Here is my column from this month's edition -- the opening edition -- of the Kansas City Metro print publication The Citizen. Please bookmark the Web site for The Kansas City Citizen, and look for the paper at area coffee shops and bars.
Monday of this week, the Johnson County Charter Commission met for the first time. I do encourage you to contact Johnson County government and attend as many meetings as possible. The group will only meet for a few months.
JoCo Charter Commission forms
Thirteen people may dramatically shape a county of 550,000 residents in the coming months. Thirteen is a majority of 25, the number of people on the Johnson County Charter Commission, which begins to meet in February.
The county charter - think of it as a constitution for the county - was put into effect by voters in 2000. A 25-member Charter Commission is legally required to meet every 10 years. After a series of public meetings, the group can vote on virtually any idea. Charter amendments approved by a majority vote are placed on the ballot - in this case, November 2012.
The commission is a mixed bag for taxpayers, with a lot of potential, both good and bad. Among policy-makers and politicians - I've been one - there's a common tendency "to do things for the voters," whether these things need to be done or not. I doubt this group will choose to keep the charter exactly how it is today.
The question, then: Will charter changes make county government more accountable to voters?
Some possible topics of debate, according to county insiders:
- A move by liberals to "un-elect" the county sheriff. Currently, the sheriff is elected every four years. There may be an effort to direct the county manager to hire the sheriff, who operates a multimillion-dollar office. The position would be changed from an office directly accountable to voters to one run by an unelected government employee.
- A move by conservatives to "re-elect" the county treasurer. Until 2002, the office was elected; the county charter placed the treasurer's office under the direction of the county manager.
- Eminent domain and property rights.
- Limits on taxpayer-funded lobbying. Local governments frequently hire lobbyists for issues pending in Topeka or Washington, D.C.
- Limits on spending and taxation.
- A push by some Republicans to return to partisan elections for the seven-member County Commission. By the narrowest of margins, voters in 2000 approved a charter amendment that elected county commissioners through non-partisan elections (without an "R" or a "D" next to a name on the ballot, and without Republican or Democratic primary elections).
The only problem I have with the Charter Commission is that only some of the members are directly accountable to the voters.
According to current charter rules, most charter-commission members are appointed by people who are accountable to voters. Eight charter-commission members were appointed by county commissioners and six were appointed by the state legislators within Johnson County's borders.
From there, it gets messy. A rundown:
Two members were appointed by the county Planning Commission, which is a board appointed by county commissioners.
Three members were appointed by the mayors of Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
Two members were appointed by the county Republican Party, which represents about half of all voters.
Two members were appointed by the Johnson County Democratic Party, of which only 20 percent of county voters are members.
Two members were chosen by local chambers of commerce.
Mike Pirner is one of the six conservatives chosen by the legislative delegation to serve on the Charter Commission. Pirner, who lives in Lenexa, emphasizes that he has not formed a firm opinion on any issue, but he does think there should be a discussion on expanding the size of the elected County Commission.
The 2000 charter changed the size of the County Commission from five districts to the current six, with one at-large chair. At that time, the county's population was about 450,000. Today, it's 550,000, and in 10 years it is projected to be 650,000.
Pirner's point: There's a strong argument that the elected commissioners would better represent their constituents - and constituents would have better access to commissioners - if the districts were smaller.
"I think we should seriously talk about whether we want County Commission districts that are well over 100,000 people," he said.
The one proposal Pirner hears repeatedly is to bring various county boards under greater oversight of the County Commission. Currently, board members are appointed by the elected county commissioners, but the boards are then afforded a large amount of independence. For example, the parks board can force a public vote on local bonds without first gaining the approval of the County Commission.
Pirner thinks there's a broad consensus on increasing the accountability of these boards. "I think we're going to get to a majority on that issue," he said.
Good news: My understanding is that all Charter Commission meetings are subject to the provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Also, the commission is required to hold at least one public hearing to receive input from citizens. Contact the Johnson County government at 913-715-0450 for constituent services.
"Pro-life" legislation a top priority for House Republicans
Quite literally, Kansas for years has been one of the few places in the world where pregnant mothers could obtain a late-term abortion. Why? Because, conservatives say, state courts and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment under Gov. Sebelius refused to enforce the laws.
Within just weeks, this could change.
State House Judiciary Chairman Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican, is encouraged. "Although it's certainly the case that economic issues dominated the discussion, I'm surprised by the number of freshmen who have approached me to tell me that the life issue was a very important issue in their campaign."
Kinzer said that other "pro-life" priorities include an "aggressive reworking of our current parental-notification statute," applying fetal pain as a trigger for late-term abortion restrictions, removing the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars going annually to Planned Parenthood, enabling county attorneys to access Kansas Department of Health and Environment records to facilitate prosecutions, and tougher clinic-licensure requirements.
"The reality is that abortion clinics that are performing these extremely invasive and potentially dangerous procedures are not adequately regulated from a health and safety standpoint," Kinzer said.
Connect with Benjamin Hodge at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, The Kansas Progress, and LibertyLinked. Hodge is President of the State and Local Reform Group of Kansas. He served as one of seven at-large trustees at Johnson County Community College from 2005-’09, a member of the Kansas House from 2007-’08, a delegate to the Kansas Republican Party from 2009-’10, and was founder of the Overland Park Republican Party in 2011. His public policy record is recognized by Americans for Prosperity, the Kansas Association of Broadcasters,the Kansas Press Association, the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, the NRA, Kansans for Life, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).