COLUMBIA — As Ken Pearson describes it, his job as Boone County's presiding commissioner is not exactly how it seems.
“In theory, the presiding commissioner represents the interests of the whole county, represents all the constituents, and there may be times when there is an issue that’s more relevant to one district than another district in the county," Pearson said. "The presiding commissioner has to take into consideration from his perspective what he thinks is best for the entire county.”
The Boone County Commission is made up of three elected commissioners: District I (Southern) Commissioner Karen Miller, District II (Northern) Commissioner Skip Elkin and Pearson, who is wrapping up his term as presiding commissioner.
On Tuesday, voters will decide who will be the Democratic candidate for the next presiding commissioner. Candidates for the primary are J. Scott Christianson and John Sam Williamson, and the winner will face Republican Ed Robb in the general election.
Each commissioner is elected to represent the portion of the county that voted to elect him or her.
“Generally speaking, that doesn’t really happen,” Pearson said. When one issue is affecting one part of the county, he said, all three commissioners are usually involved.
“When you’re talking about presiding, you’re talking about all the commissioners really,” Keith Schnarre, former Boone County presiding commissioner, said.
Some of this stems from the division of the workload within the commissioner's office. Each commissioner is a liaison to various county boards, commissions and government units. Pearson is a liaison to public works and human resources.
“We all have our little levels of responsibility,” Miller said.
The presiding commissioner’s vote is no bigger than the votes of the other commissioners, either. Two votes are needed to pass anything that comes through the office regardless of which commissioner says “yea” or “nay.”
When there is a disagreement among commissioners on an issue, they try to resolve it during work sessions, and sometimes there might be a hearing to learn more about the issue. Pearson said that most of the time they all agree and only occasionally is one commissioner outvoted.
Although Miller compared a county commissioner to both a city council member and a city manager, county government does not function quite the same as city government. Unlike a city council member, county commissioners are paid.
Columbia is a charter city. Boone County has no charter. As such, state law limits county government. Missouri’s legislature dictates what the county can and cannot do. In addition, it means officials are independently elected, so they are not beholden to the commission. Once the commission approves a budget, the official running that office can spend any money that’s authorized, Miller said.
The commission is responsible for establishing county policy, approving and adopting all county operations budgets, approving actual expenditures, supervising board operations, ensuring county compliance with statutory requirements and acting as a liaison. Specifically, Pearson said, that means finalizing budgets, overseeing county buildings and infrastructure and taking care of roads and bridges outside city jurisdictions. There is no legislative authority.
Each commissioner also represents the county at various functions, Pearson said.
Specific duties of presiding commissioner
There are two main functions that differentiate Pearson from the two district commissioners.
The first is that he leads commission meetings. However, when unavailable, the other two are authorized to perform this duty.
Second, the presiding commissioner acts as the official chief executive officer of the county in terms of signing payments and contracts.
“I have ultimate responsibility when it comes to authorizing expenditure of all funds,” Pearson said.
Schnarre refers to the presiding commissioner as “the signature of the county.”
Once there is a bid and the commission approves and authorizes any contracts, Pearson signs the contract, and payment begins after the work begins. If Pearson is unavailable, Miller or Elkin can sign.
The presiding commissioner is not necessarily viewed as the boss.
“We have no boss except for the 154,000 people that live in Boone County,” Miller said. “I have half of that as my boss because they elect me, but I look at it as every citizen is one of my bosses because they might not elect me in the Northern district, but I get to vote on everything that affects their lives on a daily basis.”
Interacting with city government is not a daily occurrence for the commission, but it has regular meetings with city of Columbia officials such as the city manager, and commissioners are on a number of boards.
The recent IBM deal is a recent example of the city and county working together.
Pearson said what is most essential for the county is bringing its government together with the city, business community, MU and other colleges to create jobs. It’s about economic development and planning for the future, he said.
The commission is about more than road improvements, he said. “Yeah, it does do that, but we’re more than that. We need to also be thinking about what we can do to improve the community as a whole.”
Marks of a good commissioner
“I think one of the most important things is the ability to listen to people and the willingness to learn,” Pearson said. “I mean, it sounds kind of trite, but really that’s what's really important. And to develop an understanding based on that.”
Miller agreed, saying the presiding commissioner must be willing to understand the history of how the county arrived at where it is and try not to make changes before recognizing how things came about. She added that a willingness to work with all office holders is another key trait.
“People traits,” as Schnarre calls it, admitting he had trouble with that. “I’m a little too blunt … I told them what I thought,” he said.
Schnarre also pointed to a strong sense of finances and knowledge of the entire county as important characteristics to possess.
“They need to know the whole county, because that’s the government of the whole county, and it’s the only government for the people outside the unincorporated areas,” Schnarre said.
Miller appreciates a patient and composed presiding commissioner, which she said she sees in Pearson.
“He has a very calming effect, you know, to help everybody kind of work through things,” she said. “I’m not that patient, so it’s good to have somebody in that role that’s very patient.”
Pearson takes on that role.
“There are times it can get really tense,” he said. “People can become really emotional over an issue, and it’s good to try and remain calm, and also sometimes have a sense of humor about things. My view is we need to try to enjoy life as much as we can when we’re dealing with issues.”
Miller, who was first elected to her position in 1992, advises future presiding commissioners not to make the job partisan.
“The citizen that has a problem, such as a pothole in front of their road, they don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat, they don’t care if it’s the county, the city or the state that’s responsible," she said. "They just want it fixed.”