Jackson County voters after all will see seven ballot questions in November to significantly rewrite the County Charter. If all are passed, the jail would operate differently, elected officials would have term limits, they would get raises, the role and power of the county executive would be curtailed, and there would be clear rules on elected officials living in the county and paying their taxes.
Legislator Greg Grounds, R-Blue Springs, has pushed this effort since late 2017 and urged his colleagues on Monday “to allow it to be on the ballot to let the citizens of Jackson County make that decision.”
Legislators did just that, with the same 6-3 split that has divided them on this question for months. Grounds along with Dennis Waits, D-Independence; Garry Baker, D-Independence; Theresa Galvin, R-Lee’s Summit, Scott Burnett, D-Kansas City and Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City voted yes. Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, Tony Miller, D-Lee’s Summit and Alfred Jordan, D-Kansas City, voted no.
That vote overrode County Executive Frank White Jr.’s veto of the changes late last week. He called the ballot questions “misleading and unfair” in his veto message. White was at Monday’s meeting but did not speak to the charter issue.
Grounds said Jackson County government doesn’t have a good name.
“It isn’t exactly like it’s held in high esteem,” he said.
He said these changes need to be pursued, and he pushed back against criticism from Williams and others that the process hasn’t been open enough.
“This is not, and was not, a task I relish,” he said.
He pointed out that the charter lays out three ways in which charter changes can get to the ballot: by petition of the people, by the Legislature directly or – the most common method in recent years – by the executive appointing a commission. Grounds said the process has involved as many hearings, more people and a longer process than the last charter-review commission in 2010.
“There hasn’t been any truth to the idea that we’ve tried to take this and hide it from anyone,” Grounds said.
He also rejected on the chief criticism White had raised in his veto message, that the ballot issues cluster related ideas, amounting to what courts have called “doubling.” The example that’s gotten the most attention is that term limits (popular) and raises for elected officials (not at all popular) are in the same questions. Grounds said he was trying to avoid having dozens of individual ballot questions and said having related issues together will pass legal muster.
Voters will see seven questions:
• Question 1, mainly about the power of the Legislature, enacts a limit of two four-year terms and gives legislators raises, from $34,881 a year to about $49,000. The Legislature could amend the annual budget, and reject acting or interim department heads named by the executive. The executive would not be able to veto proposed charter changes or veto parts of appropriation measures.
Legislators would have to be up to date on their local, state and federal taxes, and they could not accept gifts of more than $500 from county employees or vendors or contractors doing work with the county.
“In my view, the most important thing in this … is ethics reform,” Grounds said.
• Question 2 limits the executive to two terms of four years, raises the pay from $145,350 to $158,848 and requires that he or she live in the county and be up to date on taxes. He or she would have less power to hire experts and consultants.
• Question 3 limits the sheriff to three terms of four years, raises his pay from $103,771 to $158,848, imposes the residency and tax requirements, and gives him control of the County Detention Center, currently in the hands of the executive – and the source of long-running contention between the White and legislators.
• Question 4 limits the prosecutor to three terms, raises her pay from $133,432 to $158,848, imposes the tax and residency requirements, and gives her control of the Combat program, the county’s high-profile anti-drug/anti-violence program paid for with a quarter-cent sales tax. Legislators took that program from White last year and handed it to Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, though that is still the subject of a lawsuit.
• Question 5 limits the power of the county counselor to enter into contracts for outside legal services and gives the Legislature the power to remove the counselor.
• Question 6 addresses qualifications to be a judge on the County Municipal Court.
• Question 7 bars those who hold any municipal, state or federal office – except a county office – from running for a county office. Grounds said the rationale for that is to reduce the power of incumbents to keep winning elections. That’s a ballot question that Galvin, rather than Grounds, has pushed.
Grounds said he’s willing to continue going around the community making the case for the changes and said supporters will look at raising private money for a campaign.
“I certainly hope this passes,” said Waits, who is leaving the Legislature after 32 years. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from an earlier version, with corrected current salaries for elected officials.