Jackson County voters will likely get the chance to decide on dozens changes in the way the county operates, including term limits, raises for elected officials and reducing the scope and powers of the office of the county executive.
Legislator Greg Grounds, R-Blue Springs, has taken the lead in proposing dozens of changes that, at the moment, are rolled into seven ballot questions for Nov. 6. As of early this week, he said, he still had six votes on the nine-member Legislature, enough to approve getting on the ballot and overriding an expected veto by County Executive Frank White Jr.
“I hope I’m not Don Quixote,” he said. “But I’m doing what I can.”
Legislators have added two more public hearings next month, and more proposed changes could come.
“I realize there are people who are in opposition to my views. That’s fine. That’s the process,” Grounds told his colleagues on Monday. “I want it to be as open and as fully vetted, by all of the people, as possible before we have an election.”
The seven questions would greatly reshape county government. They include:
• Term limits. Legislators and the executive would be limited to two terms of four years. The sheriff and prosecutor would be limited to three.
• Raises for the 12 elected officials. For legislators, salaries would rise from $25,920 a year to about $49,000, a figure tied to the salary of Circuit Court judges. The salaries of the executive, sheriff and prosecutor would rise to that of a Missouri Court of Appeals judge, $158,848. That compares with current figure of $84,330 for sheriff, $108,436 for the prosecutor and $108,000 for the executive.
• The sheriff, rather than the executive, would be given control of the County Detention Center. Legislators have expressed great disappointment in how the jail has been run, and the county is in the early stages of figuring how to replace it – and pay for that.
• The county prosecutor, rather than the executive, would have control of the $22-million-a-year Combat tax, a high-profile program that pays for a wide of anti-violence and anti-drug efforts.
• Legislators would be able to amend the annual budget after it’s adopted rather than simply turning the day-the-day management of the budget over to the executive.
Not all nine legislators are on board. Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, for example has at times criticized the process as too much behind the scenes. She’s also said it’s easy for Grounds, who is retiring after three terms, to favor term limits while she and others are running again and hope to be around for awhile.
“I know there are forces arrayed against it. There are forces who don’t like it,” Grounds said.
At a lightly attended hearing on Monday in Independence, legislators got both thanks for the effort and pushback on some of the proposals.
Jalen Anderson of Blue Springs, a Democrat running for an open at-large seat in the Legislature, said term limits have failed in Jefferson City and elsewhere. They won’t help people engage with their elected officials, he said.
“So many people now don’t even know what the County Legislature does,” he said.
He also opposes taking away the county executive’s line-item veto, saying it hurts checks and balances. He also said holding hearings when the legislature meets during the workday – usually 2:30 in the afternoon – shuts quite a few people out of the process.
“So I just worry about these few things,” he said.
Grounds said legislators are committed to hearing every view and said there’s plenty of time to work out the final set of questions, pass them and then override a possible veto from White before an Aug. 29 deadline to get on the ballot. There’s been friction between White and legislators for much of the past two years, and he has vetoed other measures that have curtailed his powers.
“Ultimately,” Grounds said, “people get to decide what kind of government they want.”
The County Legislature plans two more hearings on proposed charter changes, at its meetings on July 16 and July 30, both on the second floor of the Downtown Courthouse, 415 E. 12th St. in Kansas City. The Legislature meets at 2:30 p.m. and typically holds hearings right after a meeting starts, before the days’ main agenda.