Clay County leaders approve land deal for new annex, despite legal questions and pushback

LIBERTY, Mo. -- "Two million dollars down a rat hole:" Those are the words of the presiding Clay County commissioner who was outvoted.

There was a special meeting Wednesday in Clay County about the annex, a building commissioners have been discussing for weeks now.

They last-minute meeting was called to vote on a real estate agreement to purchase new land where the county wants to build a new annex -- and in a 2-1 vote, commissioners approved it.

Opponents have two main issues.

The first: Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte said the meeting was called illegally by a staff member instead of the commission. Nolte said staff can schedule meetings but not call them.

"This is an example of what happens when the commission abdicates its power and authority to unelected staff," he said. "It opens any actions taken in this meeting and voted on vulnerable to legal challenge."

The second issue: The county auditor told the commission and dozens of residents who showed up that voting on the real estate is "unlawful."

"If a contract does not have the auditor`s certification, it is not legally binding," Auditor Victor Hurlbert said. "The county has no legal authority or obligation to pay this contract when it`s signed.

Hurlbert even cited arguments and legal facts from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft -- but it fell on deaf ears.

Nolte asked that Commissioners Gene Owen and Luann Ridgeway agree to let the auditor do his work and wait two weeks before voting. They didn't.

Despite opposition, Owen and Ridgeway voted to pass it. Nolte voted against it.

"It bothers me that we're going forward on this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the almost universal rejection by citizens," Nolte said. "Money owed is money owed. This is an obligation that will last for 20 years."

Clay County will spend $2 million to buy more than 7 acres of land near Highway 152 and North Brighton. Then they plan to build a new county annex building -- a $20 million project.

Residents who attended Wednesday's meeting weren't happy.

"I'm tired of you guys treating us like we're idiots, that we don't understand finance," one resident said. "When you spend money, somebody has to pay it back. And when it comes to government, it's the taxpayer."

"This is a rip off of Clay County citizens," another resident said.

Many wonder why the county doesn't just spend a couple million dollars to repair the existing annex on land that's already owned -- and paid for -- by Clay County.

Ridgeway didn't want to provide further detail on that question.

"I didn't come here to give speeches," Ridgeway said. "I came here to listen to what people have to say about this piece of property."

But she did have this to say for her vote: "I hear all of you when you say renovate and don't replace ... We are out of space. We need to upgrade."

Owen argued the current annex isn't fixable.

"I don't think it can be added on to," he said. "It's going to have to be tore down and redone. We have a lot of people in that annex over there that needs to stay there during the process."

The next steps will include finding out whether in fact the meeting was actually called illegally and whether the contract is binding without the auditor's approval.

The next Clay County Commission meeting is Sept. 9.

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