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One Clay County Commissioner Can Spend Millions Without Public Input

20191212_ClayCountyBudget_00004.jpg
Julie Denesha
/
KCUR 89.3 file photo
Western Commissioner Gene Owen listens during a Clay County Commission budget meeting Thursday December 19, 2019.

One Clay County commissioner has the authority to approve spending decisions on a controversial $20 million new county annex without public discussion. 

On Monday, the Clay County commission, on a two to one vote, gave that power to Commissioner Gene Owen. The move comes after Owen signed off on two contracts totaling more than $1.3 million in March for engineering and architectural services without a public vote or discussion. Citizens have long complained about a lack of transparency in the county, which helped launch a state audit in late 2018.

“I think it puts far too much power… away from the view of the voters,” Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte said during the meeting. He voted against the measure. “I think it puts too much of our government spending behind closed doors.”

Commissioner Luann Ridgeway defended the move, citing Owen’s experience in construction. Ridgeway and Owen typically vote in lockstep. 

“I don't think there's a whole lot to argue about here or debate. This isn't really anything new,” Ridgeway said. “It's an affirmation of some previous contracts and actions that this commission, by majority vote, has already taken. It does clarify the proper professional chain of command.”

Like many commission meetings, the tone was tense. Nolte asked Owen to recuse himself from the vote. 

“No, I won't,” Owen responded. “This is actions we've already taken in the past. And you know it.”

Nolte also asked Owen to introduce the measure and explain what it would mean for the county. 

“I have no comment,” Owen replied. 

The commission also voted to table a discussion item proposed by Nolte that would have allowed for a public update on the progress of the county annex building. 

Owen did not immediately respond to KCUR’s request for comment. 

Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson.

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