The Johnson County Charter Commission could make changes to its home rule charter next year, which could add elected positions to county government or remove elected positions, like sheriff from future ballots.
Similar to a constitution, the Johnson County Home Rule Charter established the county’s government structure and outlines who has the authority to do what. Residents narrowly adopted the charter 20 years ago.
“Johnson County is kind of an aberration,” says Clayton Barker, an attorney and former member of the commission tasked with reviewing the charter in 2011.
For instance, in most Kansas counties, voters elect a county clerk, county treasurer, and a register of deeds. In Johnson County, the county manager hires those positions.
The charter includes a process to review it and propose changes via a 25-member commission that meets once a decade. A fresh charter commission starts in 2021.
“The idea is to get a larger group of people from informed areas of the population. It’s kind of like outsiders, but informed outsiders to give it a review,” Barker says.
Voters must approve the commission’s recommendations.
Republicans in the Johnson County Senate appointed Mike Pirner, Lenexa, to the commission 10 years ago. The charter commission met for nearly a year, spending the first several months learning how different departments within the county government operate.
“In the latter part of the year, we began to focus on proposals for charter amendments and other recommendations to improve county government,” Pirner recalls.
Commissioners debated making county commission elections partisan, making the county sheriff an appointed position rather than an elected role, and expanding the membership of the county commission from seven to nine.
“Several of those proposals got very close to a majority of the commission, but fell short,” Pirner said.
The 2011 commission concluded without putting any questions to voters.
“My recollection of the whole process was there was one group pretty happy with the way things were and there was another group that wanted some changes,” Barker recalls. “It was sort of almost a unified reform agenda. The reformers didn’t have the majority so nothing changed.”
Pirner hoped to see some reforms in 2011.
“Last time, about 10 or 11 members of the commission were interested in putting questions to the voters. A slim majority, however, basically ran the clock for the full year and made literally no recommendations on ways to improve county government and just focused on rejecting our ideas,” Pirner says. “That was disappointing, as to pretend everything is perfect seemed short-sighted to me.”
Pirner hopes the 2021 commission will consider putting some questions to voters. First, he’d like voters to consider expanding the size of the board of commissioners from seven to nine.
“That question was last submitted to the voters in 2000, and it passed handily. Given the size of the districts has expanded to nearly 100,000 in the intervening 20 years, I’m concerned about adequate representation. It seems like a harmless question to put on the ballot,” Pirner says.
He’d like to see partisan elections for county commission races.
“Keeping county elections as the only nonpartisan race in even years is increasingly revealing itself to be a bad idea, and voters deserve a chance to weigh in on this question again,” Pirner says. “This isn’t an idea to help Republicans either. The fact is that partisan elections would arguably help both parties equally. As this election demonstrated, Johnson County is pretty evenly divided. It also ensures both parties have a choice in November.”
A variety of individuals and groups make appointments to the 25-member panel including House and Senate legislators from Johnson County. The county caucus will appoint six members of the commission. Republicans hold a slight edge in the Senate with five Republicans and four Democrats representing Johnson County. The political balance of power in the county’s House caucus will depend on the outcome of two tight races. (At last count, Republican Rashard Young leads Democrat Linda Featherston by one vote in a House race to represent parts of Overland Park and Lenexa. Republican Terry Fredrick leads Democrat Jennifer Day by 5 votes in a race to represent part of Overland Park.)
Additionally, each county commissioner appoints one individual from his or her district. The Johnson County Republican and Democratic parties each appoint two people. The committee will also include two members of the Johnson County Planning Committee, and three members from the Johnson and Wyandotte counties council of mayors. The charter prohibits elected county and state officials from serving on the commission.