Rob Gurwitt is a GOVERNING contributor.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
During the four years he spent running the county commission in Pettis County, Missouri, Todd Smith kept a list. On it, he put all the antiquated laws with which the state of Missouri makes county officials' lives miserable.
There was the law requiring advance written permission before county employees could purchase anything--including sheriff's deputies on patrol who needed to refill their gas tanks late at night. There was one requiring a horse path along every road leading to the county seat. And one directing that speed limits on an unposted road must be the same as on any road it leads to--meaning that rural Missouri has gravel roads whose speed limit is theoretically 60 miles per hour. "The majority of these things," says Smith, "were literally written in the horse-and-buggy era. So, many county commissioners just turned a blind eye to the statutes; you couldn't operate if you didn't."
After a single term on the county commission, Smith decided he'd had enough. Rather than simply quit, though, he opted to do something about his frustrations; in 2002, he ran for a state House seat and won. He entered the state capitol with an advantage that many colleagues in the term-limited legislature didn't share, however: He'd already served 10 years in the House, from 1985 until 1995. Back then, the press of life with a new family led him to quit. Now, he says, "I tell people that I tried to go straight and had a relapse."
In his first stint, the 46-year-old Republican didn't have any particular focus. Now he does--he's the contact in Jefferson City for county commissioners tired of dealing with obsolete, contradictory or just plain clunky state supervision. In his first term back in the House, Smith pushed through a measure giving counties the ability to write their own ordinances in eight areas, ranging from nuisance abatement to economic development. Until then, they'd needed legislative approval to do things as minor as putting a stop sign on a county road.
This year, he tackled an issue that's always annoyed him: Rural counties, unlike towns or cities or school districts, are required to spend several thousand dollars each year putting in the local newspaper a line-by-line accounting of all the checks they write. "They have to list every check for $18 they gave to someone for jury duty, or every person they paid $75 to be an election official for the day," says Smith. "It's legalized theft on behalf of the state press association, is what it is."
When Smith and several colleagues moved to get rid of the requirement, however, the state's newspapers fought back, accusing them of having "lost touch with the essential meaning of representative government," as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it. The measure was tabled. Smith offered to modify his proposal so that the counties could simply put the information on a Web site, but that didn't fly either. "I'm not going to stop, though," he says. "This is going to be our next big battle."
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