Douglas County counselor: Meeting with Justice Matters about proposed petition would not be appropriate; group vows to continue

photo by: Elvyn Jones

Justice Matters co-chairman Ted Mosher speaks from a lectern in front of the Douglas County Courthouse as he and other activists kick off their campaign against the proposed expansion of the Douglas County Jail on Saturday, March 3, 2018.

Douglas County legal counselor John Bullock has informed Justice Matters leaders that it would be inappropriate for him to meet with the group to offer advice on how to make a proposed petition valid.

That news, however, is not deterring Justice Matters from pursuing the petition that’s intended as an alternative to expanding the county jail.

On Monday, Bullock informed Justice Matters of his finding that the petition that it presented for his review was invalid because of errors in formatting, punctuation and “misleading, vague or ambiguous” statements. The petition sought to compel the Douglas County Commission to schedule a Nov. 6 referendum asking voters to approve a 3.5 mill levy to develop and staff a mental health crisis center.

Justice Matters leaders requested a meeting Tuesday with Bullock to address the issues that he raised about the petition and to “straighten out the petition language.” In his response letter Tuesday to Ben MacConnell, lead organizer for Justice Matters, Bullock wrote that it would be improper for him as the legal adviser to the Douglas County Commission to help Justice Matters revise its petition.

“That body (the County Commission) may be called upon to make decisions concerning your petitions, as discussed in my April 16 letter,” Bullock wrote. “Accordingly, it would not be appropriate for me to work with you to develop revisions to your petition. That is why I recommended you consult independent legal counsel who can assist you with your petition and the petition process.”

Justice Matters co-chair Ted Mosher said he was disappointed with Bullock’s refusal to meet and vowed that the group would continue to explore ways to give county voters the opportunity to vote on a mental health crisis center independently of an expansion of the county jail.

Justice Matters proposed the petition as an alternative to Douglas County’s ballot initiative, which asks county voters to approve an additional half-cent of sales tax authority. The proposed sales tax would raise an estimated $9.8 million per year to fund the $44 million expansion of the county jail, an $11 million behavioral health campus and $5.1 million in additional behavioral health services. Mail-in ballots for the referendum will be sent Tuesday to county voters and counted May 15.

Mosher discounted Bullock’s contention that offering advice to Justice Matters would create a conflict of interest.

“Who is the conflict with? The citizens of the county?” he asked. “We feel the County Commission — and obviously the County Commission’s legal counselor — represents the citizens of the county. It doesn’t seem out of line that the county counselor meet with us to reconcile the challenges he posed in (Monday’s) letter.”

Justice Matters only asked that Bullock review the proposed petition for the proper formatting, punctuation and language, Mosher said. The group did not seek an opinion on the broader statutory questions Bullock addressed. Mosher said Justice Matters continued to believe that Kansas Statute 19-117(c) could be used to authorize, with the approval of county voters, a 3.5 mill levy dedicated to a mental health crisis center and its operation. The group was considering all its options, including consultation with its own legal counsel, so that it can get a petition before voters, he said.

In his Monday correspondence with Justice Matters, Bullock had cited the following as problematic:

• The petition’s statement that the referendum would be on the Nov. 6 general election ballot was misleading and confusing.

The County Commission would have to schedule a referendum within 90 days of receiving a valid petition. It’s possible a referendum could be scheduled for the general election, but that is dependent on state and federal election laws, as well as logistical concerns, Bullock wrote. The Douglas County Clerk’s Office would have to have a valid petition before Aug. 24 to get on the Nov. 6 ballot.

• The petition’s call for the county to start collecting the additional 3.5 mills in property taxes on Jan. 1, 2019, should the referendum be approved.

That is not possible because the County Commission will approve the 2019 budget and mill levy in August, Bullock wrote. The soonest the added mill levy could be collected would be Jan. 1, 2020. Because of the state’s cash-basis law, the county could not start spending to build or staff a crisis center until it had revenue to do so.

• The petition statement that the added mill levy authority would sunset in 2028, but that following an outcome analysis it “will be presented for renewal to Douglas County voters during the 2028 general election.”

Bullock wrote that that is misleading because there is no state provision that allows referendum-approved property taxes to sunset. He also wrote that any 2028 referendum to reauthorize the mill levy authority would require another successful petition.

• The petition’s statement that under Kansas Statute 19-117(c), revenue from the 3.5 mills would be used for “the exclusive purpose” of constructing, refurbishing or equipping a mental health crisis center.