Independence Examiner, Wednesday 03/10/04

Ombudsman recommended for review of county office

by James Dornbrook
The Examiner

The Jackson County Legislature is planning to conduct the first independent review of the Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints in its 30 years of existence.

Legislator Robert Stringfield, 1st District at-large, is leading the charge.

"Events over the last few years have led this legislator to believe a comprehensive review of the structure and operation of the Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints is appropriate," Stringfield said.

Since becoming a member of the Legislature in 2002, Stringfield said he has heard constant concerns about the operations of the office from county officials, the media and citizens. People are concerned the OHRCC is not following its intended purpose of independently reviewing complaints citizens have about county government.

Stringfield wants to explore the appointment process for OHRCC commissioners, to determine if the independence of the body is compromised by the county executive having sole power of appointment. Currently, the Legislature has no appeal power over appointments. Also, the OHRCC gets legal advice from the County Counselors office, a branch of the executive office. Critics argue this is a conflict of interest, because it is in the best interests of the County Counselor's office to avoid lawsuits against the county.

Stringfield said he wanted an independent ombudsman from outside the county to review the OHRCC. He said the United States Ombudsman Association recommended Duncan Fowler, a former ombudsman from King County, Wash., to conduct the independent review.

"I think it is in the best interests of the health, welfare and safety of the citizens of Jackson County that such a review be undertaken. It should be done for efficiency and improving relations between the citizens and their government," Stringfield said. "The only thing I need now is funding."

Legislators seemed all in favor of conducting the independent review of the complaints office.

"We've been waiting a long time to get this done, to find an approach that would truly be independent. We considered several different options, and I think this option is not going to be tainted in any way. I believe everyone will be allowed to have a say in the process," said Legislator Dennis Waits, 3rd District.

Waits said he thinks the money to fund the review should come from the professional services budget for the County Executive.

Legislator Bob Spence, 6th District, said if there is no money in the county executive's budget, the funds should come out of unappropriated surplus in the general fund.

The review could cost about $13,000 to $20,000, depending on the scope the Legislature decides to pursue.

Deborah Tircuit, OHRCC director, said her organization would cooperate fully with a review.

"I would hope a review would bring back positive ideas for improving all areas of our organization," Tircuit said. "We hope this will put a period to the concerns some individuals have regarding this organization and allow us to move forward."

Stringfield also wants the Legislature to consider reviewing the ordinances governing operations of the OHRCC, to ensure they meet regularly as the Jackson County Charter recommends. He also wants to make sure the positions on the commission are filled quicker.

One seat was vacant since 1999. It was finally filled Monday, when County Executive Katheryn Shields appointed Barbara Salva of Sugar Creek. Salva is an artist with an accounting degree from Kansas City Business College.

The seat represents the area where one of the OHRCC's harshest critics lives. Bob WitbolsFeugen has called for review and reform of the OHRCC for several years now.

WitbolsFeugen and Karen Turner were involved in a complaint that the OHRCC decided had no merit. A judge later ruled the decision was made in an illegal closed session, but the OHRCC never held another hearing on the matter. WitbolsFeugen has called for a review ever since.

"I'm was shocked to finally see some movement forward on this, after all this time. I'm very pleased with the discussion and remain cautiously optimistic," WitbolsFeugen said.

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