Clay County Commission meetings are tense. There are arguments over procedural matters, like what’s even on the agenda, as well as policy matters like budgeting. There’s a lot of finger-pointing about who is to blame.
The county itself is under a microscope, the subject of high-profile legal battles and a state audit initiated by thousands of voters. Citizens who want more of a say are showing up at commission meetings and posting updates on Facebook groups, but they don’t feel heard. And some elected county officials are open about the fact they feel they’re part of a dysfunctional system.
Everyone agrees on one thing: Something isn’t working.
‘It doesn't matter what you say’
Clay County Commission meetings are the most visible sign of the struggle between citizens and the three-member panel. The commission itself is deeply divided, with Commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen typically voting in lockstep opposite presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte.
There hasn’t been a public comment period during commission meetings for two years; Ridgeway and Owen voted to get rid of it. In its place is a once-a-month public comment period, held at 4 p.m. on a Friday at the circuit court. The county spokeswoman writes down concerns, and commissioners, if they attend, aren’t allowed to directly address citizens.
Removing public comment was ludicrous, said Sherry Duffett, who helped gather signatures to force the state audit.
“That really made me mad,” Duffett said. “Because all they had to do is say, OK, we're going to let you speak, but we're going to limit you. They can limit people to five minutes.”
People are able to address the commission during a meeting as long as it is narrowly tailored to what’s on the agenda. It cannot include pointed criticism of specific commissioners.
Those rules have led to conflicts. At a Nov. 18 commission meeting, Ed LaBarr showed up with a letter laying out concerns about the proposal to create a committee that will come up with recommendations for a new form of county government. That topic was on the agenda.
LaBarr has Parkinson’s and dystonia, and so he asked the clerk to read his statement on his behalf. What followed was a 27-minute heated debate between commissioners and citizens, with people jumping in to voice support for LaBarr.
Ridgeway said the commissioners could read the statement themselves and took issue with some of LaBarr’s statement, which asked if she was a sore loser because of the taxpayer-requested audit.
“I believe it’s pertinent for him to have free speech and I think it’s a disgrace if we don’t allow that,” Maureen Sanford told the commissioners. “What have we become?”
The commission decided, in a 2 to 1 vote, to move on without reading the two-page statement out loud.
“The statement also suffered from other issues that a non-handicapped person would not be allowed, according to our rules of decorum and debate, to enter into which contain very hostile personal attacks that had nothing to do with the substance of the policy,” Ridgeway told KCUR.
LaBarr is the former mayor of Richmond, Missouri. He told KCUR in an email that he would “never cut off a citizen” when he was an elected official, and the main message he wanted to convey with his letter was that Clay County needs new commissioners, not a different form of government.
“I was very disappointed as I had carefully prepared my statement as I cannot speak and should have been given latitude to have my ‘voice’ heard,” LaBarr said in an email to KCUR. “To have someone read the statement aloud would have given me a very important feeling ‘that my voice indeed had purpose and was of, by, and for the people’ of Clay County.”
Aundre Gray watched the meeting and called it “unprofessional.”
“It was very disheartening just to hear the interaction, not only between the commissioners,” Gray said, “but how they speak to some of the citizens that are addressing public concerns, which it is our tax dollars at work here.”
Jesse Leimkuehler voted for Ridgeway in 2016 but said he regrets it. He supported the state audit, which has been underway for a year and held up by a legal fight over closed meeting notes.
Leimkuehler also doesn’t feel like the commission listens to regular residents when they raise concerns —like the cost of a $2 million land purchase for a new county annex.
“It's like a bully pulpit, to be quite honest,” Leimkuehler said. “They're simply standing up there and saying it doesn't matter what you say, it doesn't matter what you do, we will spend your money. We will spend it in a way that we see it as best.”
Checks and balances
Assessor Cathy Rinehart has been with the county for more than two decades and says morale is at an all-time low.
“I think the (assistant county administrators) in this county and the county commissioners have created a very hostile work environment for people,” Rinehart said. “It's sad.”
And auditor Victor Hurlbert noticed the tension as soon as he was elected last year. Hurlbert said while he has a good relationship with Nolte, the other two commissioners are not approachable.
“There's a lack of trust ... with the administration. We can't trust what they're going to do if they're going to do things in our interests,” Hurlbert said. “It just seems like they’re out to get us.”
A large part of this feeling, according to the auditor, assessor, clerk and collector, is a shift in responsibilities in county government. The three assistant county administrators handle everything from finance to facilities management and parks. But their job description has grown in recent years: Administrators now sign off on contracts instead of the commission, take closed-meeting notes and handle public records requests.
“There's a lot of things that state statute put the responsibility on elected people to do that are not being performed by elected people in this county anymore,” Collector Lydia McEvoy said. “But the argument is being made by the commissioners that they are using professional staff that are more qualified and have more time to do it.”
Hurlbert said the problem is that county administrators weren’t chosen by voters.
“They elected an official with the idea of they're going to be able to do their job and represent them on what they campaigned on,” he said.
Nolte opposed giving county administrators more duties, and told KCUR that administrators keep his proposals off of the agenda for commission meetings. In 2017, he also was against the commission’s decision to move the public records request from the clerk to the county administrators.
“It sounds like the fox watching the henhouse to me,” Nolte said. “When it was with the county clerk, (she’s an) independently elected official and not beholding necessarily to the commission.”
But Ridgeway said the decision took politics out of the equation, since administrators aren’t elected.
“The commission should be responsible for their own records because it is the commission that bears the responsibility for failure to comply with the sunshine law,” she said. “...There remains a solid system of checks and balances.”
An assistant county administrator also now oversees a finance department, a move the county says was based on suggestions from outside auditors.
“The County employs and relies on an experienced team of administrators and staff who have a wide range of responsibilities, as they are entrusted with day-to-day management of the County's operations,” according to an unsigned statement from the county. “The checks and balances that one would expect in this type of relationship are very much intact in Clay County, and the elected officials and administrators are constantly working in tandem to represent the best interests of Clay County's residents.”
‘There is a lot of hostility’
Perhaps the most visible rift between elected officeholders and the commission is the lawsuit from the sheriff’s office.
Two years ago, the sheriff’s office investigated Laurie Portwood, the county’s chief budget officer and an assistant county administrator, for record tampering. Portwood kept her job, and then cut the current jail contract budget by about 60%. The commission signed off on the budget cut.
The sheriff sued, and an appeals court said the cuts were “as disturbing as they are indefensible.”
For Hurlbert, that case is a warning for what happens when you speak out.
“They’re always trying to put you into your place,” he said. “Intimidate, coerce you to toe line, don't cause any issue, but that's not what we're elected for.”
County Clerk Megan Thompson calls the government “dysfunctional,” and has been vocal about her concerns. She tipped the sheriff off to Portwood’s record tampering, and is planning to challenge Ridgeway for her seat in 2020.
“There is a lot of hostility,” Thompson said. “... I'm not sure where it actually stems from, or even why, I would think that we all are adults, and we all have jobs to do. We're all public servants.”
The county told KCUR in a statement that it is “committed to ensuring, to the best of our ability, staff has a fair and safe working environment.”
“We work to provide a structure and process that helps diminish hostility and support our ambition to provide first-class services to the community,” the statement said.
Both Nolte and Ridgeway admit the working environment has issues; Owen declined to be interviewed for this story.
Nolte believes the commission has to take responsibility for what he calls a “tense” working environment, and has publicly called on both Ridgeway and Owen to step down.
“To somehow blame staff I think lets commissioners off the hook. Staff will act by and large as they are directed by the commission,” Nolte said. He added that cuts to the sheriff’s budget, which he voted against, are an example of the “punitive character” of budget decisions, which creates mistrust.
Ridgeway said she hears concerns about the work environment from staff on “a consistent basis.” But she blames Nolte for creating “an extremely toxic environment” by asking pointed questions of county staffers during commission meetings.
Amid all of this turmoil — and awaiting the results of the state audit — is a proposal on the April ballot that could lead to a county government makeover. It was championed by Ridgeway, who says it could be an effective way of “raising the professionalism and getting rid of much of the toxicity” in the county government.
This initial vote is complicated: It would trigger a judge to appoint a commission that would create the governing structure. But it could bring about big changes, like increasing the number of commissioners or changing elected positions like assessor and auditor to appointed offices.
Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson.