Jackson County legislators on Wednesday rejected recent spending moves by County Executive Frank White Jr., leaving a degree of uncertainty that legislators said could end up in court. The state auditor also is likely to be called in.
“My guess is a Circuit Court judge will be trying to figure this out soon,” Legislator Dennis Waits, D-Independence, said as legislators reversed recent executive orders and before they discussed legal scenarios in a closed session that ran more than an hour.
They voted to disallow three of White’s executive orders from late last week. One had imposed a hiring freeze, one had slightly reorganized executive departments and asserted that positions cut by the Legislature remained, and one specifically named White’s chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, as the acting chief economic development officer. Legislators have clashed with Clifford and specifically cut out the chief of staff position in the 2018 budget, but White’s office said Clifford and others cut in the budget remain on the job. At least two were seen at Wednesday’s legislative meeting.
Legislators also took up what Waits called “the transfers we’ve been so concerned about for some period of time.” Budgets transfers of $10,000 or more need the Legislature’s approval, but legislators for months have said there have been so many below that amount that they cannot get a full picture of how much money the executive is moving around.
On Wednesday, they keyed on one instance of that directly involving Clifford. A memo with a headline asking, “Where did the money come from to pay for Chief of Staff’s $33,945 vehicle?” suggests the Sept. 1, 2016, delivery of Clifford’s 2016 Chevrolet Colorado Crew Cab was paid through half a dozen transfers a week earlier ranging from $2,628 to $9,999.
That memo also asks where the money is coming from for White to hire an outside law firm, Graves Garrett, to produce legal opinions on his disputes with legislators.
Legislators on Wednesday also passed an ordinance to require that some transfers of less than $10,000, such as professional services, pass through the office of the legislative auditor. The county counselor’s office advised them that it’s not clear if they have the authority to do that.
White on Wednesday asked State Auditor Nicole Galloway to step in and conduct “a comprehensive audit of the County’s fiscal and procurement processes.” The county’s legislative auditor, Crissy Wooderson, said that idea has been discussed with White’s office for some time.
“I don’t think there’s any opposition to this,” said Legislative Chair Scott Burnett, D-Kansas City.
County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon warned legislators against reversing White’s hiring freeze, saying it’s not clear that the County Charter gives them that authority. Waits disagreed, saying White’s actions significantly alter the budget they just passed.
“It looks like … this is all an effort to circumvent the will of the Legislature,” Waits said. Legislator Greg Grounds, R-Blue Springs, added that it’s unclear to him that White has the power to cut spending to that extent.
Legislator Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City, said White’s hiring freeze in effect eliminated 30 open positions at the jail, where the county has been running chronically short of corrections officers. Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, agreed.
“I don’t think there’s black and white anywhere,” she said.
“I think we have questions,” Waits said, “and we don’t have answers.”
Legislators recently moved the Combat anti-drug/anti-violence program from White’s office to the county prosecutor’s office. White vetoed that, and they overrode the veto. Asked about it Wednesday, County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said her office is now in charge of Combat and will soon start the process of finding a permanent director, a position that’s been vacant.
They also moved the emergency preparedness office to the sheriff’s office – also vetoed and overridden – and Sheriff Mike Sharp said that change has happened. He said he plans no immediate changes for the two-person office.