The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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December 17, 2013

Joplin business leaders form PAC to back certain local candidates

JOPLIN, Mo. — A political action committee has been formed to contribute money to City Council and Joplin School Board races.

The Joplin Progress Committee has begun advertising that it wants to interview candidates for those elections to determine to whom it would contribute money. It also will hold private meetings for large donors, which some city officials say is not uncommon.

The committee has registered with the Missouri Ethics Commission. It lists former U.S. Bank President Clifford Wert as treasurer and Rebuild Joplin founder Jerrod Hogan as assistant treasurer.

Representatives of the group say so far it has raised $9,000, though a contribution report is not yet on file in the secretary of state’s online records. No report of contributions is required yet by state law.

Wert said the group’s objective is “to bring an opportunity for the business community to take a very active, participatory role in the Democratic process, but to do it in a formalized group or manner.”

Other directors of the PAC are Jane Cage, a local business owner who is chairwoman of the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team, which took public input to formulate a slate of recommendations and projects for Joplin’s recovery from the 2011 tornado.

“I think it (the PAC) makes us organized and gives us more impact than what we would have as individuals,” Cage said.

Another director, Brad Beecher, president and chief executive officer of Empire District Electric Co., said, “The business community is engaged with moving Joplin forward, and we see this next couple of years as a very critical time for the city and so we, as a business community, want to do everything we can to see Joplin move forward.”

The committee has published a list of values it seeks in candidates. One of those, for example, is “the ability to focus on policy, not politics or day-to-day management,” of the entity they represent. They also want to advance candidates who can be “non-partisan with no personal agendas.”

A set of key competencies the group seeks from candidates includes understanding the state open records and meetings law, and Robert’s Rules of Order and a basic understanding of financial matters. The list includes “the ability to discuss and debate without being argumentative.”

A list of key platform issues is set out in the committee’s literature. Those include regional economic growth. Quality of life improvements and support of “any reputable large-scale developers who express an interest in doing projects in our city and bring forth economically viable, self-sustaining projects.”

Asked if the group aims to support specific candidates, Wert said that applications will be available to any council or school board candidate. There will be interviews of those who apply to determine if that candidate meets the group’s values and platform criteria.

Contributions in any amount will be accepted but those over $250 will entitle the donor to receive bimonthly email updates on issues the group identifies. Those who give $500 or more will be allowed to vote on board matters and campaign contributions and attend meetings on city issues.

The PAC website, www.joplinprogress.com, on Monday said those donors would be invited to meetings “to receive updates on city issues as well as interaction and question time with community leaders such as (the) city manager, master developer, city planner, etc.”

After being asked if the PAC contributors could essentially buy access to public officials, the directors took the initial wording off the website and out of the PAC’s literature.

Hogan said the directors did not realize that wording gave the impression of influence peddling. Wert said that is not the intent.

“Once we establish our final membership, we hope to invite people in the community to speak to our group,” Wert said. “It is no different than Rotary or other clubs” inviting speakers.

Asked if the group will expect to have influence on votes that take place if candidates backed by the PAC are elected, Wert said, that would not be the case. He said those elected will be expected to cast independent votes.

The group does intend for its board meetings to be private. The public will not be invited, he said.

James Klahr, executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission, looked at the group’s website on Tuesday morning, after the language on it was changed.

“We are a commission that would look at any complaint that would be filed” by the public, he said. “We did not see anything on the website that would be a per se violation.”

He said the commission reviews documents for adherence to campaign ethics laws. “That’s not to say we couldn’t look at something (else) that could be a violation, but typically that would only be raised to us by a complaint from a citizen.”

City Manager Mark Rohr, asked if he would be willing to appear at a meeting of the group, said, “As a rule, I generally try to make myself available in every instance that I can. If there are unique circumstances surrounding the request, I try to evaluate those on a case by case basis.”

School Superintendent C.J. Huff said he, too, tries to attend all requests to speak to a group. “As far as taking any political stance, I’ve always avoided that” in his work for the school district.

“If the Democrats or Republicans ask me speak and answer questions, I’d be more than happy to do that with any group. It doesn’t influence my decision-making as a superintendent.”

Those candidates for Joplin City Council who could be reached on Tuesday said that the group’s requirements are no different than in other elections.

Gary Shaw, the Zone 1 incumbent in the Joplin City Council race, said that he has worked on a number of state and local campaigns in the past.

Allowing access to candidates for larger donations has been a common practice in campaigns for years, he said.

“If you are a higher caliber donor, you can come and have more of a direct access to the candidates, but ... that wasn’t so much to get their votes as it was just to get them elected,” he said.

Harvey Hutchinson, a candidate for a council general seat, said “I’m anxious to meet with that group. I’m anxious to speak to every club, anybody at all who is interested in good government,” he said. “Any group, I owe them the audience and I appreciate the fact that they are willing to vet me.”

Councilman Jack Golden, who plans to seek re-election, was in a meeting and unavailable to comment. Messages were left for two other candidates, incumbents Trisha Raney and Mike Seibert.

Two others who have indicated they wish to be candidates, Ryan Stanley and incumbent Mike Woolston, have not yet turned in their nominating petitions for the candidate certification, according to City Clerk Barbara Hogelin.

 

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