KC Citizen article on Johnson County Charter Commission; pro-life goals in Legislature

Here is my column from this month’s edition — the opening edition — of the Kansas City Metro print publication The Citizen.  Please bookmark the Web site for The Kansas City Citizen, and look for the paper at area coffee shops and bars.

Monday of this week, the Johnson County Charter Commission met for the first time.  I do encourage you to contact Johnson County government and attend as many meetings as possible.  The group will only meet for a few months.

JoCo Char­ter Com­mis­sion forms

Thir­teen peo­ple may dra­mat­i­cally shape a county of 550,000 res­i­dents in the com­ing months. Thir­teen is a major­ity of 25, the num­ber of peo­ple on the John­son County Char­ter Com­mis­sion, which begins to meet in February.

The county char­ter – think of it as a con­sti­tu­tion for the county – was put into effect by vot­ers in 2000. A 25-member Char­ter Com­mis­sion is legally required to meet every 10 years. After a series of pub­lic meet­ings, the group can vote on vir­tu­ally any idea. Char­ter amend­ments approved by a major­ity vote are placed on the bal­lot – in this case, Novem­ber 2012.

The com­mis­sion is a mixed bag for tax­pay­ers, with a lot of poten­tial, both good and bad. Among policy-makers and politi­cians – I’ve been one – there’s a com­mon ten­dency “to do things for the vot­ers,” whether these things need to be done or not. I doubt this group will choose to keep the char­ter exactly how it is today.
The ques­tion, then: Will char­ter changes make county gov­ern­ment more account­able to voters?

Some pos­si­ble top­ics of debate, accord­ing to county insiders:

  • A move by lib­er­als to “un-elect” the county sher­iff. Cur­rently, the sher­iff is elected every four years. There may be an effort to direct the county man­ager to hire the sher­iff, who oper­ates a multimillion-dollar office. The posi­tion would be changed from an office directly account­able to vot­ers to one run by an unelected gov­ern­ment employee.
  • A move by con­ser­v­a­tives to “re-elect” the county trea­surer. Until 2002, the office was elected; the county char­ter placed the treasurer’s office under the direc­tion of the county manager.
  • Emi­nent domain and prop­erty rights.
  • Lim­its on taxpayer-funded lob­by­ing. Local gov­ern­ments fre­quently hire lob­by­ists for issues pend­ing in Topeka or Wash­ing­ton, D.C.
  • Lim­its on spend­ing and taxation.
  • A push by some Repub­li­cans to return to par­ti­san elec­tions for the seven-member County Com­mis­sion. By the nar­row­est of mar­gins, vot­ers in 2000 approved a char­ter amend­ment that elected county com­mis­sion­ers through non-partisan elec­tions (with­out an “R” or a “D” next to a name on the bal­lot, and with­out Repub­li­can or Demo­c­ra­tic pri­mary elections).

The only prob­lem I have with the Char­ter Com­mis­sion is that only some of the mem­bers are directly account­able to the voters.

Accord­ing to cur­rent char­ter rules, most charter-commission mem­bers are appointed by peo­ple who are account­able to vot­ers. Eight charter-commission mem­bers were appointed by county com­mis­sion­ers and six were appointed by the state leg­is­la­tors within John­son County’s borders.

From there, it gets messy. A rundown:

Two mem­bers were appointed by the county Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, which is a board appointed by county commissioners.

Three mem­bers were appointed by the may­ors of John­son and Wyan­dotte coun­ties.

Two mem­bers were appointed by the county Repub­li­can Party, which rep­re­sents about half of all voters.

Two mem­bers were appointed by the John­son County Demo­c­ra­tic Party, of which only 20 per­cent of county vot­ers are members.

Two mem­bers were cho­sen by local cham­bers of commerce.

Mike Pirner is one of the six con­ser­v­a­tives cho­sen by the leg­isla­tive del­e­ga­tion to serve on the Char­ter Com­mis­sion. Pirner, who lives in Lenexa, empha­sizes that he has not formed a firm opin­ion on any issue, but he does think there should be a dis­cus­sion on expand­ing the size of the elected County Commission.

The 2000 char­ter changed the size of the County Com­mis­sion from five dis­tricts to the cur­rent six, with one at-large chair. At that time, the county’s pop­u­la­tion was about 450,000. Today, it’s 550,000, and in 10 years it is pro­jected to be 650,000.

Pirner’s point: There’s a strong argu­ment that the elected com­mis­sion­ers would bet­ter rep­re­sent their con­stituents – and con­stituents would have bet­ter access to com­mis­sion­ers – if the dis­tricts were smaller.

“I think we should seri­ously talk about whether we want County Com­mis­sion dis­tricts that are well over 100,000 peo­ple,” he said.

The one pro­posal Pirner hears repeat­edly is to bring var­i­ous county boards under greater over­sight of the County Com­mis­sion. Cur­rently, board mem­bers are appointed by the elected county com­mis­sion­ers, but the boards are then afforded a large amount of inde­pen­dence. For exam­ple, the parks board can force a pub­lic vote on local bonds with­out first gain­ing the approval of the County Commission.

Pirner thinks there’s a broad con­sen­sus on increas­ing the account­abil­ity of these boards. “I think we’re going to get to a major­ity on that issue,” he said.

Good news: My under­stand­ing is that all Char­ter Com­mis­sion meet­ings are sub­ject to the pro­vi­sions of the Kansas Open Meet­ings Act. Also, the com­mis­sion is required to hold at least one pub­lic hear­ing to receive input from cit­i­zens. Con­tact the John­son County gov­ern­ment at 913-715-0450 for con­stituent services.

“Pro-life” leg­is­la­tion a top pri­or­ity for House Repub­li­cans

Quite lit­er­ally, Kansas for years has been one of the few places in the world where preg­nant moth­ers could obtain a late-term abor­tion. Why? Because, con­ser­v­a­tives say, state courts and the Kansas Depart­ment of Health and Envi­ron­ment under Gov. Sebe­lius refused to enforce the laws.

Within just weeks, this could change.

State House Judi­ciary Chair­man Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Repub­li­can, is encour­aged. “Although it’s cer­tainly the case that eco­nomic issues dom­i­nated the dis­cus­sion, I’m sur­prised by the num­ber of fresh­men who have approached me to tell me that the life issue was a very impor­tant issue in their campaign.”

Kinzer said that other “pro-life” pri­or­i­ties include an “aggres­sive rework­ing of our cur­rent parental-notification statute,” apply­ing fetal pain as a trig­ger for late-term abor­tion restric­tions, remov­ing the hun­dreds of thou­sands of tax­payer dol­lars going annu­ally to Planned Par­ent­hood, enabling county attor­neys to access Kansas Depart­ment of Health and Envi­ron­ment records to facil­i­tate pros­e­cu­tions, and tougher clinic-licensure requirements.

“The real­ity is that abor­tion clin­ics that are per­form­ing these extremely inva­sive and poten­tially dan­ger­ous pro­ce­dures are not ade­quately reg­u­lated from a health and safety stand­point,” Kinzer said.


Connect with Benjamin Hodge at FacebookTwitterLinkedInThe Kansas Progress, and LibertyLinked. Hodge is President of the State and Local Reform Group of Kansas.  He served as one of seven at-large trustees at Johnson County Community College from 2005-’09, a member of the Kansas House from 2007-’08, a delegate to the Kansas Republican Party from 2009-’10, and was founder of the Overland Park Republican Party in 2011.  His public policy record is recognized by Americans for Prosperity, the Kansas Association of Broadcasters,the Kansas Press Association, the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, the NRAKansans for Life, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).


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