An anonymous group calling itself Marion County Citizens for a Better Way has launched costly and apparently illegal advertisements to influence Marion County’s April 5 election.
In a large advertisement with an estimated retail value of $580 and an identical direct mailing probably costing more than $800, the group alleges that a half-cent sales tax would hinder business in Marion County.
Both pieces were mailed under a permit owned by Hillsboro Free Press but did not contain, as required by state law the name of an individual responsible for the messages.
State statute KSA 25-2407 labels such practices “corrupt political advertising” and makes each occurrence a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to 30 days in jail. Both the advertiser and the publisher appear to share responsibility under the law.
Marion County Attorney Susan Robson, who would be responsible for deciding whether to issue charges, said Friday that she already had been alerted to the matter and was “looking into it.”
In her role as election officer, County Clerk Carol Maggard also was looking into the matter and said she had contacted state officials for a clarification.
When contacted Friday afternoon, Joel Klaassen, publisher of the Free Press, said that Randy Hagen had sponsored both ads.
Hagen, an owner of Hillsboro Ford and a member of a county committee that studied the jail, subsequently verified that he had placed the ads.
Hagen also opposed a local sales tax Hillsboro adopted to pay for a swimming pool.
“A sales tax increase is terribly detrimental to us,” he said.
Hagen said he volunteered to serve on the jail committee because he wanted to help with the process. He also doesn’t buy-in to what some believe is more of a dispute between the two largest towns in the county.
“I don’t care where people are from,” Hagen said in response to the Marion-Hillsboro rivalry that some believe is part of the jail issue. “I think this is a countywide issue. I don’t think this is a Hillsboro-Marion issue.”
Hagen believes the only fair thing is for everyone to pay for the project.
“Everyone will benefit from the emergency management side of things,” he said, so everyone should pay for it. “I really don’t think this is a last resort. We’ll still have to renovate the current jail.
“I believe there’s a way to do this without putting a burden on anyone’s property or business. That’s my biggest concern.”
Hagen continued that he has customers from Marion and wants to figure out a way to do more business in Marion.
“I have a lot of good customers in Marion but that riff seems to be a huge stumbling block,” he said.
Dan Holub, one of the three county commissioners who unanimously voted to place the issue on the ballot, termed Hagen’s ads “deceptive.”
Holub raised the issue of who was behind the ads during a presentation Wednesday night in Marion.
“This is a few people putting their own self-interests ahead of 11,000 people,” Holub said. “This group isn’t offering any suggestions or ideas.”
Holub said a similar group that successfully opposed a previous jail project in a 2008 election cited the proposed jail’s cost, size and location.
“We cut the size in half, reduced the price 40 percent, found the right location, and cut the sales tax in half,” Holub said. “We tried mightily. It still is not good enough.”
Although his ads did not say so, Hagen said Friday that he would favor a new jail if it did not include office space and was paid for with property taxes.
A prominent Marion resident, who did not wish to be identified, went further, suggesting that powerful interests in Hillsboro were opposed to the tax and the new jail it would help finance because “they want to get the county seat away from Marion.”
Building a new jail in Marion would make it harder to relocate the Courthouse to Hillsboro, he said.
A group calling itself Marion County Citizens for Progress was formed Thursday in response to the ads.
Its co-chairs are Jeanice Thomas, Pam Bowers and Todd Heitschmidt, all of Marion.
So far, that group has raised more than $500 to publish a counter-advertisement that appears — with their names on it — in this issue of the Marion County Record, Hillsboro Star-Journal, and Peabody Gazette-Bulletin.
The county has been debating what to do with its 79-year-old jail for more than eight years. Last year, it was nearly shut down when the state fire marshal’s office ruled that it was unsafely overcrowded. Since then, it has operated at a reduced capacity.
If a new jail is not built, excess inmates will have to be driven 120 miles one-way to a jail in Pratt, where they will be housed for $40 a day plus the cost of transportation, the purchase of specially equipped vehicles and the hiring of officers to oversee transit.