Cape County commission strips Purcell of some oversight duties

Tuesday, May 6, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com Commissioner Jay Purcell read a statement before the county commission Monday prior to a vote that stripped Purcell of certain oversight responsibilities.

In back-to-back votes Monday, the Cape Girardeau County Commission imposed new restrictions on the way commissioners do business.

The board stripped Associate Commissioner Jay Purcell of most departments he'd been supervising. A second vote required commissioners to submit written requests for information from other elected officials or county department heads. The written requests must be approved by the commission or they will not be forwarded. The policy applies to county commissioners but not to any other elected county official.

Both motions were made by Associate Commissioner Larry Bock and seconded by Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones. Purcell voted against each measure.

Purcell's supervising duties are reduced to the county's juvenile and judicial areas. Bock retained responsibility for road and bridge and took on public works, which had been Purcell's. Jones assumed parks, information technology and the Sheriff's Department, while retaining emergency management.

"This is not an attempt to thwart Mr. Purcell's ability to do his job as a commissioner," Jones said Monday.

But Purcell said the move is an attempt to muzzle him.

Bock has stayed largely silent on the issue, saying only that he thinks the commissioners need to respect one another more.

Purcell said the restrictions are his punishment for "issues that have happened in the last 60 to 90 days."

It's the most recent volley in a series of clashes between Jones, who has held office for nearly 14 years, and Purcell, elected in 2004.

The two commissioners disagreed over deadlines for paving county roads and getting easements signed and notarized. They bickered during public meetings over Purcell's suggestion to put commission meetings on the Internet. Jones flatly negated Purcell's suggestion to realign county office space to put highway workers, now in three offices on two floors, into a single large office with a customer service counter. And Monday, they offered differing details of a closed-meeting vote to sell county park land. The commissioners voted before the county parks advisory board reviewed the measure. During Monday's meeting, Jones and Purcell each read statements explaining their actions.

Reading from a handwritten statement, Jones said Purcell told Bock and Jones that Drury Development Corp. was ready to buy the property.

"Mr. Purcell stated that he and the park board wanted $150,000 of the transaction earmarked for a new park shelter, restroom and a playground," Jones said. "He was informed this was out of order in a closed session. We were addressing the sale of park property with the funds to go toward park development and/or park land acquisition."

Jones said the earmark had to be discussed in an open session and that Purcell voted against the sale when the earmark was excluded from the motion.

Purcell told a different story.

"What would you do if your own park board was ignored and you, in executive session, laid it out over and over and over — 'You have to let them be involved' — and they ignore you and vote you down two to one and that's your area?" he said.

Five of the seven park advisory board members interviewed by the Southeast Missourian expressed various opinions on the land deal. Most were unhappy that they did not review the deal before commissioners voted.

"I respect the process if two of three commissioners are against this idea, then so be it," Purcell said. "But I'm not even being allowed to bring up the idea. It's being stifled."

In April, Purcell asked Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle for an opinion as to whether notarizing a 7-year-old easement for County Road 436 was legal. Swingle said it was not. At the same April 17 closed meeting where Auditor David Ludwig was pressured to resign, commissioners agreed to have Swingle seek a second opinion on the easement. On Monday, the commissioners learned the easement was invalid and unanimously agreed to drop the road from this year's paving program.

Purcell, in his speech to the board, said that under the new commission policy, he would be unable to ask Swingle's opinion when he has similar concerns.

"To try to basically stifle me and silence me, I view as also silencing the citizens," Purcell said.

Three candidates running for Bock's job attended Monday's meeting. Jo Bob Baker said he thought the new rules were appropriate. He said the board's recent public disagreements seemed aimed at embarrassing the commissioners.

Joe Allen and Pat Wissman said the new policy would hinder commissioners.

Allen said it seemed that Jones, Purcell and Bock "want to do what's right for the county" even if they don't always agree.

Baker, Allen and Wissman said the commissioners should consider holding evening meetings to allow more public participation in county government.

Larry Payne, chairman of the county's road and bridge advisory board, attended Monday's meeting.

Government "needs to be open and people have to be held accountable for their actions and comments," Payne said. He also suggested that Purcell should pick his battles.

"I respect the other commissioners," Purcell said. "They have the right to do what they're doing, I believe, and if they want to limit my involvement in county government and keep me from soliciting opinions and being involved, that's their right."

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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