THE FIRST AMENDMENT

Voters put county officials into office and should have the right to remove them without having to wait four years between elections.

Clay County Commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen are the billboard faces behind taking a stand to clean up the train wreck Clay County government has become on their watch.

Ridgeway is a Republican, Owen is a Democrat, but party affiliation does not matter at the county level, where issues involve professional law enforcement, building maintenance and safeguarding tax dollars, rather than national, partisan stands on immigration, tariff wars and health care funding.

Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte is the odd man out in commission activities. Ridgeway and Owen basically ignore him. They even require Nolte to pay for copies of county documents.

A few among many actions Ridgeway and Owen have taken to draw the ire of county residents are…

• Sheriff Paul Vescovo told commissioners how much money he needed to operate the detention center. They hugely underfunded him, by $1 million. He said they did so as retaliation for his investigation into document tampering by a commission employee, prompting him to file an ongoing lawsuit.

• Other officeholders feel no less ill-treated, with Ridgeway and Owen agreeing to pay $600 for a coffee machine, allowing a former administrator $250,000 in severance pay, agreeing to use more than $900,000 in tax funding to pay 11 outside law firms for legal help, awarding themselves tens of thousands of dollars in “back pay” and paying $85,000 for a boat for use at Smithville Lake, but nitpicking spending by other officeholders, including withholding pay of $14 an hour to an assistant county clerk.

• Nolte called the move “money down a rathole,” and that the present building just needs maintenance, but Ridgeway and Owen voted to pay $2 million to buy seven acres as the future location for a county annex that could cost $20 million.

• Ridgeway and Owen have upset so many Clay Countians that more than 9,000 petitioned – Nolte among the petition signers – to ask Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway to audit the county. Galloway agreed to conduct the audit. Ridgeway and Owen then used their high-powered lawyers to prevent the release of records sought for the audit, and on two separate actions, they lost. Despite the court decisions in her favor, Galloway last week had to file a subpoena for Clay County records due to a continuing lack of commission cooperation.

The situation begs the question: Are Ridgeway and Owen hiding something?

And this question: How long can stonewalling go on before a court holds Ridgeway and Owen in contempt?

And this question: How much contempt from Ridgeway and Owen can county residents take?

The situation warrants a reasonable response to what has become an unreasonable and conflict-ridden government.

During this year’s General Assembly session, Rep. Kenneth Wilson, R-Smithville, and Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, proposed an appropriate response. They introduced bills to give county residents the right to recall county officials, meaning to vote mid-term on whether to remove elected officials from office. The legislation made modest progress, but did not pass, as almost always occurs with first-time bills.

Given Ridgeway and Owens’ ongoing shenanigans and disregard for authority, and with a new legislative session starting in January, Wilson and Arthur should try again in 2020.

Voters put Ridgeway and Owen into office. For what have become glaring and troubling reasons, voters should have the right to remove them, too – sooner, rather than later.

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