Johnson County Charter Commission recommends no changes after fielding some hot-button proposals

Johnson County Charter Commission

The Johnson County Charter Commission met Wednesday to vote on a variety of ideas from hot button issues like non-partisan sheriff's elections to mild cleaning up of outdated legal language. The commission ultimately decided to wrap up its work next month recommending no changes be made to the county's governing document. File image.

The Johnson County Charter Commission decided in a meeting Wednesday to wrap up its work next month leaving the county’s governing document pretty much as is.

With their last votes on substantive issues, commissioners confirmed that no changes will be put on the ballot for voter approval, and there will not be any recommendations for the county commission to consider.

The charter commission meets once a decade to decide whether the county’s foundational operating rules need fixing.

The 25 members, chosen by a variety of civic and political groups, have been meeting since March 1, 2021, but much of that time was spent hearing from county officials how their departments are run. It wasn’t until fall that the group began to discuss ideas for improvement.

Debate opened in November with a list of 18 ideas, several of which were later withdrawn, merged or reworked. The list ran from partisan hot button issues to proposals that tended toward mere cleaning up of outdated legal language.

Elections for county officials

As in commissions past, many of this year’s proposals had to do with which offices should be elected — partisan or non-partisan.

The proposal that by far got the biggest public reaction was for non-partisan sheriff’s election.

The sheriff and district attorney currently have party designations on the ballot, but some on the charter commission said the county’s top law enforcement authorities shouldn’t be perceived as siding with a particular political party.

The proposal caught the eye of conservative media, prompting a large crowd of angry residents to show up at a commission meeting in September. That meeting ended early because the number of people and their lack of face masks violated COVID-19 mitigation rules of the venue.

The non-partisan sheriff proposal was eventually withdrawn on legal advice that it goes against state statute. The District Attorney is considered a state office and does not fall under the charter commission’s purview.

Other proposals discussed and rejected

Another potentially controversial idea would have urged the commission to discuss the appropriateness of having the county named after a slave holder and former pro-slavery advocate, the Rev. Thomas Johnson.

That proposal, initially put forth as a recommendation (which would not have had to be put before voters if ultimately approved by the county commission), was withdrawn before the commission even began its discussions.

Other amendments that would have specified all partisan commission races, required vacancies on the county commission to be filled by special election and staggered the term of the chairman to make it possible for some sitting commissioners to run without giving up their seats also did not make it.

Commissioners also knocked down proposals for a health and safety advisory committee, a clarification of the sheriff’s relationship to the county commission and the areas where the commission would have authority, and one that specified the county commission would approve the county manager’s hires for department heads.

Another proposal for more attention to the county’s rural roads and bridges was debated several times in various forms before being turned down.

Close vote on county commissioner pay

Most of the time, the items were voted down because commissioners said they added unnecessary layers of government or dived into policy decisions best left to elected officials. In most cases, the votes were not close.

The one exception was an amendment that would have set up a mechanism for county commissioners to get a pay increase without having to vote it for themselves.

That was offered because voting for one’s own pay increase is often seen as political poison and elected officials are loathe to do it. The result is that time-consuming elected offices end up with low compensation, discouraging all but the wealthier citizens to run, advocates said.

The amendment would have offered commissioners a pay increase of the lesser of: a 2% raise, the Consumer Price Index for urban wage earners or the average increase of all county employees.

That failed initially by a 12-11 votes but was brought up again at Wednesday’s meeting by charter commissioner Kyle Russell as a recommendation for the county commission to consider.

(The charter commission considered both proposed amendments, which would need to be approved by voters if forwarded by the charter commission, and recommendations, which could be enacted by the board of county commissioners without a public vote.)

Russell noted that it has been more than a decade since county commissioner pay has been increased. Without an amendment, commissioners will have to raise their own pay, Russell said.

“That is always a tough, gutsy thing to do regardless of your political persuasion,” he said.

A formal recommendation would, “help them bolster their will and hopefully allow them the courage to fix this on their own,” he said.

Commissioner Brenda Sharpe said, “In visiting with many women and lower wage workers about getting engaged and running for office, frequently the ability to do that and leave their other paying work in order to make this significant time commitment is a hindrance.”

Others said the idea bordered on meddling with local budgets.

The recommendation failed with 11 votes against and 10 in favor. It needed 13 votes to be forwarded to the county commission.

The charter commission will finish up its work in mid-February with its formal report and minority report.