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Politics, Elections and Government

FAQ: Here’s What Clay County Voters Should Know About November’s Vote To Change County Government

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Carlos Moreno
Clay County voters will decide this November on a new county constitution.

Clay County voters will decide this November if they want to increase the number of commissioners, decrease their pay, create term limits and make some elected position into appointments.

After a decade of infighting and dysfunction, Clay County citizens have a chance to change their form of government in November.

Many agree that the county needs the rearrangement — local government is facing allegations of wasting taxpayer money and is being called a "dysfunctional clown show" — but some say the change goes too far.

The proposal would expand the number of commissioners from three to seven, require nonpartisan elections, add a mechanism to recall elected officials and move some positions like the clerk and treasurer from elected jobs to appointed posts.

The current commission has faced scrutiny for cutting jail contracts an appeals court later said were “disturbing,” spending money on lawyers to resist an audit requested by citizens and giving one commissioner sole spending authority on a controversial $20 million new county annex.

Clay County’s government has faced scandals long before the current commission. In 2011, a county auditor resigned after it came to light that he was convicted of a felony. And in 2013, a different county auditor and a clerk built a 16-foot long wall in the county administration building without approval from the commission.

Greg Canuteson helped draft the proposed constitution and points to those examples as evidence that county government issues run deeper than the current commission.

“[Clay County] should be seen as a county that is professionally managed and not a dysfunctional clown show,” Canuteson said.

Not everyone is convinced the changes to the county’s structure would bring about good governance. Jason Withington helped organize the petition calling for a state audit and publicly backed Proposition C, which created the commission that wrote this constitution.

Withington said he regrets advocating for Proposition C and doesn’t support changing positions like the clerk and collector from appointed instead of elected.

“I can't get behind a document that eliminates the independent checks and balances in our county government,” Withington said.

Here’s what you need to know about the proposed constitution:

What would this mean for the commission?

The new structure would include seven commissioners: two at-large commissioners, two western District commissioners, two eastern District commissioners and the presiding commissioner.

“It prevents two commissioners from hijacking the county and doing anything they want. It now takes four and sometimes five,” Scott Connor said. He helped draft the constitution and is on the Liberty Public Schools board.

Commission pay would be slashed by more than half by tying pay to the salary of Missouri House of Representatives members (about $36,000 a year). Commissioners wouldn’t get retirement or health benefits. The presiding commissioner would get paid about $12,000 extra and get health insurance in exchange for additional duties.

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Aviva Okeson-Haberman
Under this proposal, Clay county's commission would be expanded from three to seven members.

Commissioners would also be limited to serving two terms in the same office. Term limits allow someone to run for another office. So the western district commissioner could, for example, complete their two terms and then run for presiding commissioner.

What about other elected offices?

The sheriff, auditor, assessor and prosecuting attorney will remain elected.

However, the treasurer, collector, recorder of deeds and public administrator will be appointed instead of elected. Committee members said they decided to make those officeholders appointed because the positions were more administrative. The committee looked to school boards and city councils as an example.

Withington said he’s worried the change would give more power to the commission, which would appoint the positions. The clerk, for example, has been a vocal critic of the current commission. In 2017, Megan Thompson alerted the county sheriff to record tampering.

“How much harder would it have been for Megan to blow the whistle on her boss?” Withington said.

Clay county collector Lydia McEvoy is also concerned about making four positions appointed because it would result in voters not having "direct power to fire them." McEvoy is running for the western district commissioner.

"Somehow, after all that two Commissioners and their appointed employees have done to incur debt, show disrespect, and damage the image of Clay County government, the document that has emerged to fix the problem seeks to abolish offices that are currently working and to give their power to even more powerful unelected bureaucrats," McEvoy said in an email to KCUR.

The 14-member body that drafted the constitution were split about this portion of the proposal, with some wanting additional officeholders to be appointed and others wanting to keep the current structure.

“The idea is that the public policy for the county be set by the county commission and by individual officeholders who have policy-making functions,” Canuteson said. “And positions like clerk or recorder of deeds simply carry out policy.”

The summary ballot language doesn’t mention making some positions appointed which auditor Victor Hurlbert disagrees with because it’s a key sticking point for opponents.

How will these nonpartisan elections work?

If two people run for an office there will just be a general election. If there are more than two candidates, the county will hold a primary election with the top two vote-getters facing off in a general election. If one candidate garners more than 50% of the vote in the primary, they are elected and there’s no general election.

When will this take effect?

The constitution would go into effect Jan. 1, 2021. However, some changes are phased in. The additional four commissioners would be elected in 2022. Positions that were previously elected (clerk, treasurer, collector, recorder of deeds, public administrator) won’t be appointed until January 2023.

The timeline is a concern for McEvoy. Under current state law, the collector takes office in March instead of January because the office is handling property taxes due in December.

"This is because, for the Collector, there are millions of dollars in flux on that day. Every payment that was mailed in the last half of December is still being accounted for," McEvoy said in an email.

Because of this McEvoy said the collector's office shouldn't be transitioned before March.

"If the elected office is actually abolished on December 31, 2022, there is no mechanism for an effective audit and proper transition of responsibility for the millions of moving dollars on that day," McEvoy said.

Can you remove a commissioner from office?

Yes. Citizens can recall any elected official. The process would start with a petition that has signatures from registered voters equaling a fifth of the total votes cast for governor in that district.

There’s also a mechanism for citizens to propose or repeal ordinances through a petition.

Does this new constitution address transparency?

It requires all commission meetings where a vote takes place to be live-streamed, with the video available afterward.

“There's no reason in this day and age why we can't have a forum where they can live stream that,” Sherry Duffett said. She helped draft the constitution and is a former county employee.

Does this change if the county can take on debt?

In 2018 the commission approved a controversial $50 million bond project for county improvements. Under the proposed constitution, any commission vote to take on debt would need a super-majority vote if the project exceeds 15% of the previous year’s revenues. A super-majority is three out of three commissioners. Once the commission is expanded, a bond project has to have the support of five out of seven commissioners.

Didn’t we just vote on Proposition C? How did this commission come up with a new constitution so quickly?

In June, about 57% of voters gave the green light on creating a new form of government. In mid-July, the group was appointed by Clay County circuit judges. The group, made up of seven Democrats and seven Republicans, had about a year to write the document. However, with a larger turnout almost guaranteed during a presidential election year, the commission decided to complete their work in time for a November vote on the new form of government. They also looked at previous attempts to create a charter form of government and an advisory group that was formed in late 2019 to gather input.

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