Ozarks Independent sat down for a long discussion with Greene County Presiding Commissioner Bob Dixon over a wide range of issues impacting the county and the region. This is part one of the interview with part two releasing tomorrow.
OI: Now that you’re settled in as presiding commissioner, what is the biggest thing you’ve learned about being a commissioner?
Dixon: Well, I knew coming into the job that there was a lot I didn’t know, otherwise that would probably be the biggest thing.
There really is so much more to being an administrator at the local level than legislating from the state level, so I was very mindful of that and aware of it and knew there was a lot of things I needed to learn.
The budget process is more more involved and more detailed than I was aware of at the county level. That was very good to go through, very, very thorough. It involves everyone in a leadership position in the county, both through the huddle process through Great Game of Government and also the process of budget and forecasting and coming up with that completed budget.
I was aware that there would be a lot of collaboration among office holders because the commission really does not govern the county. It’s a bit of a misunderstanding, perhaps, with the public and I was aware of that but perhaps not to the extent I could have been.
The Commission determines the amount of general revenue that each office holder gets but only directly has authority over particular departments that are directly under the commission.
So all of the county office holders are directly responsible to the citizens. Of course the judges, and some of the court officials are state employees.
I think one of the things that was a pleasant surprise to me although I kind of had an inclination of this was just how much the county employees view themselves as public servants. I kind of always knew it but now I’ve seen it first hand.
Some really excellent talent. People working really far above their pay grade with very good qualifications and working toward the goal of doing the best they can for the public.
That’s been a good thing to learn.
OI: Would you say that it takes a different skill set to be a county commissioner than a state legislator?
Dixon: It depends on the skill set of the individual, I would say, but it is different. We’re a quasi-legislative body because none of us actually controls anything.
The only difference between my office as presiding commissioner and my fellow commissioners, other than running countywide, is preside over the meetings. We’re all equal in what we do.
We’re quasi-legislative, but we’re also quasi-judicial in that we do have the court session once a month and when we meet at board of adjustment there is a bit of a judicial function.
We are an administrative function as far as leadership of the county but most of that is not by authority or power over others, it’s by influence and cooperation.
So some of those skills are the same as those needed to influence the legislative process, if you will, but it’s more administrative than legislative. So yes, there are some that are the same.
OI: When can we expect the start of the state audit?
Dixon: It’s probably going to be…in fact I just spoke to them last week…and it will be pretty soon after the field work is wrapped up on our external audit. The annual external audit.
We told them that they could not come in before that was completed. Two stipulations. They had to wait until that was done and they have to use their own office space.
Speaking to them last week it will be pretty soon after the field work’s done at the end of this month, first part of May.
By the way, it’s separate, and it’s not what the commission requested of the state auditor, but it’s part of a rotation of their audit of the court system. They began an audit of the 31st circuit no too long ago.
OI: So they’re being audited right now?
Dixon: Yes. It’s totally separate from what we requested for the county. It’s an audit of the state.
OI: The sheriff has talked to the Commission about a second trailer jail to help try to ease overcrowding at the jail. What do you feel about his proposal there and where else can the county find ways to ease the problem at our jail?
Dixon: Let me decline commenting on the proposal because we’re still really waiting on one. We were briefed on some of the concerns and some of the needs but we’re waiting on specifics so I’ll reserve judgment on that.
As far as the overall flow of the justice system, there are many components. I kind of liken it to there are different silos. The commission’s job is to look at all those components and make sure they’re flowing.
The components that you have are law enforcement and the holding of jail inmates pre-trial. Then you have the court system itself and the necessary components in order to not have a bottleneck in any one place.
We’re actually behind in that area despite getting four new judges in the last eight years. The last time we were appropriated a circuit judge for Greene County was 1976 and that’s really important because we had two associate circuit judges and two court commissioners, one of those we pay the state back for their salary. Those are the four that we got.
But a circuit judge can hear cases the others cannot so some of your hardened offenders that are sitting there we can start to move some of those cases if we had another circuit judge.
That is the one that we have not had a new division for since 1976.
The weighted workload study in 2015, which is all the court cases weighted by type of case that they were across the state, it showed that this circuit, the 31st circuit, was down nine judges.
We wouldn’t even be able to house them all if we got them and we’re not going to get them. So that explains a clogging point but that’s not the only one.
We also have to have the number of prosecutors needed to prosecute those cases. Some of the staff in the prosecutor’s office is doing investigations in preparing those cases for trial.
They’re keeping up, but we do need additional judges, and probably the weakest part of the system is the public defender’s office.
The U.S. Constitution says everyone’s entitled to a defense. If we can’t move those cases, they’re going to sit there in the jail.
OI: And the public defender’s office is state funded, so there’s nothing you can really do about it.
Dixon: There are some things that can be done but it is state funded.
They key here is to address everything and keep it balanced. It’s kind of like a four-legged stool and it’s going to be out of balance if we think only one part of it is going to solve the problem.
We can build jails, and we do need a jail, we’re going to build a jail, but that’s not the only solution because we have to move the cases through the system. We have to be able to provide prosecutors for the cases and make sure they have a defense if they can’t afford one, again, because of the Constitution.
Our job is keeping that all in equilibrium because that is the best thing for the taxpayer too. There’s no reason to be housing people when we could be moving them through the system and getting them where we need to go.
We’re looking for creative solutions, we’re looking at all options and that’s really the commission’s role. Everybody else, it’s their job to take care of their area.
The great thing about this part of the state, and Greene County has a long history of doing this well, is getting to the point we understand everybody else’s situation. The office holders talk. They collaborate.
The courts try to understand what is going on with the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor and the public defender’s office, there’s some collaboration going on there. The sheriff’s office understands what other departments need and vice versa. The commission’s job is to look at it all and keep it in balance.
In a sense, that’s a lot of what I worked on in Jeff City on the legislative side and keeping things balanced on the state level through appropriations.
There’s a little bit more detail here because every day we’re looking at our jail population. We’re looking at can we house prisoners coming in from other counties. We have an agreement in place [to take more prisoners] in a year or two. So it’s a lot of management and keeping things running efficiently.
OI: What about prisoners being sent to other counties?
Dixon: As far as Sedalia. We’re driving them all over the place. They have to be in Missouri, so that’s a bit of a disadvantage. The challenge with that, and again this is back to the equilibrium, it’s much less money if we build a jail and house them here versus as opposed to paying and driving people.
The state is also footing the bill that’s extra, the taxpayer is paying for all of it. If we’re sending them to Sedalia, for example, and they have a public defender, the state is paying to send them up there. So you see how out of kilter it all is.
So the short answer is we need judges, we need public defenders and we need to farm some of our lower level offenses to private counsel. That’s another way to unclog the system at the point of the public defender.
There was a bill I passed in 2014 which set up a pilot program in one urban and one rural county, so we chose Greene and Christian, and I think it had two million in funding. They were going to take all low level offenses and contract them out to private counsel. Find one or two firms that would them all as a batch as a contract and clear the cases.
That bill passed the legislature and was signed into law. The appropriation was withheld by Governor Nixon. It could still be funded. It’s there. It would probably have some creative ways that counties could fund doing that so that public defenders who are there can focus on the higher offenses that we also need that certain judge.
There’s a triage portion. I have to do something immediately about the sewage that’s draining all over the deputies in the jail every time we hit a certain number. There’s a lot of things at once. There’s a lot of moving parts.