Archive for Thursday, February 27, 2003

County revamp talks hit Topeka

Legislators’ briefing offers ‘aura of a power grab,’ commissioner says

February 27, 2003


— The county's top elected and administrative officials briefed state legislators Wednesday about a plan that could reshape how the county fills some of its traditional elected posts.

But at least one county commissioner already is attacking the process, even before it's received a formal hearing at the Douglas County Courthouse.

"It creates the aura of a power grab, and that concerns me a great deal," County Commissioner Charles Jones said. "It seems to be putting the cart way before the horse to be meeting with legislators before the public has had a chance to speak, and before the commission has had a chance to take a position on it."

At issue is a suggestion that would revamp the structure of county government. Among the potential changes making the rounds: having the jobs of treasurer, county clerk and register of deeds filled by employees hired by the county administrator, rather than elected by the public.

Supporters say such a shift could make government more efficient, productive and professional. Opponents say it could spawn political turmoil, unnecessarily shake up stable operations and otherwise undermine grass-roots democracy.

Craig Weinaug, county administrator, last week began circulating a memo that outlined reorganization possibilities among county department leaders. Wednesday, Weinaug traveled to the Statehouse with Bob Johnson, chairman of the County Commission, to deliver the message directly to nine legislators who have constituents in the county.

Weinaug said that each of the legislators might be asked to appoint a member to serve on a special reorganization committee, which could be formed to recommend structural changes for a form of government that hasn't changed since 1868.

"We're just getting a process started, and we think this is a healthy way for this process to be started," Weinaug said.

'Troubling' move

But Jones called the move "ill-advised," one that likely would add to an expanding "atmosphere of skepticism" about the motives and intentions of leaders at the highest level of county government.

"It's quite common to send an e-mail or make a phone call to legislators to let them know about something that's going on," Jones said. "Driving over there for a meeting with them suggests a deeper level of involvement. ... I think it's troubling that meetings like this are scheduled before the public has a chance to speak about it."

A discussion about reorganization likely will be scheduled for a commission meeting sometime during the next couple weeks, Weinaug said. Johnson and Commissioner Jere McElhaney have been mulling reorganization possibilities since last year, when budget pressures started to build. Those pressures reached a peak last month, when commissioners cut employees, services and projects to fill a $1.75 million budget hole.

Treasurer behind push

Driving the push, Jones has said, was the job performance and attitude of Pat Wells, county treasurer. Wells' office received criticism in recent years from the county's auditors, and Wells recently refused to support a commission push for efficiency that would have retained treasurer's services in Baldwin by closing a county office and moving its services instead to nearby Baldwin City Hall.

Without Wells' support, commissioners could not pursue a cooperative arrangement with the city of Baldwin, and the treasurer's satellite office closed earlier this month.

Weinaug said that many options would be discussed by commissioners in the coming weeks, including a format that could eliminate the need for a county administrator. Such discussions could lead to formation of a committee, then possibly a request for enabling legislation a year from now.

That's why legislators were brought into the discussion early, he said.

"I've gotten an indication from three commissioners that they're willing to discuss this," Weinaug said after the hourlong meeting Wednesday in Topeka. "I already know they're willing to discuss the possibilities. Whether or not there will be two, or three, commissioners willing to initiate something like this, I don't know, but they're willing to discuss the possibilities. I think that gives us reason to be informing legislators about what's going to be discussed."

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