Monday, February 14, 2011

A History of Home Rule Attempts in Boone County

On February 11, 2011, Steve Scott delivered the following talk to the Muleskinners, a Democratic political club, at Stephens College’s Stamper Commons. Mr. Scott is an attorney with Scott Law Firm in Columbia and has been intimately involved with this subject for three decades. His remarks provide an excellent history of efforts in Boone county to achieve “Home Rule.”

A History of Home Rule Attempts in Boone County
copyright 2011 by Steve Scott


In 2010, some fourteen years after home rule for Boone County was defeated for the second time, the subject of home rule resurfaced in the Presiding Commissioner campaign. Ed Robb, the Republican candidate who narrowly won the election, advocated consideration of home rule as one of his campaign planks. As a long-time supporter of home rule, I was pleased to see someone in the public arena talking about the subject. Politically, though, I found it passing strange that Mr. Robb saw fit to raise the home rule issue -- more on that later.

In any event, I was asked to speak today about home rule as a direct result of the issue being raised by Mr. Robb. And I'm happy to try to shed some light on a subject that has been out of the public eye for so many years.

Historical Background

County government has its roots in feudal England. When William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, he had to set up his government. He chose a system of centralized control from London with local agents throughout the country carrying out his edicts, and, of course, collecting his taxes. For this purpose, William used the geographical divisions the Anglo-Saxons had called "shires." In fact, the modern word "sheriff" derives from the title of a feudal official called the "Shire Rieve," among whose duties was collecting taxes.

Normans used another word for these areas that became the modern word "county," referring to the realm of a count. And the counts administered their areas by holding "County Court." An aside: The older folks here, myself included, may recall that until 1985, our County Commission was called the County Court.

The main point of this history is that the central government held all the power. And that power was administered at the county level by agents of the crown who had little discretion in the performance of their duties.

Skipping forward in time, American settlers brought these ideas about county government with them to this country. And the result was that in Missouri and most other states, for all non-home-rule counties, state government is all-powerful, and its policies are carried out by county officials who have little discretion.

What We Have Now

The two main features of county government addressed by the home rule concept are structure and legislative power. Structure: Without home rule, the structure of county government is dictated by hundreds of pages of confusing and sometimes contradictory statutes. Legislative Power: Without home rule, laws affecting county government cannot be changed except with the agreement on statutory changes by a majority of the Missouri House of Representatives, a majority of the Missouri State Senate and the Governor.

Problems of Current System

The County Commission's legislative authority is very limited. Its main legislative function is adopting an annual budget. It has no authority to legislate in other areas unless that authority has specifically been granted by state. An example where such local legislative power has been granted is planning and zoning.

Administrative problems

County government now, in effect, is controlled by a large group of seventeen individuals: three commissioners, nine elected officials and about five appointed department heads. These officials are not even shaped into a committee. They each have their own statutory mandates. Legally, they are free to ignore each other, to a large extent, in carrying out their prescribed duties.

This results in a fragmented government where little internal accountability exists, except through voluntary cooperation among the officials. The extent to which Boone County government functions well is a testament to the general commitment of elected officials to cooperate with each other. But there is no guarantee that such cooperation will always be forthcoming. Nor is there any guarantee that the voters will always elect such good, cooperative office-holders.

What Home Rule Brings to the Table

As implied by what I've already said, home rule would allow the county to determine its own governmental structure and enable the county to adopt local legislation to meet its needs. Of these two issues, structure and legislative power, I believe the second is more important.

Home rule allows local people to make local decisions rather than having decisions made at the state level. In any event, it is often difficult to obtain legislative changes from the General Assembly because a change that Boone County might want could be opposed by other counties.

The current rule is that the county can only do those things specifically authorized by statute, and the statutes are strictly construed. In contrast, under home rule, the county could exercise all legislative powers that are not specifically prohibited by the state Constitution and statutes.

So How Can a County Get Home Rule?

The Missouri Constitution provides two different processes to achieve county home rule. The older method is a petition process leading to appointment of a County Charter Commission. This requires gathering petition signatures from voters asking for appointment of a charter-drafting commission. The petition signature requirement is 10% of the number of voters who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election in the county. If sufficient petition signatures are gathered and certified, the Circuit Court appoints a charter-writing commission. The charter drafted by the commission is then submitted to the voters and can be approved by a majority vote.

The second, newer method is the county constitution process. In 1994 the Missouri Constitution was amended to provide for an alternative method for first-class counties such as Boone to achieve home rule -- this is the County Constitution process, which is simply home rule under a slightly different name. This process is easier because it does not require a petition drive -- rather, it starts with the County Commission placing a proposal on the ballot to establish a commission to draft a county constitution. If a majority of the voters approve the proposal, the drafting commission is then appointed by the Circuit Court. And later the county constitution drafted by the commission is submitted to the voters and can be approved by a majority vote. Both of these procedures have been attempted in Boone County, and in each case, the voters rejected home rule.

Boone County's First Home Rule Attempt

In the late 1970s, there were a couple of scandals in county government. County Court Judge Clarence Drew from Centralia had used county workers and materials to grade his personal driveway. County Clerk Murray Glascock was charged and convicted of embezzlement. Presaging Rahm Emanuel's maxim never to let a good crisis go to waste, a Boone County Home Rule Petition Committee was formed.

Credit must be given to the League of Women Voters for being instrumental in this effort and providing the bulk of the petition carriers who gathered signatures.

I served as legal counsel and publicity chair for the committee. After more than a year of effort, sufficient signatures were gathered and a charter commission was appointed by the Circuit Court.
The charter commission proposed a charter that bore many similarities to the Columbia City Charter, which is unsurprising given that the commission's chair was Rhonda Thomas, who had been the Columbia City Counselor and was an MU Law School professor when she served on the commission.

When the charter was submitted to Boone County voters in March 1982, it was defeated by a vote of 11,428 to 4,614, or 71% against the charter. Voters outside the City of Columbia were overwhelmingly opposed to the charter. And it wasn't all that popular within the city, either: It was defeated in Wards 1, 2 and 3. And it won only small majorities in Wards 4, 5 and 6. I ended up feeling that much of the opposition to the charter came from existing county officeholders who would have been displaced under the charter.

Boone County's Second Home Rule Attempt

In 1991, I was asked by the Boone County Commission to chair the Boone County Government Review Team. The team's assignment was to study county government and recommend improvements.

The committee's labors began in April 1991. Gestation began with numerous meetings with county officeholders and others, followed by public hearings around the county, ultimately resulting in the birth in January 1992 of a lengthy report consisting of a main body of 86 pages, plus about 300 pages of appendices (which were mostly verbatim transcripts of the team's meetings and hearings).

One of the report's recommendations was that the County Commission consider initiating a county constitution process, a recommendation the commission later followed. After the voters narrowly approved appointment of a County Constitution Commission, I found that my work in chairing the Government Review Team and writing its report was not done -- I was retained as legal counsel to the constitution commission.

As I said before, I think the legislative power issue is the more important aspect of home rule, so I privately urged the constitution commission's members to leave the county government structure untouched -- that is, retain the current statutory structure -- and draft a minimal constitution that focused mainly on giving the county local legislative power. To a certain extent, the commission followed that urging, but it couldn't resist some structural tinkering as well, with the result that it proposed appointment by the county commission of several currently elective officeholders. The other major proposal, similar to the previous charter, was to increase the size of the County Commission to give more representation to areas outside the City of Columbia.

Opposition to the county constitution was fierce, and a fair amount of that opposition came from then-sitting Boone County officeholders, including some whose positions would become appointive under the constitution. On election day, March 5, 1996, once again Boone County voters rejected home rule, this time by 72%. The vote total was 13,078 to 5,033.

Again, out-county voters were overwhelmingly opposed. The constitution was defeated in every single precinct outside the City of Columbia. The no vote exceeded 70% in 30 of 31 out-county precincts. And once again the City of Columbia was not supportive of home rule -- a majority voted in favor of the constitution in only 8 of 39 precincts, and the anti-constitution vote exceeded 70% in 13 of those precincts.

So Where Are We Now?

Now we come back to Ed Robb's advocacy of home rule in his campaign for Presiding Commissioner last Fall. As I said at the outset, I found it passing strange that he would broach the issue. The reason is that the two previous home rule attempts were hugely unpopular outside of the City of Columbia. And yet it was in those out-county areas that Mr. Robb had more of his support, which enabled him to gain a narrow victory over Scott Christianson. One might even speculate that his margin of victory in the out-county areas could have been even larger had he not made home rule an issue.

For my part, I was weary to the bone of pursuing home rule after the two previous attempts. After a while you realize that pounding your head against a brick wall hurts, and you stop doing it. My opinion is that Boone County voters are unlikely to approve home rule until one of two things occurs:

There is a huge scandal in county government that can be directly traced to the existing form of government; or

The county gets a lot larger. Historically in Missouri, no county of less than 300,000 population has approved home rule. At that point, the problems of urbanization become so pressing that opposition to home rule becomes muted.

© 2011 by Steve Scott

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