Thoughts on the Home Rule Charter of Jefferson County
On November 4, voters in Jefferson County will decide whether they would like their jurisdiction to become a charter county via adoption of a home rule charter. This would give the people of Jeff Co much more say in how their county operates its own government. Currently, there are just three charter counties in Missouri — Saint Louis, Saint Charles, and Jackson. The independent city of Saint Louis effectively operates that way, too. During the past year, a dedicated group of Jeff Co residents has been working out a charter for the citizens to consider in the coming election. If it is approved, Jeff Co will become a charter county and this document will become the county’s constitution. If it is rejected, Jeff Co will continue as a first-class county governed by the Missouri statutes that dictate how such a county should operated.
The simplest and most obvious difference between the 111 counties without a charter and the three that have one is the setup of the legislative and executive branches of government. In the 111 counties without a charter, the two branches are combined into a county commission, which always consists of one presiding commissioner elected countywide and two associate commissioners elected by district — each representing half of the county — which is easy enough to figure. The three counties with a charter all have a county executive elected countywide and a county council elected by district. Saint Louis and Saint Charles each have a seven-member council, while Jackson has a nine-member council. Of those nine, three are actually elected countywide, while the other six are elected by district.
In these formats, the council votes on legislation, the executive signs or vetoes it, and the council can then override a veto. There are more checks and balances in the charter format than in the county commission format, and that is probably the point — when a county reaches a certain size, those checks and balances become more important. It’s not a coincidence that the state’s two largest counties by population have adopted a charter, with Saint Charles being in the top five. Many of the 111 counties with a county commission are so small that their system works just fine, and enough of a balance is provided by other elected officials, such as sheriff, plus the circuit courts.
That is just the prime example of the benefits a charter can bring, though. There are many other ways in which adopting a charter gives a county more freedom — such as in planning and zoning, or setting the salaries of elected officials. I testified before the Jefferson County charter commission earlier this year with my thoughts about the charter. And now, having read the final document that the voters will be considering, I pronounce it … pretty darn good, but by no means perfect. It is not my role to tell people whether they should vote for it. But I will say that, in theory, if I lived in the county, I would almost certainly vote in favor of it. But the choice is yours, people of Jeff Co.
And, with that in mind, here is my analysis of the proposed charter:
Let’s start with the weaknesses, because it’s more fun to write criticism than praise. There are two major faults with the charter, and possibly three. First, Article 1 (section 1.6.6) requires that any contract Jefferson County enters into must pay the prevailing wage. Now, I understand that Jeff Co is a strong union county, but this is terrible. It is one thing to make this a county ordinance, which can be altered during emergencies or in the appropriate circumstances, but this is really going to tie the hands of elected officials who look to save taxpayer money by using outside contracts. That is probably the point of the provision, but it is a horrible idea.
Another major fault of the charter is that too many elected officials are maintained. There may well be necessary compromises at work here, but my concern is with the policy — not the politics. I think Saint Louis and Jackson have probably gone too far in reducing the number of elected countywide officials they have — two and three, respectively — but I think Jeff Co does not go far enough. The charter maintains 10 elected county officials other than the new county executive, and seven councilmembers. Jeff Co voters will still elect the sheriff, prosecutor, county clerk, assessor, treasurer, auditor, recorder (of deeds), collector, circuit clerk, and public administrator. Continuing to elect the last four of those positions is completely unnecessary. They make almost no policy decisions, and do not serve as a check on other offices. The auditor is probably an unnecessary position, too, considering that the charter requires an annual outside audit of government finances. I am well acquainted with research showing that there is a danger in having either too many or too few elected officials. I think this charter will leave Jefferson County with too many.
The charter’s final fault is less clear, from my reading, so take that into consideration. From what I can tell, the county council as established does not have the resources to operate effectively. It appears that council employees and staff will operate under the office of the county clerk, rather than the council. If that is so, then the council’s own employees would be reporting to another elected official, which could lead to some obvious problems. I deduce that it will work this way because: the charter does not list under council powers the ability to hire staff in order to conduct its operations; the county clerk is listed as the manager of council proceedings and records; and, there is no exception under the merit system for close council staff. If my reading is correct, then the seven councilmembers are not going to have the resources to operate as an independent body. They won’t be able to have staff around that they can trust, in the event of a dispute between the council and other elected officials. I hope I am wrong about this, but it could be a serious fault, if the goal is to create checks and balances. The part-time council would just get steamrolled by full-time officials who control the staffing and employees.
Now, let’s go to the good parts. I like the creation of a merit system (section 8), although it should have a few more exceptions. I really like giving the county authority to enter into contracts with other government entities, to share services (found in sections 3.4.22, 3.4.23, and 13.1). The authors of this document seem to have emphasized that officials should be able to make those contracts as easily as possible. I like the strong conflict-of-interest rules in section 9. Some of the officials being maintained in elected positions deserve to be so chosen — especially sheriff, prosecutor, assessor, and treasurer.
It is a good thing that officials will still run in partisan races. (I understand that Franklin County is planning, under its charter proposal, to have non-partisan races. That would be a serious mistake, which I will discuss in my review of its final document.) The requirements for holding office all seem reasonable. The length of time required for a bill to pass is very fair — this was one of the points of debate I brought up in my testimony. Frankly, I like most of this proposed charter. I like the balanced budget requirement (188.8.131.52), but all counties are required to do that, so it’s not really a big deal. It’s a 55-page document, and I’ve summed up the parts I disliked comprehensively — but the rest is very well done.
Now, before I get to one final issue, I’ll discuss the quirks of the document. They’re neither good nor bad — just unusual. I think it is funny that the charter pledges not to discriminate on the basis of union membership, or the lack thereof. Earlier, I said that this is a strong union county. It reminds me of the part in the Saint Louis County charter (still in there) that forbids the hiring of members of the Communist Party. It is also strange that the charter specifies documents up to two pages have to be read in their entirety at least once. Two pages can take a long time to read. … I think it is strange that the county executive votes to break ties only on resolutions, but for no other type of legislation. So, if someone is absent and the council splits 3-3 on whether to honor a winning high school football team, or a couple on its 35th anniversary, it is good to know that the county executive gets to break that tie!
The final issue for discussion is section 1.6.7, on eminent domain. What they have done is very interesting. I don’t think it goes far enough, but it goes further than the current law, and further than other counties. As such, it is a solid step in the right direction. The new charter forbids taking private property solely to enhance tax revenues, but it does allow such takings for economic development. While that is an enormous distinction, at least it requires a supermajority vote for takings that involve an economic development rationale, which is better than the provisions anywhere else in the state. The other nice thing it does is make clear the requirements for reasonable compensation and moving expenses that the county owes people in these cases. Again, this section could go farther, but a step forward is still a step forward. With the charter’s veto override requirements for a supermajority vote (six out of seven councilmembers), if the people of Jeff Co elect a county executive opposed to eminent domain for private use, it is almost certain that it would never happen there in the future.
So, that’s my wrap. I think they did a good job, outside of the previously discussed exceptions, and I think this charter would benefit the people of Jefferson County. I hope it gets the serious discussion that it deserves.