Independence Examiner, Saturday 10/18/03

County commission dwindles in numbers, purpose

by James Dornbrook
The Examiner

Despite the intention of the Jackson County Charter, the county's human relations commission has failed several times in recent months to round up a quorum of its board for monthly meetings.

In addition, the resignation of the commission's Chairman, Greg Gerstner, increases concerns about the commission's ability to function, and its lack of oversight by the county.

The county charter, in Article 10, requires that the Jackson County Commission on Human Relations and Citizens Complaints, "shall not meet less frequently than monthly and shall advise the director of human relations and citizens complaints as to the affairs of the office."

The OHRCC failed to hold quorum meetings in April, May, August and September.

After failing to meet a quorum, no special meetings were organized later in the month to keep from violating the minimal meeting requirements in the charter.

Gerstner admittedly had a poor attendance record for the commission meetings and decided to resign on Sept. 25. Gerstner, a Kansas City attorney, stated in his letter of resignation that he has a busy business schedule that would preclude his attendance at most OHRCC commission meetings.

The commission has already had one empty seat. Commissioner Toni Thornton resigned in March 2000. Also, Commissioner Michael Hunter has been serving on the commission without appointment since his term expired in March 2002.

With the three vacancies, all of the remaining commissioners must appear at meetings in order to reach a quorum and not violate the county charter.

Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields said she is interviewing people to fill vacancies. She said she will ask applicants about any reforms they think the commission should work on. Shields also intends to ask current commissioners to begin a six-month internal review to see if the department is following the intent of the charter.

Critics of the OHRCC say Shields' actions are only designed to appear something is being done about questionable actions of the commission during the last few years.

No checks or balances

The OHRCC was created to handle complaints about Jackson County services. It was designed to review and investigate complaints about improper actions by county employees, county officials, boards and commissions.

There are few safeguards in place, however, to ensure the OHRCC itself is following its intended purpose. The charter makes the OHRCC a completely separate entity, giving the Jackson County Legislature and citizens virtually no say over its actions.

The only connection the charter gives OHRCC commissioners to an elected official and thereby the voters is the power of the Jackson County executive to appoint commissioners, including the chairman.

The county executive has sole discretion, with no approval process in place. The only requirement is the commission must have one representative from each county legislative district.

The OHRCC has been questioned numerous times in the last few years regarding its decisions notably, complaints stemming from a case brought to the commission in 1998, by Karen Turner and Robert WitbolsFeugen.

Turner brought forward concerns that her daughter, Paige, received death threats during the murder investigation of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen. Turner argued that Jackson County Sheriff's Sgt. Gary Kilgore told suspects that Paige Turner was an informant, despite Turner repeatedly demanding this not occur.

After the OHRCC Commission held a closed session hearing on the complaint, and decided that Kilgore was not at fault, Turner sued over the OHRCC's handling of her complaint.

Circuit Court Judge Thomas Clark ruled that the closed session hearing violated the Sunshine Law. He fined commissioners Hunter, Gerstner and Director Deborah Tircuit a total of $500 for the violations. Clark did not assess the plaintiff's legal fee's which topped $30,000 to the defendants as part of his decision. He also did not reverse the OHRCC's decision.

Turner and WitbolsFeugen have repeatedly asked the Jackson County Legislature to review the OHRCC's decision, which it has the power to do. Legislators decided the review would be a waste of time since they are not allowed to reverse the decision, only to recommend that the OHRCC revisit the case.

What Legislators did, instead, is ask Shields to put together an independent review committee to look at how the OHRCC operates and to recommend reforms. Shields refused to do so, deciding instead to ask the OHRCC to review itself. Shields and Legislative Chairman Dennis Waits told reporters they believe this is the best course of action, because the OHRCC is independent of the executive and legislature.

Citizens demanding reform

WitbolsFeugen called the decision to ask the OHRCC to review itself a ridiculous action that doesn't address any of the concerns raised about the need for reform.

"We're asking the Commission to change its own diaper," he said. "What is their own review going to say? That they don't see anything wrong? That they should continue to have no oversight at all and be able to operate by any rules they want? We've asked the OHRCC to review themselves for the last few years and all they've done is give themselves a pay raise."

WitbolsFeugen said Shields' decision serves only to avoid airing any dirty laundry about her OHRCC appointments and the actions of her county counselors.

WitbolsFeugen said the OHRCC knew the Turner complaint against Kilgore was valid, yet chose to ignore it. He said the County Counselor's Office advised commissioners that to decide in favor of Turner would open the Sheriff's Department to a lawsuit. WitbolsFeugen said someone in county government needs to question whether the purpose of the OHRCC is to protect the county from lawsuits or to ensure county employees are acting in a responsible manner.

Another matter the Legislature could address is whether the County Counselor's Office should be advising the OHRCC.

WitbolsFeugen argues the commission should have an independent counsel. He said the County Counselor's Office has a conflict of interest when it advises the OHRCC on how to proceed with its hearings. He said involvement of the County Counselor's Office ensures the county executive can always attempt to sway OHRCC decisions.

He believes this involvement has turned the OHRCC away from its intended purpose of protecting citizens from harm by county government. It is instead protecting the county from taking responsibility for its actions.

To reach James Dornbrook e-mail or call 350-6322.
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