Government & Politics

Clay County Commission discussion on changing its government ends in tumult, inaction

The first public step to fundamentally change Clay County’s form of government devolved Monday into a morass of procedural confusion, personality conflicts and political backbiting.

The idea, first broached by Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway in an email last week to constituents, was to consider forming a committee to advise a future constitutional charter commission on how to reshape Clay County government.

Ridgeway said she wanted a committee to begin discussing a new structure of government after talking with members of earlier charter commissions who said those efforts failed in part due to a lack of enough time to form a meaningful government charter.

Movements to update Clay County’s government failed in 2006 and again in 2012. In Clay County, three elected commissioners oversee and vote on county policy, while other officials are elected to positions such as collector, recorder of deeds and assessor and oversee those departments.

While no firm idea for a new government took shape on Monday, similar government structures in larger counties in Missouri, like Jackson and St. Charles counties, expand the number of elected commissioners. Positions like the recorder of deeds are appointed by professional administrators who report to the elected body.

Critics of Clay County’s current form of government say that with three commissioners, it becomes too easy for a two-to-one majority to run county government.

Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte is frequently outpoliticked by Ridgeway and Western Commissioner Gene Owen. Nolte is nearly always on the losing end of two-to-one votes on substantive issues in a county beset by turmoil ranging from allegations of waste and needless secrecy to an ongoing state audit. The county has spent money on lawyers to fight the audit in court, so far unsuccessfully.

On Monday, Nolte attempted to introduce an amendment to Ridgeway’s proposal.

He said the commission should go directly to voters with an April 7, 2020, question asking Clay County Circuit Court judges to appoint a 14-member commission to come up with an official proposal for a constitutional charter form of government. Voters would then vote on the actual charter itself, as soon as the November general election.

Nolte said he didn’t — and voters shouldn’t — trust a handpicked committee of political appointments by a Clay County Commission that is often seen as dysfunctional. Instead, Nolte said the issue should be discussed in a series of town hall meetings ahead of the April vote.

“I think you have to ask yourself: Do you really trust us?” Nolte said. “I don’t think you should. You should trust yourselves.”

Ridgeway took exception to Nolte’s amendment.

“Every single time that you strike out to punch me, Clay County is the one that suffers the blow,” Ridgeway said. “This has got to stop.”

Owen did not discuss the matter at Monday’s meeting, even when prompted twice by Nolte to engage with the conversation. Owen voted with Ridgeway to defeat Nolte’s amendment.

Visitors at the meeting were critical of Ridgeway’s proposal.

One Clay County resident, Jesse Leimkuehler, read from Ridgeway’s Oct. 31 email in which she outlined her idea for a new Clay County government and retorted that it was she and Owen who contributed to the dysfunction her letter described.

“I would say it’s gotten worse due to the policies put in place by the majority of this commission,” Leimkuehler said. He added that those policies have resulted in waste of taxpayer money, the county using lobbyists who lobby against resident interests and millions of dollars spent on legal fees to outside law firms.

Another visitor, Bobby Oakes, suggested that the commission vote down Ridgeway’s proposal. He predicted that Ridgeway and Owen would get voted out of office if they went up for election again.

“You are leaving,” said the Gladstone resident. “You are not going to get re-elected.”

The measure didn’t get voted down. Instead, the commission voted to hear the matter again at its Nov. 18 meeting after staff and the county’s outside lawyers go over tweaks to Ridgeway’s proposal.

In her email to constituents, Ridgeway said she settled on the idea to consider a new Clay County government — she had opposed the 2012 effort — after taking stock of the county’s reputation for dysfunction. Before her election to the commission, she served in the Missouri General Assembly.

“From my earliest days in elective office, I was aware that Clay County had a terrible reputation for public in-fighting between officeholders,” Ridgeway wrote. “Clay County was usually thrust into the news as little more than a county where elected officials behaved like warring tribes embroiled in foolish controversies and abuse of our legal system for what appeared to be political purposes.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that charter forms of county government can appoint assessors. A 2010 amendment to the Missouri constitution means county assessors are generally elected, although an exception was made in Jackson County.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

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.