County charter issue: A yes-no endeavor
Proposed changes to Johnson County government have proponents urging voters to mark their ballots "yes, yes, yes," "no, no, no" and every permutation between those two extremes.
The Nov. 7 ballot includes three questions that would amend the Johnson County Home Rule Charter.
Question No. 1 would make the current elected offices of country treasurer, clerk and register of deeds appointed positions. The register of deeds would become a division within the clerk`s office, and the clerk and treasurer would report to the county manager.
County voters must approve Question No. 1 before the succeeding two questions can be enacted.
Question No. 2 would expand the county commission from five to seven members by adding another commission district and the creation of an at-large commission chairman.
Question No. 3 would provide for the non-partisan election of county commissioners.
Motorists on county streets and roads are probably familiar with yard signs by the Yes, Yes, Yes Committee urging approval of the reforms. A No, No, No Committee was formed in opposition.
The discussion that led to Tuesday`s ballot questions started with the work of the Johnson County Visioning Committee in the mid-1990s, which suggested the county commission should be expanded as a result of population growth. Two years ago, the county commissioners decided to ask the Kansas Legislature for the authority to revise its charter to accomplish that goal.
When that authority was granted, the county legislative delegation and the county commission appointed the 25-member Johnson County Charter Commission to study county government and propose changes.
The charter commission crafted its proposals over an 11-month period, before making its final recommendations in May, said Blake Schreck, who served as vice-chairman of the charter commission.
While there seems to be general agreement that the first two proposed reforms improve county government, the last question has garnered opposition among Republicans, Schreck said.
The non-partisan election issue was controversial from the start, he said. Charter member and former U.S. Rep. Jan Meyers was a steadfast opponent of the proposal during the charter commission`s deliberations. She followed through with her promise to oppose the charter commission`s proposals if the non-partisan question was put to the voters and helped form the No, No, No Committee.
Meyers is presently in Hawaii, but she has said in the past that non-partisan elections would lead to a profusion of single-issue candidates. Parties are valuable because they offer voters a way to identify candidates` positions, Meyers maintained.
But, Schreck said support for the non-partisan question was such that as many as 12 members would have authored a minority recommendation if the question wasn`t included. As it is, the charter commission found a way to put the question before voters without affecting its other recommendations, he said.
The argument for non-partisan elections is that they increase opportunities for participation on the county commission in heavily Republican Johnson County, Schreck said. Not surprisingly, the question is opposed by some old-guard Republicans, who are urging voters to vote yes, yes, no, he said.
Unlike the first two questions, the non-partisan issue doesn`t change the structure of county government, Schreck said. The proposed changes in the first two questions would make county government more streamlined and better able to meet the demands of the 21st century, he said.
The clerk, treasurer and register of deeds fill administrative positions, Schreck said. The skills required to success run the offices are not the political skills needed in policy-making posts, he said.
"The (charter) commission thought that instead of politicians you needed professionals in those positions," he said. "There is the potential that folks will get elected without the needed skill sets to perform well."
Question No. 1 would also change the title of county administrator to county manager. However, that change in title would have little affect on the duties or powers of the post, Schreck said.
An opponent of the charter commission`s proposals, Johnson County Treasurer William O`Brien, said the county manager would become more powerful because of that person`s administrative control of the three offices.
"It`s a matter of checks and balances," he said. "Sometimes you need somebody to stand up and say no. You`re not going to do that if the county manager is your boss."
Voter approval of Question No. 1 would place final accountability with the county commission, and its expansion would mean the net loss of only one elected official, Schreck said.
The charter commission proposed enlarging the commission to reflect growth, Schreck. The county has doubled in size since two commission districts were added in the 1970s, and commissioners now represent more residents than state senators.
The two added commissioner would allow for closer constituent relationships and decrease workload, he said.
The county commission currently rotates it chairmanship every year, which makes it hard to sustain a vision at the top, Schreck said. It is also difficult for a commissioner elected to represent a single district to develop a vision for the entire county, Schreck said.
But O`Brien said the powerful at-large chair position could have a down side.
"That`s alright if you have somebody good," he said. "If not, you`re stuck with him for four years."