COLUMBIA — A method voters have overwhelmingly rejected twice in the past is the key to Ed Robb's plan for accomplishing his highest priorities as he prepares to lead Boone County government.
Robb won the election for presiding commissioner by a slim margin in early November. During the election, he campaigned on a platform to increase the number of county commissioners and to lower salaries for the county's 13 elected officials.
But the only feasible way for Robb to fulfill these promises is if Boone County adopts a charter, also known as home rule. Although the idea came up during his campaign, Robb has started taking steps to make it a reality.
Home rule would allow Boone County to adopt its own form of government. That would make it more independent of state law, which now dictates the scope and structure of county government.
Without a charter, the 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.
"The real objective here is to gain control of our own destiny without being beholden to the state legislature," Robb said.
The idea of home rule is not new to Boone County. Voters have twice agreed to have a commission draft a charter, but when those proposals went to the ballot in 1982 and 1996, they were overwhelmingly rejected.
Each of those documents called for changing significantly how county government works. Both, for example, called for making several elected positions appointed ones.
County Assessor Tom Schauwecker remembers the last attempt well. He was interviewed, along with other officeholders, by the group who wrote the proposed constitution.
"Looking with hindsight at '96, I think the objection was that it was a dramatic change in the organizational structure of county government," he said. "I can’t put my finger on it, but I think that was part of it."
St. Charles County was once in a similar position. Voters there passed a charter in 1992 after a previous attempt failed in the 1970s. Don Boehmer, who helped write St. Charles' document, said starting with a limited charter was key.
"By the end of the process, we had a compromise," he said. "We got a document that everyone could be happy with."
Unlike past attempts in Boone County, the people who wrote the St. Charles charter left many things the same. Boehmer said they were criticized in some cases for not going far enough, but over time, he said, the government has slowly evolved.
Keith Hazelwood, who led the charter-writing effort alongside Boehmer, said that strategy paid off. By waiting until a year after the charter passed to decide which officers should be elected, Hazelwood said it let people just vote on the idea of home rule first.
Robb has proposed something similar. He would like to see a charter that focuses on expanding the county commission from three members to five. Reducing county salaries, a popular talking point in Robb's campaign, would be a secondary goal, he said. If the constitution committee failed to address salaries in its draft charter, he said, he would bring it up at the first opportunity.
The other charter movements have made similar promises, Recorder of Deeds Bettie Johnson said. They, too, started small but grew to encompass much more. She said that once a commission is tasked with writing a document, members fall into the trap of trying to right every wrong they see.
"I'm very apprehensive that we can look at a charter with relatively few main changes," she said.
Schauwecker doesn't automatically rule out the idea of home rule either, but he said his position really depends on what the actual document would look like. One change he would like to see that is possible under a charter would be the public disclosure of home sales prices. The county can't do this now without a change to state law.
It's unclear whether Robb has the support of his peers on the commission, but he'll need it if he wants to bring the issue to voters. The process takes several steps.
First, the commissioners must decide whether to ask voters if they even want a draft charter to be written. That ballot measure, if approved, would call on judges from the 13th Circuit Court to form a constitution committee. That group would then have one year to write a charter and present it to voters for final approval.
Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller said home rule typically emerges in counties where there is discontent and infighting within the government, something that doesn't happen in Boone County, she said.
"I have not heard a hue and cry from the electorate that we need a charter form of government," she said.
Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin declined to comment for this article. In an e-mail, he said he was unfamiliar with Robb's views.
"I cannot comment on someone else's position," Elkin said. "I will be glad to speak my position when/if these issues come forward."
Robb hopes he can persuade either commissioner that home rule is a good idea for Boone County. If that doesn't work, he said, he knows already that two Republicans will run for Elkin and Miller's commission seats in 2012.
Robb won every precinct outside Columbia during his election. Those are the same areas supporting his push for home rule, he said, adding that he thinks most people who want a charter are politically active in small towns around the county. He said others don't really know much about the issue, which is why he wants to start holding public meetings.
But the same areas from which Robb is drawing his support have traditionally mounted the fiercest opposition to a charter. During the 1996 effort, Columbia rejected a constitution by about 60 percent. Voters outside the county did so by 80 percent.
Boehmer said rural residents gave some of the greatest resistance to a charter during the process in St. Charles County. He said they didn't like the idea of an expanding government.
"It's quite easy to derail an effort for a charter form of government," Boehmer said.
A charter should be complete in two years, Robb hopes, even though past attempts have taken much longer to reach fruition. It won't be an easy process, he conceded.
"It's not something I can guarantee," he said. "I know better, but I will work very hard to make this a reality."