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How Long Should They Serve? Jackson County Legislature Takes Up Charter Changes

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

Update, May 8 5:20 p.m.:

The Jackson County Legislature approved the proposed changes 6-3 Monday.

The changes will appear on the August primary ballot.

The original post continues below.

When Jackson County legislators convene Monday afternoon, they'll be taking the first step into determining their own future.

At that meeting, legislator Greg Grounds, who represents much of eastern Jackson County and is one of two Republicans in the county legislature, will introduce a controversial plan to change the county charter. 

Grounds is not seeking reelection after a decade in the legislature and says he will dedicate his remaining time in office to limiting how long elected officials in the county may serve.

It's something voters want, he says. “People smile big and say, absolutely it should have been done before.”

Grounds says he will introduce an ordinance Monday that would drastically change the county charter. The biggest change would be how long elected officials could serve. Under Grounds' plan, legislators would be limited to two, consecutive four-year terms.

Longevity in office is a hallmark for the county legislature. Dennis Waits has served for 32 years. Dan Tarwater has been there for 24 years.

Both Tarwater and Waits say they can support term limits and are considering ending their legislative careers.

The Grounds plan adds one other element to legislative service, you have to be up to date on your taxes.

Under the draft ordinance, a lawmaker could be removed from office for owing "Missouri state income tax or Missouri local tax which remain unpaid for more than twelve months."

This was added, in part, because some county legislators have apparently owed back taxes. Both Waits and Chairman Scott Burnett have been in arrears, according to a report from 41 Action News.

Burnett says that his back tax issue was 14 years ago and was connected to his business. He says his business partner missed some workman’s compensation payments. “I’ve never been behind in my personal taxes ever,” he says.

Jackson County Executive Frank White has also been investigated for back tax issues. The proposed charter changes would impose the same tax requirement on the county executive, prosecutor and sheriff.

Grounds says that he has heard from voters that this is something they want. But the tax issues for Waits and Burnett also played a role. "I would be less than honest if I said otherwise."

No charges were ever brought against either lawmaker or White, and both men told 41 Action News that they are up to date on all taxes.

There would also be term limits on the sheriff and prosecutor. They would be limited to three consecutive terms.

There's also changes on how much officials make.

Under a revised proposal the county prosecutor, sheriff and executive would all make the same salary as an associate appeals court judge. According to Grounds, that is approximately $172,000 yearly.

County legislator’s salary would be tied to how much circuit court judges make in Missouri. Lawmakers would be paid one-third of that, about $52,000 per year.

Besides term limits perhaps the other biggest proposed change is that the troubled downtown jail would return to the Sheriff's Office for administration.

All of this, of course, is caught up in politics. While most on the legislature support changing the charter, some think Grounds is rushing the process.

Grounds wants the changes to appear on the August ballot, but legislators Tony Miller and Crystal Williams suggest there should be multiple public hearings and perhaps a commission should be formed to make recommendations.

Grounds says he's pretty sure he has the votes to pass the ordinance out of the nine member legislature. However, if White vetoes the change, Grounds may not have enough votes to override the veto.

If it gets approved, what would this look like for voters? While the legislature must pass the ordinance as a package, voters will have to decide six separate questions. So, voters could pass term limits but say no to the salary changes.

Grounds hopes to have a public hearing on the ordinance at the May 7 legislative meeting.

Correction: The proposed salaries for county positions were originally misstated.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 9:10 a.m. May 10 to include comments from Scott Burnett.

Sam Zeffis KCUR's Metro Reporter. You can follow Sam on Twitter @samzeff

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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