Mischief and politics

John Ballard’s eye for the unnoticed
has gotten him into the business of trouble
Tuesday, January 6, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:50 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

John Ballard likes to stir up trouble.

If you can’t tell that by the mischievous glint in his eye, he’ll tell you so.

“As you can plainly tell, I have a lot of fun. I enjoy myself,” he says with a giggle.

It’s fun to notice things people aren’t noticing. Like how much a quietly passed poultry farming bill could cost the state in revenue. Or how many cows farmers boasted in the state’s agricultural statistics compared to how many cows they claimed on their taxes.

Of course, some people don’t want those things noticed. So 72-year-old John Ballard gets in his share of trouble. But his attention to detail has made him Missouri’s government answer man since 1971 — the latest in a list of jobs that includes Marine, music teacher, newspaper editor and mayor.

You’ve got questions

Officials in the smallest Missouri townships and the governor of the state have something in common: They both take questions to Ballard. He’s convinced he is the only one in the state who does his job — answering often obscure legal and procedural questions as a private consultant.

“We have in Missouri close to 3,000 little governments — districts of maybe 30-some different kinds — counties and cities, school districts and fire districts, all those sorts of things,” he said, “even 312 townships that are little mini-governments, as many as 24 in a single county. Those folks are good citizens, dedicated to the public interest, but nobody is around to go to with questions.”

Solving their problems is his daily task. For example, he tells of a recent call from the governor’s office.

“Apparently (Claire) McCaskill had told some folks that if she were elected governor, she would get to appoint her successor as auditor,” he said. “That is not so, but it made them very nervous at the governor’s office. They wanted to know where it said that.”

Nestled in his basement office with 20 volumes of the Missouri Revised Statutes on a shelf above his head, Ballard researches and writes when he’s not taking calls from city election authorities about staff protocol or county governments about classification requirements and the like.

Sometimes he’s “thinking or plotting,” he says. He might have a pouch of Red Man in his shirt pocket and his dark-rimmed glasses low on his nose.

You won’t find him watching television, though. He’s been disgusted with television since news of former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment filled the airwaves.

“When they would keep telling me what they thought instead of just telling me what happened, I decided there was no sense in doing that,” he said.

Although he’s not a lawyer, Ballard is an authoritative legal source for his clients — some of whom are lawyers themselves.

“The parts of the law I mess with are the parts that don’t pay anything and that somebody needs to be able to translate into common ordinary language so regular folks can understand,” he said. “It’s kind of flattering, I guess, to have a lawyer call me for legal advice, but they do. A lot of this stuff is just not stuff that comes up in a regular, normal law office.”

Local officials who get in a bind call on him before they go to the lawyers, he said.

“I’ll be the intermediary that can give them the question that they need to ask their lawyer,” he said. “I don’t ever pretend to be practicing law, although ... I was accused of it once.”

Ballard says no one else in the state does what he does — and his background is as unique as the job he performs.

Politickin’ and beyond

Ballard was born July 14, 1931, in Stanberry to a sheet metal worker and his wife. Growing up as one of six children, he didn’t really know what he wanted to become, but he knew politics made his blood bubble.

“I’d been politickin’ all my life,” he said. “The very first fight I ever had was over the Roosevelt-Wilke election in 1940,” when he was 9 years old.

Elections were a family affair, as both Ballard’s parents worked at the polls. He said on a slow day, his mother and her friends would trade recipes on the backs of ballots.

“(My mother) worked elections, and she did that long after she was competent to do so,” he said with a laugh. “The whole thing — the little old ladies with the blue hair that are in there when you go in to vote. Dad’s eyesight went, and he still worked several elections after he couldn’t really see.”

At an early age, Ballard ignited political tensions. In 1946, when he was a high school sophomore, he was kicked off a bus in Jefferson City for letting an African-American woman sit in the white section.

“A lady got on with two big sacks of groceries, and so I got up and gave her my seat,” he said. “I had to move the sign, because I was sitting in the back seat of the white section. The driver wheeled the bus over to the curb and threw me off right on High Street. That was many years before anybody invented freedom rides.”

When he graduated high school, Ballard took off hitchhiking across the country and landed in Seattle, where he enlisted in the Marine Corps. But his first professional incarnation was that of a music teacher. He taught K-12 classroom music after earning a Bachelor of Science degree in music education from what is now Truman State University.

While he was teaching, Ballard also ran a weekly newspaper, staffed by his wife, himself and a printer.

“Three of those years, I was mayor in our small town,” he said of his time in Green City. “Mayor and editor — you talk about power structure!”

Ballard said he considered a sewer bond his “prime accomplishment” during that time. It passed with only 12 votes cast against it, he said.

“The city got very good coverage,” he said. “Very favorable coverage.”

He was still teaching, though, and after 20 years in a classroom he “starved out.”

“When I had to tell my daughter that she couldn’t have a new dress for the junior high Christmas ball because we couldn’t afford it, that’s when I decided I better go back to school and get papered so I could do something that paid more money,” he said.

With his new master’s degree in community development from MU, he began his government answer work. He started as an extension agent in the Central Ozarks covering 11 counties. In 1982, he moved to MU’s Governmental Affairs Program, a political science extension service, where he was a state specialist.

“They tried to tell me that was a promotion,” he said with a grin. “But before they moved me, I stood on my front porch and watched the Gasconade River go by, and then in Columbia I stood on my front porch and listened to trucks on the interstate.”

Making waves

During his 10 years on campus, Ballard frequently talked with reporters, students and government officials. And he stirred up some trouble. He liked to point out interesting things folks were doing, and sometimes these folks were legislators who held the purse strings at the state Capitol.

For instance, in 1983 the state Legislature passed a bill to change assessment values for livestock, poultry and farm machinery, aiding the arrival of the ConAgra plant in southwest Missouri. Ballard wrote about the deal and highlighted the amount of revenue the state would lose by giving the agriculture industry a break.

Other groups were getting riled up about his political activism as well. Ballard once looked at Missouri Farm Facts, a compilation of agriculture statistics, and noticed farmers were boasting lots of cows. When he looked at the Tax Commission’s annual report, however, he found far fewer cows.

“I do stir things a bit,” he said, adding that the Tax Commission stopped publishing the numbers of cattle after his report.

Ballard said he ticked off several groups over the years, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forestry Service and the Missouri General Assembly.

“They finally closed our operation down,” he said. “Being in the public arena, you’re going to make waves from time to time. And waves make administrators uncomfortable. I think probably the key last straw was when they named a special Senate subcommittee to chew my backside.”

The subcommittee used a familiar Senate bargaining chip — appropriations — to “raise hell” with the university about his department, Ballard said.

Emory Melton is a former state senator who served on the committee. He said its primary concern was saving the taxpayers money.

“They had these university extension specialists out doing work that just did not properly fall under the scope of government,” Melton said.

So Ballard left MU and took his unique service with him. Since then, he’s been a private consultant publishing a monthly newsletter.

“It may be a little less academic than it was,” he chuckled.

Service with a smile

For $50 per year, subscribers to the Governmental Services Newsletter get news from around the state and beyond; anecdotes, quotations, and the most popular feature — the questions and answers. The November issue contains such headings as “Helpful Fact Possibly Of Use To Someone” (“A residential street should be paved once every 28 years”) and “Recent Questions To Governmental Services: With Answers, Some Correct.”

Ballard logs all his calls so he can remember questions to print in the newsletter, though he doesn’t print all the queries he receives every month. His 373 subscribers can call any time with unlimited questions, and he won’t turn away nonsubscribers.

“Some of them I hear from almost daily, and some of them I’ve never heard from,” he said. “But they renew when it comes time.”

Charles Isbell, who has been county clerk in Dunklin County for 17 years, said he thinks the newsletter would be worth $50 a week. When it comes to tales of Ballard’s help, Isbell said, “How long you got?”

“He’s just a good sounding board,” Isbell said. “There’s probably not anyone as knowledgeable in the state on the Revised Statutes of Missouri as John.”

Ballard has seven government manuals for sale, ranging in price from $25 to $35 each, covering entities such as fire protection districts and townships. He also does seminars for hire, usually for local governmental bodies. His most popular seminar is what he calls “basic training” for newly-elected officials, which includes an education on nepotism, conflicts of interest and the Sunshine Law. He sometimes does seminars for reporters and the public.

Attending one of Ballard’s talks prompted Dee Bergstrand to subscribe to the newsletter. She’s been the city clerk in Freeman for 12 years.

“I was so impressed by the way he handled everything,” Bergstrand said. “He was so light and funny.”

She said the most valuable part of subscribing is having unlimited access to Ballard’s knowledge.

“He usually knows the answers to questions and can quote you a statute to go with it,” Bergstrand said.

Ballard works 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. most days, though he says he gets calls at strange hours sometimes.

Elections are a busy time for him, and he said the upcoming presidential primary will stir up more trouble in Missouri government. The General Assembly wiped out state funding for that election, so officials will be scrambling soon, he said.

“Nobody is exactly sure, I don’t think, where the funds are going to come from,” he said. “There will be numerous calls.”

And Ballard will be waiting to take those calls — because trouble is his business.

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