Jackson County government is dysfunctional. Here’s one fix that would help

Jackson County voters will decide in November on a proposed new property tax to benefit senior citizens.
Jackson County voters will decide in November on a proposed new property tax to benefit senior citizens. File photo

Jackson Countians interested in honest government will need to pick up the phone in the next few weeks.

Legislator Greg Grounds says he’s finalizing an ordinance calling for significant changes to the county’s charter. Among his proposals: term limits for legislators, the county prosecutor, the sheriff, and county executive.

Grounds wants an August public vote. To get it, he must convince his colleagues to do the right thing and put a reform package on the ballot.

This will not be easy. It will take pressure from constituents to place the changes before voters.

But as virtually everyone now knows, Jackson County government is dysfunctional. The aging jail is a danger to inmates and workers. Sheriff Mike Sharp just quit following a sex scandal. County Executive Frank White faces personal financial problems. Former County Executive Mike Sanders may end up in federal prison.

Not all of these concerns are directly related to the current indefinite tenure of county officials. But the attitude of entitlement that comes along with unlimited terms is clearly a part of the mud at the courthouse.

That’s why it’s disappointing that Grounds’ term limits plan falls short of what is needed. His current proposal calls for limiting legislators and the executive to two four-year terms, but the clock would not start running until 2019.

That would potentially give every incumbent in the legislature eight more years in office if they run this year and win re-election.

Other restrictions in the Grounds plan are more problematic. Grounds proposes a three-term, 12-year limit for the county prosecutor and sheriff, yet the prohibition would not take effect until 2021. It hardly seems worth the effort to allow incumbents to potentially serve until 2033.

On Monday, Grounds was explicit. His term limits were weakened because some of his colleagues won’t support a tougher, retroactive alternative.

“I basically would have been asking members to vote themselves out of office immediately if it passed,” Grounds said.

Your point?

Voters can address that issue at the polls this summer and fall, of course. They should oppose any incumbent who votes against putting term limits on the ballot.

For now, Jackson Countians should call the courthouse (816-881-3242) and urge legislators to support a hard term limit — two terms, effective immediately.

There is a precedent. In 1990, Kansas City voters approved term limits for the city council without a grandfather clause. A clear majority of the council’s 13 members were immediately blocked from seeking office in 1991.

They howled. But the people spoke. It has worked. We’re confident voters would say the same thing about the county legislature.

County Executive Frank White should get phone calls and emails, too. If he vetoes a term limit vote, Grounds says, it will take six legislators to override. That makes this task even tougher.

The Grounds proposal, which is still in flux, involves more than just term limits. It would change ethics rules, give the sheriff control of the jail, give the prosecutor control of the COMBAT tax and establish a county municipal court.

Pay for lawmakers might go up as well.

But the proposal is a start. Jackson Countians must now make their voices heard.