As the county’s economic development task force went about its work, eventually coming up with Marion County Community Economic Development Corporation, one of the more endearing aspects of the process was then-chairman Chris Hernandez’s unabashed idealism.
The task force and corporation would be free from politics, he said, because everyone was represented at the table. Consensus would trump ages-old rivalries and self-interest. There would be no politics when people understood that development anywhere in the county benefited everyone in the county. Hernandez was a true believer.
In conversations, I chided him frequently about his naiveté. Everything, I told him, involves politics. It was inescapable. The way to move forward was not to pretend politics would disappear, but to expect it, learn it, and play it.
Today, to Chris, I regretfully must say, “I told you so.”
Politics abounded the past few weeks as MCCEDC board chairman Russell Groves tried to catch the last big-monied fish in the pond, Hillsboro.
The catch, it seems, was Marion city administrator Roger Holter, an original task force member and current MCCEDC member. The word was out that Holter would be grandfathered in to the permanent board to be selected in October, and Hillsboro officials wanted the option of naming one or two of their employees or elected officials to the board.
MCCEDC bylaws prohibited that. With credibility and $44,500 on the line, the board changed the bylaws, and Hillsboro was in.
Now Peabody council members are upset. At Monday night’s meeting, it was strongly emphasized that having NO government employees and elected officials on the board was a big reason they signed on.
They also were told by Hernandez that no drastic changes would be made to MCCEDC without first consulting Peabody. That didn’t happen. Now Peabody is refusing to pay its $7,000 bill from the corporation until it gets answers in person from the board.
Hernandez’s utopian vision was dead on arrival the moment county commissioners named Holter to the task force, reversing their stated intent to have only nongovernmental members.
Holter’s done nothing wrong. No one’s suggested he has. What was wrong was commissioners and Hernandez dismissing easily predictable political skepticism over the appointment coming from anyone without a Marion address.
What’s really bizarre is that the whole “Marion has a city official on the board so we want one, too” never had to happen. Hillsboro wouldn’t have had an issue to press and Peabody wouldn’t be mad if MCCEDC had just followed its bylaws, rather than changing them.
Task force members, including Holter, turned into “founding” board members when MCCEDC was formed, according to the original bylaws. They were required to resign after they select a permanent board in October. Holter and the rest would be out, and the bylaws prohibited him as a city employee from being re-appointed.
Set the rules, follow the rules, no problem. Bend the rules, change the rules, flaunt the rules, big political problem.
Maybe the bylaws have been changed more than we know. Maybe deals were hatched we don’t know about. We haven’t received notices or invitations to any MCCEDC board meetings, even though it’s quite likely that by operating with your tax dollars and with governments as members they fall under Kansas open meetings requirements.
There’s delicious, dark irony in how a task force that designed an independent organization meant to take economic development out of the hands of government has become the board that opened the door wide for a government takeover.
That’s politics for you, Chris. A far, far cry from utopia.
— david colburn
Last modified Aug. 31, 2017