Hodge’s column in The Citizen about the Johnson County Charter Commission and pro-life legislation

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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.