April 24, 2014

County commission, parks board reach agreement on oversight

Danedri Thompson
dthompson@gardnernews.com
Members of the county commission may now remove a member of the county parks board with a simple majority vote, according to a Memorandum of Agreement commissioners approved in December.
The memorandum also gives the county commission authority to approve any land acquisitions in which the parks board uses eminent domain. The parks board last used eminent domain to acquire land for Big Bull Creek Park in 1998. The nearly 1,400-acre parkland has yet to be developed.
However, the agreement approved by the commission on Dec. 20 is not legally binding, county attorney Don Jarrett told commissioners.
Members of the Johnson County Parks and Recreation Board are appointed by the county commission, however the elected officials on the commission have limited oversight of the board. The arrangement, written in state statute and approved by voters in 1954, gives the parks board the authority to tax property and acquire land through eminent domain with little to no oversight from elected officials.
It’s an uncomfortable arrangement for some county commissioners.
Calvin Hayden, who represents Gardner and Edgerton on the county commission, voted against approving the Memorandum of Understanding, because it is not legally binding.
“I see no purpose in having an agreement when the bottom line is we still have appointed people using eminent domain,” Hayden said during a Dec. 20 commission meeting. “We appoint these people and they should have to answer to an elected body. The heart of this is that an elected body needs to approve eminent domain under any circumstances.”
Michael Meadors, director of the county parks department, said in its 57-year history, the parks board has only used eminent domain to acquire property a handful of times.
“This has been used and required to be used less than 10 times,” Meadors said.
There are certain investment advantages for individual property owners in having land acquired through eminent domain. Meadors said occasionally, property owners request that the process of eminent domain used in order to secure re-investment advantages.
Despite the non-binding nature of the agreement, Meadors said the parks board would abide by it.
“I stand before you and as long as I am your parks and recreation director, we will live up to this request,” Meadors said.
Enforceable changes to the composition and responsibilities of the parks board, however, would require action from the Kansas Legislature.
County Chair Ed Eilert said once that kind of legislation is proposed at the statehouse, anything can happen.
“I would suggest that the process that’s been outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding is a good one,” Eilert said. “I think it would work.”
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft, who serves as a commission liaison to the parks board, partially agreed.
“I would just be concerned that in no time memories would fade and old habits would kick-in,” he said.
Over the objections of Ashcraft and Hayden, commissioners approved the agreement with a 5-2 vote.

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