So what does it mean, when all at once, every member of the County Ethics Commission resigns as they recently did? It means something is very wrong with the county government. A series of events culminated in the mass resignation, so let me share a little history.
A few years ago, the Ethics Commission had lapsed into oblivion (even though it is supposed to be a standing committee, according to the County Charter), and a sole legislator pushed to re-establish a functioning commission. Once re-established, some complaints came to the commission regarding the county legislators.
One particular complaint alleged the legislators had received services paid for with public money. The commission found the legislators in a conflict of interest and ordered them to pay for the services. Some complied, but most did not.
Next, the commission issued subpoenas to ascertain compliance with their order. Again a majority of the legislators did not comply with the subpoenas or show proof of payment.
The legislators spent thousands of your taxpayer dollars for legal representation in this simple matter and withheld money requested by the commission for transcripts and other necessary expenditures. Financially, the Legislature had blocked the commission’s work.
While all of this was going on, the commission was also putting in long hours, drafting a new and improved “code of ethics” at the direction of the county executive. Once again, the Legislature blocked the commission’s work by adopting the new code but exempting the Legislature from its jurisdiction. Shortly thereafter, the entire commission resigned.
As for the sole legislator who revived the Ethics Commission, he was physically beaten one day after a legislative meeting. In the back offices, the remaining legislators and their aides celebrated with laughter and high fives. The county executive at the time referred to the beating as “the Italian job.” Since then, the legislator’s successor has been warned that failure to do “as you are told” would be met with a similar treatment.
To understand the difficulty of the situation, you might recall that more than two years ago, when the current county executive took office, he publicized that he would quickly pass a new “code of ethics.” He is on very good terms with the legislators.
The reality is the process has been anything but quick. Legislators have stalled the process for two years, and they only adopted the new code after exempting themselves from it.
So what happens next is that another “selecting board” will replenish the Ethics Commission with fresh appointees. But don’t get your hopes too high. All three members of the selection board as set out by the charter – officers from the Mid-America Regional Council, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and yhe Southern Christian Leadership Conference – receive thousands in funding annually from none other than the County Legislature.
And since both ethics codes (the older version as well as the newly adopted version) prohibit board members from service if they or their employers are in a financial relationship with the county, even the selection board is in conflict with the rules.
I suspect the new commissioners will meet the unapologetic approval of the Legislators. And as I wrote earlier, it means there is something very wrong with the county government.
John Pennell is a former Jackson County legislative aide.