Former position holders look back at presiding commissioner's job

Friday, October 8, 2010 | 4:00 p.m. CDT; updated 5:22 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 8, 2010
Boone County Presiding Commissioner Ken Pearson (center) talks with Public Works Interim Maintenance Operations Manager Chet Dunn (left), and Boone County's District II Commissioner Skip Elkin (right) about potential plans for an unused Missouri Department of Transportation facility near Hallsville. The Boone County Commission is looking into purchasing the property to hold some of the equipment that's used in the north part of the county, along with salt and fuel. The Commission is also looking into using the property as a second location of the sheriff's station.

COLUMBIA — It was tough.

That's what struck Billie Tritschler about the Boone County's presiding commissioner job soon after she took the post. She went in with little government experience, appointed by then-Gov. John Ashcroft to take the place of a friend, Norma Robb, who died in office in 1985.

What's the job?

Here are the responsibilities of the Boone County Commission, as outlined on its web page.

The County Commission is an elected three-member governing body with a District I (southern) commissioner, a District II (northern) commissioner, and a presiding commissioner. The commission establishes county policy; approves and adopts the annual budget for all county operations; approves actual expenditures for each department; supervises the operations of Public Works, planning and zoning, building codes, human resources, purchasing, information technology, and facilities and grounds maintenance; ensures county-wide compliance with numerous statutory requirements; and, acts as liaison with county boards, commissions, and other governmental entities.

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"I went in cold," Tritschler said. "I mean cold turkey, all the way."

The Centralia florist continued to manage her business while she served. After one term, she lost a bid for re-election, but she was happy to leave. She said the job and running her own business were too much to handle at once.

Many potential voters interviewed by Missourian reporters didn't understand the job or its responsibilities, even though they will pick between two candidates in a month.

Republican Ed Robb (no relation to Norma Robb) and Democrat J. Scott Christianson are now running for the seat that Tritschler once held and that incumbent Ken Pearson will give up at the end of the year.

Tritschler represented all of Boone County as presiding commissioner, a position that now pays slightly more than $84,000. There are two associate commissioners who each represent half the county.

The job of presiding commissioner took a balance of leadership and cooperation, Tritschler said, because the commissioners work alongside other county officials and community leaders. She also tried to help residents who came to her with problems.

One woman called Tritschler because rain washed out the only gravel road leading to her home in the western part of the county. After seeing the road herself, Tritschler realized it needed to be filled in and then made sure that happened. She couldn't do much more than listen when someone complained about a young couple building a house near their property, however.

Don Stamper, who was presiding commissioner from 1991 through 2002, said lending an ear sometimes is enough.

"People a lot of times just want to be listened to," Stamper said. "They want to know their opinion and concern counts. Sometimes you can’t do anything about it, but sometimes there is something there."

The presiding commissioner has several other duties:

  • Gets a final say on the annual county budget, which runs about $45 million today.
  • Acts as a spokesperson for Boone County and often signs county contracts, grant applications and other documents. 
  • Runs the twice-a-week "regular" commission meetings.

Farmer Keith Schnarre, who was the lead commissioner from 2002 to 2006, remembers signing many documents.

"You wear out pens," he said.

Schnarre, who farms 4,000 acres near Centralia, said the job has many ceremonial aspects. The workload also includes an abundance of meetings.

"If there is something going on, you're expected to show up and represent the county," Schnarre, a Republican, said. "It's not a difficult job (to show up), just a time-consuming one."

Meetings are a large part of the four-year position. Pearson said he goes to more than a dozen a week. Stamper, a Democrat who held the post for 12 years, said he'd often have meetings just to schedule new ones.

"There were too darn many," he said with a laugh.

Most deal with mundane aspects of county government. In one, the commission talked for 20 minutes about precisely where a resident should mow his property after a neighbor complained. Pearson leaned back in his leather chair and added a few thoughts about which areas the man should trim, but the most exciting part of the meeting for Pearson seemed to come when he asked about the best time to mow to help wildflowers grow.

During an update of construction progress at the Boone County Government Center, Pearson displayed a similar style. He listened to most of the discussion and added a few dry jokes at the end of the meeting. The contractors needed a long weekend to do some work on the renovation project during the weekend after Thanksgiving. They weren't sure if the building would be closed that Friday, though.

"I'll call the governor and see if we can get that off," Pearson joked.

Pearson, formerly a Missouri Department of Revenue administrator, speaks with the calm and measured voice of a life-long bureaucrat. Such meetings, he said, are all part of the job and help him keep up with what other departments, governments and organizations are doing.

Despite this, he regrets spending so much time in his downtown Columbia office.

"You get so involved in the administrative part of this... It gets really difficult to spend time going out there," he said.

Some meetings are much more lively. Stamper remembers one public hearing where he heard more than five hours of testimony. An international company wanted to create a high-tech industrial park near Ashland. More than 400 people showed up to the meeting; most opposed the measure and wore red in protest. 

It was a high-pressure situation, but Stamper said he loved being in the middle of it.

"Great public policy is made through tension," he said. "It's not in mandating or dictating. It's the tension between having disagreements and being willing to resolve them."

Commissioners aren't used to seeing this much input. Only a few people attend each regular meeting. Schnarre said he would have liked more feedback, but he understands.

"Me, as a citizen out here, I don't have time for that," he said as he drives a combine while he harvests corn. "I've got more important things to do."

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John Schultz October 8, 2010 | 11:42 p.m.

Great article!

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