After voters in Clay County approved a new county constitution in 2020, this year’s election will look a little different to voters. On Nov. 8, they will select at-large county commissioners for the first time in the county’s history, as well as an additional Clay County commissioner from each of two districts.
Before the constitutional change, Clay County had a reputation among other Kansas City-area counties for dysfunction and infighting. Its new constitution was written by a committee appointed by the circuit court judges. The Democratic chair of the committee, Greg Canuteson, said he hopes the new constitution will allow Clay County to be more prominent in areawide decisions.
“Our county government had been such a circus, and the county was really left out of all important decisions in the Kansas City area for generations,” Canuteson said. “And so this was an effort to … have a county governmental structure that would not provide for the same embarrassing structural problems that we had before.”
Election brings change to the county commission
After the Nov. 8 election, the Clay County Commission will more than double in size, from three members to seven.
A three-member commission is standard for smaller and more rural Missouri counties, including Platte and Cass counties. But for larger counties, called “charter counties,” the county government is established by a charter or constitution rather than by Missouri statute. There are five charter counties in Missouri, including Clay and Jackson counties and three in the St. Louis area.
Previously, Clay County’s representation consisted of one county commissioner from each of the western and eastern districts and one presiding commissioner elected at-large, who had a vote on the commission. Now, there will be an additional commissioner from each district, as well as two at-large commissioners — one from each district. A presiding commissioner will still be elected, but that person will no longer have a vote except in the case of a tie.
Canuteson said that it was important to the constitution committee that three of the commissioners be elected at-large. This way, Canuteson said, the commission is more directly accountable to the whole county.
The new constitution also enacted term limits, as well as pay and benefits cuts for the commissioners.
“The reason for that was that this shouldn’t be the best job you ever hold,” Canuteson said. “This should not be a permanent job. This is designed like a school board or a city council — do your public service and then go back to your day job.”
Certain county officials are no longer elected
The new constitution also eliminated certain elected positions. The county clerk, collector, public administrator, recorder of deeds and treasurer are all now appointed by a county administrator instead of elected by voters. The county administrator will be appointed by the county commission.
The assessor, auditor, prosecuting attorney and sheriff remain elected positions.
Canuteson said that larger counties, including the charter counties, have a much higher workload on county services, so they often have a larger staff — they don’t just depend on one county treasurer or one county collector.
“There was a time when the recorder of deeds of Clay County was the actual person that actually recorded the deeds,” he said. But as the county has grown, these elected officials are more like managers who oversee a staff.
So, the committee decided these positions are better suited as county appointments, which can offer stability to the more bureaucratic offices.
Canuteson said the new structure should also bring about accountability. Under the old constitution, the county’s staff was spread among nine different elected officeholders, who made their own hiring and firing decisions. As a result, there was no centralized authority.
“So you have an elected official that says, ‘I don’t care if this employee sexually discriminated or sexually harassed (someone)… I’m not going to fire them,’” he said. “And when the county gets sued, the county is the one that’s on the hook.”
Candidates for Clay County commissioner on Nov. 8
Out of the seven-member commission, only five are up for election this year. Current Western Commissioner Jon Carpenter and Eastern Commissioner Megan Thompson were elected in 2020 and will be up for reelection in 2024.
Scott Wagner has already been elected to the second western commissioner seat, a new position this year. This is because he won more than 50% of the vote in the nonpartisan primary on Aug. 2, 2022.
This leaves four positions for candidates to be selected on Nov. 8, all in nonpartisan races. The only incumbent is Jerry Nolte. Here are the candidates:
Eastern commissioner at-large:
Western commissioner at-large:
Eastern commissioner seat 2:
Jay R. Johnson
Sherry C. Duffett
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