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After Years Of Turmoil, Clay County Voters Will Soon Get A Chance To Change The Shape Of Their Government

A statue outside the Clay County Commission meeting room Thursday, December 19, 2019.
Julie Denesha
A statue outside the Clay County Commission meeting room Thursday, December 19, 2019.

Proposition C supporters say changing the form of government will bring needed reform to the county while opponents say the problem is the current commissioners.

Clay County voters will get a chance Tuesday to take the first step in changing the county’s form of government.

Citizens have long raised concerns about the county commission — from protesting the commission quietly giving two top officials free housing to raising concerns about one commissioner having the ability to spend millions without public input. Residents were also outraged over cuts to the jail, which an appeals court later said were “disturbing.” Perhaps the biggest complaint has been the commission’s resistance to an audit requested by citizens and its spending on outside lawyers to defend jail cuts and audit delays and not handing over public records.

“I think people are just tired of the embarrassment known as Clay County, and they're ready for a change,” says Jason Withington, who helped organize the audit.

Tuesday’s vote would set up a commission to create a county constitution, which would then have to be approved by voters. The 14-member commission would be appointed by judges in the seventh circuit court.

Supporters argue this could allow the commission to be expanded from its current three members and that the constitution could include a mechanism for recalling commissioners.

Opponents counter that the problem with Clay County government is its current commissioners. Opponents also say they’re worried the proposed form of government would get rid of elected positions in favor of appointed positions. Those elected officials, such as the clerk and auditor, have pushed back against the commission majority by speaking out publicly and releasing documents to the press.

“I think if you get the responsible leadership elected, a charter form of government is not necessary,” says Sherry Duffett, who worked for the county for more than a decade and gathered signatures for the audit.

County Auditor Victor Hurlbert says he understands the desire for change, but says the county should go back to its original system of checks and balances.

As KCUR reported in December, the auditor, assessor, clerk and collector say there’s been a shift in responsibilities. For example, the clerk was previously responsible for handling records requests, but that job was given to an assistant county administrator. The move took politics out of the equation, according to one commissioner who backed the change. However, others say that because the clerk is an independently elected official, she provided an important check on the commission.

“I think we actually need to go back to the original statutory system because we are not living up to it right now. We have powers that have been removed from elected officials,” Hurlbert says.

If voters greenlight the first step in changing the government’s structure, it’s unclear exactly what changes the appointed committee would propose. However, an advisory panel created by the county commission suggested changes such as making elected offices nonpartisan, creating a way to recall commissioners and reforming how open meetings are conducted.

Withington says if people don’t like what the committee proposes, then voters can simply reject it.

“They may come up with a really bad charter, and I'll vote no,” Withington says. “All we're trying to do is give citizens an opportunity to come up with some improvements in a proposed charter.”

Polls open at 6 a.m. June 2. Elected officials are asking people to check their polling location online because some sites have changed.

Aviva Okeson-Haberman was the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3.
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