Clay County’s issues are starting to come to a head, as this week alone the Missouri state auditor issued a subpoena for documents in an ongoing audit, the county commission continued to defend underfunding jail contracts in court and talked about what it would take to change the county’s governance structure.
Of the three issues, the jail funding lawsuit — which says contracts for food and health care were underfunded by about $1 million — likely will be the first to be resolved. A circuit judge sided in August with Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo, ruling that the county had “intentionally manipulated the budgeting process.”
The county appealed, and at a hearing Friday, the commission’s lawyer argued the county is not obligated to fully fund those contracts. County attorney Lowell Pearson argued that elected officials have the right to make budgetary decisions.
“The facts don’t matter,” Pearson said. “This is strictly an issue of law and it’s strictly within the discretion of the budget officer to propose the budget and the commission to pass it.”
Vescovo’s lawyer, Fritz Riesmeyer, argued that the cuts — from about $2.6 million in 2017 to about $1.8 million in 2018 — weren’t due to county budget constraints. Instead, he said, the underfunding was a retaliatory move after Vescovo launched an investigation into the chief budget officer over allegations of record tampering.
“This is clear retribution conduct,” Riesmeyer said. “It is arbitrary. It is capricious and there has not been one rational basis for why this was done.”
The commission, which consists of three members, was split on these budget cuts to the sheriff’s office. Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte opposed cuts and was represented separately on Friday.
“The county of Clay has already exercised its discretion when they signed those … contracts,” said John Reddoch, Nolte’s lawyer.
Pearson, arguing on behalf of the other two commissioners, said if the court upheld the previous decision, it would open the floodgates for any official to sue a county if they didn’t like the outcome of a budgeting process.
An audit development
The backdrop to ongoing questions about the county’s spending decisions is the state audit initiated by thousands of citizens.
Shortly after Friday’s hearing, Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway announced Clay County had failed to turn over documents she had requested, including commission meeting minutes, descriptions of legal services provided by outside law firms and detailed 2019 financial transactions.
The audit has been slowed down by litigation. The county commission sued Galloway in January, arguing that closed meeting notes didn’t fall within Galloway’s authority. A circuit judge disagreed and dismissed the lawsuit in October. Galloway’s subpoena asked for those closed meeting notes.
Clay County will comply with the “bulk of her requests,” according to an unsigned statement from the county on Friday.
“Our staff had already conveyed to the Auditor’s office that it would produce nearly all of the requested materials, but needed more time given the auditor only provided seven days to produce thousands of pages of documents, and given that County staff are working to meet a November 15 deadline to complete the 2020 budget,” the statement said.
A new structure?
At the beginning of the week, the Clay County commissioners discussed a proposal to give the county more control of its governance structure, allowing for voters to elect the county administrator and other offices.
But, as it can be among the commissioners, it was a contentious debate.
The basic idea, as proposed by Commissioner Luann Ridgeway, would create a panel in charge of drafting a constitutional charter. Voters would still have to approve the change and a separate judge-appointed commission would have the ultimate say on what goes on the ballot.
“I’ve got a good deal of skepticism and I’ve got the bruises from it to remind me in case I forget,” Nolte, the presiding commissioner, said at the meeting.
In response, Ridgeway said her proposal was a good faith effort to address the problems plaguing Clay County.
“I am dismayed that you have attacked motives,” she said. “I am dismayed that you can’t be at least a little conciliatory to come together in the middle,”
The proposal will likely be voted on at the Nov. 18 commission meeting.
Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson.