Presiding commissioner candidates revive home rule charter debate

Friday, October 29, 2010 | 8:50 a.m. CDT; updated 8:26 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, November 2, 2010

COLUMBIA — The question of whether Boone County should have a charter form of government hasn't been voted on in nearly 15 years, but the idea has resurfaced in this year's election for Boone County presiding commissioner.

A constitution for Boone County first was presented to voters in 1982 and then again in 1996. But both charter proposals failed miserably. About 70 percent of voters rejected them each time. 

Now, Republican candidate Ed Robb wants to see Boone County adopt a constitution. His argument and past movements supporting a charter are rooted in the fact that the form and authority of county governments are dictated by the state legislature.

Democratic candidate J. Scott Christianson is open to the idea of a constitution, also known as home rule, but worries that Robb is calling for a charter to solve problems that aren't there.

A charter is a document outlining the structure, style and workings of a government. Without one, Boone County lacks the freedom to pass its own ordinances. If county officials want to take actions not spelled out in state statutes, they must rely on legislators to lobby the General Assembly for permission to do so. 

By contrast, counties with constitutions can pass almost any ordinance that doesn't contradict Missouri or federal law.

"You’re in the position where you’re begging them for a favor," said Robb, a former state representative.

Bills changing the statutes for one, or only a handful of counties, rarely make it through the legislative process on their own, Robb said. They usually have to be tacked onto a larger government bill, which can easily fail in the last days of a session.

State. Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said political pressures influence this process. Kelly, who is running for re-election in the 24th District, was Boone County clerk during the 1970s. He supports home rule.

"I want the decisions to be made locally, on the merits, rather than in Jefferson City, on the politics," he said.

Although he thinks a charter is a good idea, he opposed the 1996 proposal because he thought it changed too much about county government. It would have expanded the county commission to seven members and put a chief executive in place, similar to Columbia's city manager. It also called for four elected officials — the auditor, the collector, the treasurer and the recorder of deeds — to become appointed offices.

Although many support a more independent county government, passing a charter is a difficult process. Here's how it works:

  • The county commission asks voters for permission to form a committee to draft a constitution.
  • If voters approve, judges from the 13th Circuit Court would select the 14-person, bipartisan committee.
  • The committee then has a year to finish a constitution and present it to voters. If the charter is rejected, the process can't begin again for another two years.

Robb is advocating a much smaller constitution than those proposed earlier. His proposal would expand the size of the county commission from three to five members. He also wants to create a citizen committee to review the salaries of Boone County officials.

Aside from other "housekeeping" changes, Robb wants to keep the current system in place.

"I don’t think we need a declaration of independence," Robb said. "We just need to fine-tune the current system and move forward."

Christianson isn't convinced. He said there may be compelling reasons for a charter, but he said he believes Robb's approach, which he perceives as negative toward county officials, would undermine cooperation and take away from more important goals such as economic development.

"That's going to be distracting," he said. "That's going to be the headlines for the next couple of years about county government."

He said it would take a cooperative approach to push for and adopt a constitution. If this happens, Christianson wants to preserve all the elected positions at the county level. He said Missourians have a history of wanting to be able to elect the people who make the decisions that affect their lives.

"Independently elected office holders are a value because it provides a check on the commission," he said.

With this check in place, Christianson said he doesn't feel it's necessary to expand the commission, although he conceded more representation is always better.

Bondi Wood, who challenged Christianson in the Democratic primary before being disqualified for failing to file proper paperwork, agreed that the three-member commission works. She said more commissioners would lead to representatives who care more about their districts, not what's good for the county overall.

Like Kelly, Wood is a fan of home rule but she opposed the 1996 proposal, leading a committee that campaigned against it. She said she felt it would have given too much power to the county executive and deprived voters of the power to elect all county officers.

"If they want to pass a charter, they should just include the home rule aspect of it and leave the structure of elected officials as they are," Wood said.

Kelly said that the great virtue of county government is its responsiveness and that the great virtue of city government is its efficiency.

“The question is, can you get the best of both of them," he asked. "I think you can.”

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