a real dialogue with the state audit team on cooperating to facilitate an efficient and comprehensive audit.”

He also chided county staff for making public statements that suggest Clay County Commissioners are in agreement when he frequently is not in accord with Owen and Ridgeway.

A Feb. 14 statement by Clay County announcing the suit against Galloway described the auditor’s demands for records “unconstitutional” and “beyond her authority.” It suggested the commision was in agreement.

“This practice could be construed as misleading and an attempt to mispresent my views to the public,” Nolte said. “I am also highly concerned by the escalating hostile tone of these communications, which seem to have taken the path of personal attacks.”

Carpenter is among a bipartisan slate of Clay County lawmakers in the Missouri General Assembly pushing a bill that would allow for citizens to recall county commissioners.

The bill came up for a hearing before the House General Laws Committee on Wednesday. Ridgeway submitted testimony against the bill, saying the recall process already exists in primary and general elections.

“With the recall process, the incentive will be for elected officials to dodge difficult issues to avoid an uprising of a vocal minority who would seek a recall,” her letter said.

Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.