There’s an amazing human drama unfolding in Clay County — a pitched battle between the governing and the governed for control of their community. It’s a scene that should be astonishing to most of us in 21st-century America.
It seemed the liberation of Clay County was at hand Oct. 23 with a judge’s rightful rejection of an outrageous lawsuit by two of the three county commissioners to block an ongoing state audit demanded in a petition by the people themselves.
On another front, the state appeals court will have a hearing Friday on whether to affirm a judge’s order that those same two commissioners begin funding the jail again — which would mercifully prevent half the inmates from being released onto the streets, according to the sheriff.
The odd struggles over the audit, and the bizarre decision by the two commissioners to not fund the jail, have cost taxpayers in this Kansas City-area county tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees alone and even more in embarrassment and tumult.
But now a new front in the fight for Clay County has opened up, with Commissioner Luann Ridgeway’s proposal to form a committee to change the county government structure.
Her proposal seems aimed at getting out in front of a budding citizens’ movement to change the government structure to free this Missouri county from the tyranny-of-two that Ridgeway and fellow Commissioner Gene Owen have conspired to craft.
The proposal, which devolved into a hot mess at Monday’s commission meeting and was tabled until Nov. 18, is a legally sketchy and politically offensive attempt to hijack a much-needed reform of Clay County government. In what perverse universe would it be a good idea to have two government officials dress up and parade around as the solution to the chaos they have caused by themselves?
And where else do elected officials go to court to so blatantly thwart their own constituents’ will? The irony is — and any lawyer worth his or her salt could’ve and should’ve told the commissioners this — that by going to court to fight the people’s audit and keep the citizens under their thumb, the commissioners are only ensuring the people’s eventual deliverance.
Having said that, it’s clear the judge’s tossing of the audit lawsuit didn’t free the county. It’s only the start of a necessary and hard-fought liberation. Residents need to put their minds to ending this crisis for good — starting with showing up in force to the commission meeting Nov. 18 to reject the hijacking of their reform efforts by the same two people who’ve made the reform necessary.
Do county commissioners even have a role in steering a charter commission?
“Statutorily they don’t,” says Clay County Clerk Megan Thompson, one of two announced candidates challenging Ridgeway in next year’s eastern-district commission election. “Ridgeway is proposing a charter committee that has no real authority.”
Why? To remain relevant? To somehow stack the eventual charter commission with any remaining allies? The Clay County Courthouse is abuzz with speculation on Ridgeway’s intentions, Thompson says.
“The people of Clay County don’t trust you or your motives,” activist Jason Withington of Citizens For A Better Clay County Inc. wrote Ridgeway in an email. “If you want to prove them wrong and show them how serious you are about improving our county government then you nominate me.”
In response, Ridgeway suggested to Withington that it would make more sense for the third commissioner, Jerry Nolte, to nominate him. Perhaps she’s right; Nolte is the only one of the three commissioners who seems to have any sense.
No community should be held hostage to its elected representatives, or find it necessary to have the courts liberate them from an autocracy that should be inconceivable today. But that’s where we find ourselves in Clay County.
Residents shouldn’t be content to be rescued by men and women in robes. They need to take the reins themselves and start now on devising a county government that divests such overbearing power from two rogue rulers.
In an earlier time, this drama would’ve been played out with torches and pitchforks. Today, what’s required are petitions, awareness and perseverance.