State legislators may not accept lobbyist gifts, not even a cup of coffee or a cheeseburger. Nor can they serve one day past their term limit or run for another term once the limit takes effect. Why then are not county elected officials subject to the same ethics laws and term limits as our state lawmakers?
Most county officials are not subjected to lobbying in the traditional sense and there is not an army of lobbyists knocking on the doors in county seats like Harrisonville or Union. However, there is an army of vendors who make a lot of money off county government. From engineering firms to gravel quarries to equipment sales and much more, companies profit off your tax dollars. And the elected officials are the ones making the spending decisions as to which vendor wins the contract(s).
That can mean free lunches or steak dinners, alcoholic beverages, luxury suite tickets to sporting events, “mandatory” conferences sponsored and paid for by vendors, big ticket gift items provided to local elected officials and county bureaucrats and more. At the present time, it is the unbridled wild west and there are scant few ethics laws constraining what “gifts” local politicians can accept. At the very least, the current system, or the lack thereof, lends itself to the perception of impropriety.
Combine the complete lack of local government ethics laws with no term limits, and a system is created that permits career politicians to enjoy the “benefits” of office into perpetuity.
If it is good for the goose, it must be good for the gander. As stated, state policymakers cannot accept any gifts. Why then should county office holders have different rules? Or worse, a lack of any rules at all? Because counties are political subdivisions of the state and the elected offices are defined and controlled by state statute (especially first-class counties), it is imperative that the Missouri General Assembly act to immediately end lobbyist/vendor gifts to county politicians. New ethics laws would help ensure that county elected officials are transparent and not unduly influenced in the performance of their duties.
Besides strict ethics laws, state level policymakers are also subject to an eight (8) year term limit in the House and Senate, and it is a lifetime ban thereafter. In like manner, term limiting county officials will ensure consistency and fairness in public service. Term limits will increase transparency and prevent political careerism from being the sole motivator of service.
Passing county term limits will also ensure there is reasonably steady turnover and allow more citizens to take their turn in public service. More than anything, county term limits will prevent any one office holder from acquiring too much power and influence within a county system during their tenure.
State level county government ethics reform, paired with an eight (8) year term limit, are great first steps in making our system consistent for all those who engage in public service, no matter the office in which they are serving. Expectations, ethics rules, and term limits would be consistent and equally applied across the board. We have an opportunity and an obligation to demonstrate that we are serious about doing all we can to clean up county governments across the state to ensure our system, at all levels of public service, is well beyond reproach.
Ryan Johnson currently serves as a commissioner in Cass County. He was elected in 2020 and ran on a platform of restoring public trust.