Editorials

What are Clay County Commissioners hiding from the state auditor?

Enough is enough: Clay County citizens want state audit of county government

A group of Clay County citizens hopes that a state audit of their government will lead to better accountability. Citizens for a Better Clay County has gathered thousands of signatures on a petition to get that audit.
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A group of Clay County citizens hopes that a state audit of their government will lead to better accountability. Citizens for a Better Clay County has gathered thousands of signatures on a petition to get that audit.

What do Clay County Commissioners have to hide? The three-member commission that presides over Clay County government is embroiled in an unnecessary and ugly legal fight with Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway.

Galloway says her office has encountered delays and evasive behavior from Clay County leaders since launching an audit in December. She wants to subpoena government officials and recover minutes of public meetings from the last two years.

Clay County Commissioners sued to limit the scope of the audit, which is still ongoing. A Cole County judge ruled that Galloway’s subpoena will not be enforced until the court decides the case.

Commissioners falsely claimed late Monday that the subpoena had been withdrawn — yet another bizarre and suspicious maneuver that appeared aimed at obscuring the truth.

“It is concerning that the Clay County Commission would mislead citizens and the media in this way,” the auditor’s office wrote in a statement released Monday evening. “The auditor is confident in her legal authority and remains diligent as she works to get answers for taxpayers.”

Petty drama and silly infighting are nothing new for Clay County Commissioners. But the board’s decision to sue the state auditor is a new low. The litigation burdens taxpayers and is a major disservice to constituents.

The state auditor’s duties include reviewing government entities such as the Clay County Commission. And commissioners inexplicably are standing in the way.

This audit was spurred by a citizen-led petition process, so the commissioners are defying their own constituents, who have raised legitimate concerns about possible corruption and other governance issues.

“We have no trust in county government,” said Jason Withington, a spokesperson for Citizens for a Better Clay County. The group collected thousands of signatures to petition the state for a top-to-bottom audit of county operations.

“We just want to restore faith and trust in the county,” he said. “To do this (lawsuit), it looks very suspicious.”

If Clay County succeeds in limiting the scope of the audit, it would set a terrible precedent. Would Jackson County, which is undergoing an audit, follow with a lawsuit of its own? What about Raytown?

Hopefully, a judge will see through this calculated obstruction and toss the commissioners’ suit.

Accountability seems to be lacking in Clay County. And commissioners’ aversion to basic oversight is suspect at best.

“We need to promote transparency and open government,” Clay County Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte said this week. Nolte says he supports the audit because “it was mandated by the people.”

But what does it say about Clay County Commissioners Gene Owen and Luann Ridgeway when the state auditor, who is simply doing her job, has to issue a subpoena to compel government employees to cooperate? Galloway works on behalf of the people. A request for basic documents should not spur a major legal battle.

A deep dive into the effectiveness of the county government could cost taxpayers between $100,000 to $150,000. But that number could balloon if commissioners continue to obstruct the audit. The lawsuit will certainly rack up unnecessary bills.

The commissioners’ stonewalling prompted Democratic state Sen. Lauren Arthur, whose district includes Clay County, to file a bill that would give citizens the right to recall a county commissioner.

Right now, Clay County residents have no mechanism to recall a county commissioner. Arthur’s bill would change that.

“We must have the ability to hold our elected leaders accountable,” Arthur wrote in a Facebook post.

Elected officials work for the people they represent. Clay County Commissioners must know it’s unacceptable to defy the will of their constituents. They must allow Galloway and staff to do their jobs on behalf of the citizens of Clay County.

If there is nothing to hide, Galloway will give the county government a clean bill of operational health. But for now, the pending lawsuit and the lack of transparency raise serious questions about the Clay County Commission.

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