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  • Last modified 37 days ago (Oct. 19, 2017)

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Politics and the city

I have a confession to make. I never look at my Marion utility bill when it comes in the mail. Its monthly arrival is simply a cue to log onto my online account, where I can easily find out what I owe, how it compares with other months, and make my payment.

However, that habit keeps me from seeing the city’s monthly newsletter that’s tucked in with the bill.

If I’d have opened the October bill, I’d have discovered something in the newsletter that’s raised eyebrows among a few taxpayers.

In it was a piece by Marion High School work-study student Hap Waddell titled “Local Elections Matter.”

However, it wasn’t a piece calling for people to exercise their civic responsibility to vote. Instead, it told them how they should vote on a specific issue: “Vote yes to change and for a County Administrator.”

Quicker response times to citizens than weekly commission meetings and acting as an advocate for regular folk seem to be Waddell’s main justifications for the recommendation, along with the fact that it’s already in the budget.

My own eyebrows rose more than just a bit when I read that — I hadn’t expected to find a political piece in a city newsletter, particularly one written by someone other than city officials.

Among the few tidbits I’ve learned sitting in the news editor’s chair is this: When someone comes to me complaining about something, a bunch of others have the same complaint but not the gumption to speak up.

Someone dropped in last week to strongly object to the city injecting politics and lobbying for a specific vote in its newsletter, and it was time to dig into it.

There doesn’t appear to be any state law forbidding the city to take a stand on a county issue and promote it. Calls to the Kansas Ethics Commission and Secretary of State didn’t uncover any injunctions against it. The newsletter article could violate provisions of political advertising requirements, but that’s debatable.

The city already lobbies the legislature indirectly through its membership in Kansas League of Municipalities. The newsletter just cut out the middle man.

This wasn’t the first time the city was on record in its newsletter supporting a county administrator, and city council passed a resolution in April supporting the change.

However, while it may be legal, we question whether it’s the proper thing, the right thing to do, using taxpayer dollars to advocate for a county issue that many of those taxpayers may well oppose.

Leaving its justification for the recommendation in the hands of a high schooler, albeit a smart, articulate, and politically-engaged one, was the wrong move. If the council passed the resolution, then the mayor should speak on behalf of the city. That’s his job.

The issue is far more complex than the newsletter suggests. What happens when a county administrator can’t legally supervise certain people? The county clerk, county treasurer, sheriff, county attorney, and register of deeds are elected officials that they can’t supervise.

County commissioners and city officials don’t yet have any idea how that position will actually function. It doesn’t even have a job description. There hasn’t been a plan developed for what such a position will actually do or how it will fit in.

It’s surprising Marion would green light an action that lacks any formal underpinnings, aside from hoping a professional administrator could do better than part-time commissioners who wouldn’t qualify to be hired as one. How can they be certain that a commission they’ve questioned will get it right?

Could it be like Charlie Brown going trick-or-treating, hoping for candy and ending up with a rock?

“We think it’s a great idea, so you should, too,” isn’t much of a justification for anything, particularly when it’s only an idea. That line of thought can lead one to the promised land, or down the road to oblivion.

We’re not advocating one way or another about a county administrator. That’s for voters to decide, armed with enough information to make a thoughtful decision. We’ll give you pros and cons in an upcoming issue so you can make up your own minds. Give it some thought, and we trust you’ll come up with a decision that’s right.

There’s one more utility bill coming out before the election. What surprises might it hold? This time, I just might open that envelope after all.

— david colburn

Last modified Oct. 19, 2017

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