CLAY COUNTY — After months of public meetings across the Northland this winter, the Clay County Constitution Advisory Committee concluded its findings, recommending the Clay County Commission be replaced by at least an eight-person council.
The 12-person advisory committee, created by each of the three county commissioners appointing four members, was formed in November when the commission approved a resolution to ask voters on the April ballot whether an official commission shall be created by the county circuit court to frame a county constitution that will be put to voters for approval at a later date.
Since elections in the state have been postponed from April due to COVID-19 concerns, voters will see the question at the ballot box in June.
“The CCCAC sought public input on whether Clay County should consider reforming how it is governed, and if so, what the reforms should be. The CCCAC also considered other political subdivisions in Clay County and throughout the state of Missouri to determine best practices,” the advisory committee’s executive summary states. “Every person who provided input at CCCAC public forums or met with CCCAC members individually supported Clay County government reform.”
“We talked about what is working in the county and what we all agree on that the county is doing well and could do better,” said committee Chair Greg Canuteson, adding not all advisory committee members agreed with one another on all forms of reform, but consensus was reached by committee members on reforms that were presented to the county commission this month.
Based on public input, the committee presented to commissioners recommendations on general, financial and structural reforms.
The following general reforms are suggested:
• all elected offices be nonpartisan;
• elected offices have “reasonable” term limits (specific limits were not presented);
• provisions to recall elected leaders should be included in the county’s form of government but required standards to trigger such action should be significant;
• a merit system of some kind, such as a human resources board, should be created to protect county employee rights and protect employees from patronage and politics; and
• ethics reform in relation to conflicts of interest, code of conduct, transparency, campaign finance limits and how open sessions are conducted, possibly to include live streaming online.
For financial reforms, the committee suggests the formal commission, if approved by voters, look into principles of public finance and include: reserve fund requirements, the county’s rainy day fund, investment and procurement policies, strategic planning, auditing and review.
The group also recommends the county continue to have an independent, third-party audit of county financials each year, which is required by Missouri law, but also recommends creation of a review board. The committee also recommends creation of a mandatory constitution review to be completed every 10 years.
In regard to structural reforms, the advisory committee recommends having a presiding officer of county government that is elected at large by county residents. This position, the committee executive summary states, should have “strong executive authority to act on behalf of county government.”
In addition, the committee recommends replacing the three-person county commission with at least an eight-person county council, making sure there is adequate rural representation and each member earning “reasonable pay for a part-time job but not full-time pay.”
The council should have legislative authority and set policy for government in addition to hiring staff to carry out day-to-day operations, states the committee’s recommendations.
While the committee recommends expanding the number of top-elected officials, the committee said pay for individuals should set in a way so there is no added expense to taxpayers in regard to salaries than there is currently under the three commissioner system.
Canuteson said the idea is to have the county run much like many municipalities, where board members approve and set policy while highly skilled and hired staff are directed to carry out daily functions.
What the committee couldn’t agree on
The committee also spent considerable time, Canuteson said, exploring which current county elected offices should remain elected and which ones should be changed to hired positions. Outside of the commission, current elected offices include sheriff, collector, assessor, recorder of deeds, commission clerk and auditor. No consensus on these positions, Canuteson said, could be reached by committee members, but all agreed that the county should “do away with everyone being a kingdom unto themselves.”
“We decided we couldn’t reach an agreement and so what we could recommend was that the formal commission, if approved by voters, look at that,” he said.
In summation of the committee’s efforts and public sentiment received by the committee, Canuteson said Clay County government has had issues for four decades and that everyone agreed “the county has structural issues and needs government reform.”
Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte said he appreciated the committee’s efforts and liked how the recommendations seem to strike a balance between having elected leaders and hired staff.
“I like that there was not complete agreement by the committee on that as it shows the people gave careful consideration to it and are trying to work for the good of the county,” he said.
Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway, who spearheaded creation of the advisory committee, said she also appreciated the committee’s efforts and thinks the group’s recommendation of expanding the commission to a council of eight while not costing taxpayers additional funds for salaries is significant.
“I think the no additional expense is huge for people’s minds,” she said.
Canuteson said the goal of expanding to a council is to give residents more and easier access to elected officials. Each councilman, he said, would represent a smaller area based on how the county districts are divided.
“We believed the formal commission would draft those district boundaries if approved on the ballot to move forward,” he said, adding as much of the county remains rural so it is important those residents have access to leaders because they depend on the county more for services than larger cities that are more densely populated.
“They deserve equal and accessible representation,” he said.