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Mar 26

Professionalism in County Government: A History

Posted on March 26, 2015 at 12:19 PM by County Executive

A century ago, 16 elected officials served in 16 elected offices in St. Charles County and the Circuit Court. The number of elective offices and elected officials remained roughly the same for the next 30 years. Then things began to change as citizens, especially in a growing county like St. Charles, demanded more professionalism in state and county government. Today, 27 elected officials serve in 15 different county and Circuit Court elective offices. Some functions requiring training and experience are now performed by professionals, who must answer to elected officials, who must answer to the voters.  A look back at our government’s history on the state and county level shows how these changes occurred.

The only County Officers in 1914 with more than a residency, age, voting or citizenship requirement were the Prosecuting Attorney, who had to be a lawyer, and the County Superintendent of Schools, who had to possess a degree from a Normal School or the Teacher’s College at the University of Missouri, a lifetime teaching certificate related to school supervision issued by the state superintendent or a first-grade county certificate. The Circuit Judge, but not the County Probate Judge, was required to be a lawyer. 

In addition to administrative functions, the judges of the County Court, as the legislative branch of County Government, exercised a great deal of discretion, and were rightly elective offices. Some elected County officers exercised a great deal of discretion in the exercise of their duties - the Assessor in assessing taxes, the Treasurer in deciding which bank held County funds, the Coroner in investigating deaths, the Sheriff in enforcing laws, and the Prosecuting Attorney in deciding which cases to prosecute. These officers needed to answer directly to the voters. The duties of others, like Collector, Recorder of Deeds, Surveyor, Highway Engineer, County Clerk and Circuit Clerk, were entirely administrative, yet the office was elective. The political parties liked it that way because the elected officials were able to reward their supporters with patronage jobs.    

The movement to remove partisan considerations and require more professionalism began at the state level in the 1940s. The influence of political machines in the two largest cities created pressure to pass a Non-Partisan Court Plan for the appointment of appellate judges and circuit judges in St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County. When a proposal to create a commission to recommend three candidates, one of which the Governor would appoint, died in the legislature, supporters placed the proposal on the ballot through the imitative petition process and Missouri voters adopted it. When the legislature placed the plan on the ballot again, 70 percent of St. Charles County voters opposed repeal of the plan, which did allow St. Charles County voters to continue to elect their circuit judges. A constitutional convention kept the Non-Partisan Court Plan in the 1945 Constitution. 

The new constitution also eliminated the elected office of State Superintendent of Schools and established an eight-member board appointed by the Governor with advice and consent of the Senate, who then appointed a Commissioner of Education and a “professional staff.” In both areas, the drafters of the new constitution intended that the judiciary and education be substantially removed from electoral politics and placed in the hands of the best lawyers and professional educators. While the 1945 Constitution required any person elected or appointed to any civil or military office meet residency requirements, it added “residence in this state shall not be necessary in cases of appointment to administrative positions requiring technical or specialized skill or knowledge.”

On the local level, the 1945 Constitution created an elected Magistrate to replace Justices of the Peace. While it grandfathered existing Probate Judges and Justices of the Peace who had held office for at least four years, the Constitution required every Magistrate be licensed to practice law. Due to population growth, county voters elected a second Magistrate Judge in 1970. A constitutional amendment passed in 1976 allowed the voters of any judicial circuit to make its Circuit Judges subject to the Non-Partisan Court Plan. St. Charles County voters showed no interest in adopting the plan, preferring to elect their Circuit Judges, as they did their Magistrate Judges. 

After professional educators working for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education established statewide standards for certification of teachers, St. Charles County voters no longer elected a County Superintendent of Schools, whose primary duty had been to certify teachers in the county schools, after 1960. Elected local school boards set policies, but hired professional superintendents to administer them. After St. Charles County became a second-class county in 1965, state statute required voters to elect a County Auditor, but required no qualifications in accounting. 

The state statutes allowed the County Court to appoint the County Surveyor as County Highway Engineer if he met the qualifications of that office and agreed to serve. If the County Highway Engineer could not perform all the duties of his office, he could, with the approval of the County Commission, appoint one or more assistants. By 1965, state statutes required the County Highway Engineer be a registered professional engineer. The legislature abolished the office of highway engineer in first class counties in 1973. After St. Charles County became a first-class county in 1979, the County Commission appointed a County Highway Administrator who performed all duties required by law of a County Highway Engineer. Statutes required the County Surveyor to be a licensed land surveyor. If the County Highway Administrator was qualified, he performed the duties of the County Surveyor. If not, he appointed a licensed person to perform the duties. 

While the state statutes required no medical training, the Coroner elected by the voters was a chiropractor when St. Charles became a first-class county in 1979. The statutes allowed the County Commission to appoint a medical examiner, who was required to be a medical doctor, upon the completion of the Coroner’s term of office. Various local physicians served as medical examiner, performing autopsies and forensic investigations on suicides, homicides and accidental or unexpected deaths. The County Commission appointed Dr. Mary Case as the Chief Medical Examiner of St. Charles County in 1986. She served in the same capacity for St. Louis, Jefferson and Franklin counties.         

After a citizens’ group submitted the requisite signatures on a petition, the Circuit Court appointed a 14-member commission to draft a home-rule Charter for St. Charles County in 1991.  One of the issues confronted by drafters of the proposed Charter was whether to keep certain offices elective or make them appointed by a County Executive, with the consent of a seven-member County Council. To eliminate potential opposition from elected officials, the Commission kept all offices elective except for Public Administrator, Treasurer and Auditor, all of which allowed little discretion but required some level of professional skill. Realizing professional training was required to run a jail and avoid liability issues, the Charter created a Department of Corrections, under the supervision of an appointed director rather than the elected sheriff. Sixty percent of the voters approved the Charter in April 1992.

The County Executive nominated, and the County Council confirmed, a certified jail manager with corrections experience in the military, as Director of the Department of Corrections. The Circuit Court appointed a Public Administrator with proper qualifications.  The duties of the elected Treasurer were assumed by an appointed Director of Finance who possessed a Master’s degree in Public Finance. To guarantee independence from the administration, an appointed Auditor was placed under the control of the County Council. Required under the Charter to have a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting, all appointed Auditors have been Certified Public Accountants. 

The Charter contained a provision calling for a second election to determine if the elective offices of Assessor, Recorder of Deeds, Collector, Sheriff and Circuit Clerk should also become appointive. St. Charles County voters adopted a Charter amendment allowing the Circuit Court to appoint a Circuit Clerk, but kept the others as elective offices. Nevertheless, those officeholders would no longer be able to exercise patronage in their offices, as all County employees were protected under the Charter by a Merit System.

When an elected office became vacant, the Charter allowed the County Executive, with the approval of the County Council, to appoint a replacement until the next General Election. Upon the resignation of the Sheriff in 2004, the County Executive nominated Tom Neer as interim Sheriff and the County Council concurred. He was subsequently elected to the office twice. The state statutes imposed no requirements, other than residency within the county and being a registered voter, to be a candidate for the Office of County Sheriff. After January 1, 2010, Missouri required an elected Sheriff to have a Missouri Peace Officer's License before performing any law enforcement function. 

Citing the trends within law enforcement over the previous decades for more education and training, less discretion and strict enforcement of the law, and the desire to keep the Sheriff’s elections from disrupting the department every four years, Sheriff Neer asked the County Council to send to the voters a Charter amendment in 2012 creating a St. Charles County Police Department. An appointed Police Chief with a college degree and at least 15 years in law enforcement, including six years of “highly responsible management and supervisor experience,” would head the department. Training at the FBI National Academy or a similar program or “commensurate experience,” was also required. The voters would hold the County Executive and County Council responsible for the appointment of the Chief. To provide some protection against political pressure from the administration and County Council, the appointed Chief could only be removed by the County Executive with the votes of five Council members.

The Charter amendment passed in November 2012, and the new Police Department will go into operation on January 1, 2015. The office of Sheriff will not go the way of the Superintendent of Education, Highway Engineer, Surveyor, Coroner, Public Administrator, Auditor and Treasurer – it will remain an elective office in charge of security at the courthouse, transporting prisoners and service of court documents. Scott Lewis was elected sheriff in November – one of 27 individuals elected to 15 offices in St. Charles County and the Circuit Court. Captain Dave Todd, a 35-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department with a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice, was appointed and confirmed by the County Council on December 15 and will take office on January 1 as the first chief of the St. Charles County Police Department.