Charter government option sought for all 114 counties

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Voters in each of Missouri's 114 counties could decide for themselves if they want to make major structural changes in their county's government under a proposed constitutional amendment filed in the House of Representatives last week.

The amendment would allow all counties regardless of size or classification to adopt the charter form of government, if approved by the local electorate.

State Rep. Jerry King, R-Butler, said he sponsored the measure in an effort to allow counties a larger degree of flexibility and local control.

"All it does is give people in all counties the option of doing the same things as counties with larger populations," King said.

At present only first-class counties with a minimum population of 85,000 residents are eligible to adopt charters outlining the structure and powers of county government. State law governs such matters for other counties. Only three first-class counties have charters -- Jackson, St. Louis and St. Charles.

However, Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones noted that several other first-class counties have the requisite population to seek charters but have chosen not to do so. Cape Girardeau County has first-class status, which is determined by property values, but lacks the minimum population to seek a charter.

"Not all counties are interested in being charter counties, including us," said Jones, who is also president of the Missouri Association of Counties.

Counties do want the power to enact local ordinances, authority currently reserved for first-class charter counties. The House Local Government Committee last week passed such a bill, which is MAC's top legislative priority this year. Jones testified in favor of that measure, which is currently on the House debate calendar, last month.

However, the committee chairman, state Rep. Bob Johnson, R-Lee's Summit, said King's proposed amendment is a better approach.

The legislation favored by MAC would give all county commissions blanket ordinance authority, regardless of whether citizens of a particular county want them to have that power. Under the amendment, it would be a local option subject to voter approval.

"It is a better alternative because it is absolutely local control," said Johnson, a cosponsor of the amendment.

Johnson said MAC has been cool to the notion in the past because some elected county officials fear their jobs would be converted to appointed positions. He said that is the case only if that's what the citizens of a particular county want.

"If the people want to keep those offices elected, they can," Johnson said. "If they want to make them appointed, they could certainly do that also."

Johnson's committee will hold a hearing on King's measure on Thursday. If it clears the Missouri Legislature, a statewide vote would follow in November 2004.

Counties would not be required to adopt charters, which would be written at the local level and become effective only if approved by voters in later county-wide elections.

Local control considered

Another co-sponsor of the amendment is House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau. He said it would enhance local control while ensuring that local voters have a say in how their county's government is structured.

"If the voters trust their commission and that their commission has made the case for these powers, the citizens can choose to go that direction," Crowell said.

He added that the proposal in its present form is just a starting point for debate and likely will be changed to address any concerns MAC or other groups may have.

The measures are HJR 19 (county charters) and HB 267 (county ordinances).

mpowers@semissourian.com

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