Jackson County legislators and County Executive Frank White Jr. cleared the air Monday on frustrations over the county jail and other issues, though their exact next steps remained unclear other than a $14 million to $15 million bond issue to make immediate jail repairs.
White today is to announce a task force to look at how big of a new jail the county should consider building.
Several legislators say those plans should have been in place by now. Ten weeks ago a consultant said the current jail is in a state of crisis, that staffing is so thin the county should consider closing floors for the sake of safety and that the county should consider a new 1,000-bed facility.
“We don’t need more study,” said Legislator Dennis Waits, D-Independence.
Legislators didn’t raise their voices, but they pointedly laid out frustrations with White over the pace of work on the jail; over White’s chief of staff, Caleb Clifford; and over communication.
White that he wants to get along with the Legislature and said communication has to go both ways. He repeated said some legislators haven’t returned his calls.
“I’m willing to work up there with anyone that’s willing to work with me,” he said. “If it’s going to be a dogfight, it’s going to be a dogfight.”
But White aired frustrations of his own, telling legislators at one point “I can’t hold your hand every day.” When one said White ought to attend legislators’ regular Monday meetings, he said, “I’m here every day. You’re here every Monday.”
Legislators on Monday overrode the second of White’s recent vetoes, this one on an ordinance giving themselves more control over budget transfers. The county counselor’s office says that move conflicts with state law, and White said Monday he wants see what the counselor’s office finds now, upon deep study, before taking further action.
But Legislator Garry Baker, D-Buckner, took issue with the tone of White’s veto messages – two words in particular.
“One of the words in there is politics. The other is retribution,” Baker said, stressing that’s not how he votes.
“I think we have a disconnect between your office and the majority” of the Legislature, Baker said, adding that people on White’s staff “think they are walking on eggshells.” White denied that, though other legislators took Baker’s view.
Legislator Scott Burnett, D-Kansas City and chair of the Legislature, said he’s prepared to offer a plan next week for a bond issue to make many of the immediate repairs the consultant identified as pressing needs in September.
“We can fix some very serious issues for 14, 15 million dollars,” Burnett said. Legislators have said they recognize that for the safety of staff and inmates, the county will have to put money into the current jail in downtown Kansas City even as they look to a new facility that could take three to four years to design, get land for and build. It might also need voter approval.
Burnett pressed White on whether he even agrees that a new jail is needed. White said it clearly is, but he questions the size and says the task force he’ll name today is important.
“If you’re talking about a new jail, you’re going to have to have community buy-in,” White said.
Legislators are seeing it differently. Waits and Burnett both used the word the consultant used – “crisis.”
“When we look at this issue, we don’t see you moving forward quickly enough,” Waits told White.
Waits also came back to the dismissal of longtime Director of Finance Troy Thomas, who Waits and others have said was fired.
“Mr. Thomas was not fired by me. Mr. Thomas resigned, and I’ll stick with that,” White said, saying he would add no more because of the possibility of a “major lawsuit.”
Thomas started Monday in a new budget analyst position created by the Legislature and answerable to the Legislature. White vetoed the creation of that position and two others, but legislators overrode that last week.
White is to release his 2018 budget on Wednesday, and legislators typically adopt it in three or four weeks. Thomas will help legislators get to “a good, solid budget,” Waits said.
Waits asked White why he would oppose that.
Duplication of services, White said.
“Baloney,” Waits fired back.
Baker added, “We’re getting advice from people who work at the pleasure of the executive. That’s screwed up.”
Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, has sided with White – reluctantly, she has said – on the legal aspects of his vetoes, but she too expressed frustrations. She asked legislators to hold off for a week on moving the Combat anti-drug program out of White’s control – they did – and urged everyone to talk this out.
“I find it very frustrating what we have people taking positions and it looks like they’re digging in,” she said.
She told White he could be “a little deaf” on some issues and said some legislators have suffered a similar deafness. She called for working together.
“Because, believe me, nobody wins when we play like this,” she said.
Williams said she’s hearing from constituents that they are annoyed and that, as she put it, is one step away from mad as hell.
“And we’re close to mad as hell,” she said.
She also picked up on Baker’s comment about crucial information flowing through the executive’s office.
“I think Frank often gets bad advice,” she said, an apparent reference to Clifford followed by a direct one: “You know I can’t work with your chief of staff. I’ve said that many times.”
Burnett expressed a related frustration, his sense that legal opinions seem shaded to favor the county executive’s stances.
County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon firmly rejected that idea.
“I am an independent charter officer,” he said. The opinions coming from his office sometimes will please the executive and sometimes will please the legislature, but those opinions will reflect the County Charter and state statute, not anyone’s agenda, he said.
“We do that, and I will continue to do that,” he said.