Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr. on Wednesday suspended his deputy director of finance after that person raised concerns about “a hostile environment with fear of disciplinary action” and said staff were being directed to break the law, including paying the salaries of White and his staff out of the Combat anti-drug program.
Late in the day, County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, Legislature Chair Scott Burnett and Sheriff Mike Sharp called on White to reinstate that person, Deputy Director of Finance Scott Jacoby.
“You have no authority to harm public servants who come to this courthouse to do the real hard work of this county. They are not political footballs,” the three officials said in a statement. They said others fear similar discipline but shouldn’t have to for refusing to carry out unlawful acts.
White’s office fired back with its own statement: “Let me be clear, it’s time for the Chair of the Legislature, Sheriff and Prosecutor to stop trying to run my administration.”
White and the County Legislature have gone back and forth on Combat for weeks. It’s a one-quarter-cent county sales tax that brings in about $23 million a year for a wide range of programs to reduce drug problems and reduce violence. It’s a popular program that voters have overwhelmingly reauthorized several times over the years.
Last month, legislators voted to move that program back to the prosecutor’s office and out of White’s office. He vetoed that ordinance, but legislators voted 9-0 to override that veto. Baker said White is ignoring the fact that the ordinance is now in effect and is apparently making personnel and spending changes there that she is legally accountable for but cannot track or control.
If White disagrees with the ordinance, Baker and legislators told White on Monday, he needs to take that up in court but in the meantime needs to follow the law. Baker said she needs to be able to tell people who they work for.
“I don’t choose what stop signs I want to run through,” she told White and legislators. “I’ve got to stop at them, and if I don’t like where the stop sign is placed, there’s a process by which I go complain about that. I’m just saying we use that process rather than directing county employees to run stop signs.”
Jacoby echoed some of that in an email Wednesday, released later by Baker’s office.
“Associates should not have to work in a hostile environment with fear of disciplinary action taken upon them because they are unwilling to perform an unlawful act,” he wrote. Specifically, he said, White’s administration is paying county employees without the prosecutor’s approval and is paying employees whose positions the Legislature eliminated in the 2018 budget. Baker, Burnett and Sharp said employees being paid out of Combat include White and his staff.
In its statement, White’s office would not comment on Jacoby but did say – as White has said consistently through this controversy – that protecting the jobs of county employees is a high priority for him.
In their meeting Monday, Baker and legislators expressed their frustration over the standoff and what Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, called “the cataclysmic crap that is going through all this.”
Legislator Garry Baker, D-Buckner, also had some advice for White.
“Frank, if you want to get along with this legislature for the next year – we all run again for four more years – try to work with us a little bit. Come on. She should have control of Combat right now. And if you want to fight it in court, go for it. But right now you should give it to her.”
White, legislators and County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon have said this dispute – as well as disputes over four other recent vetoes – probably belong in front of a judge.
“And I think that lawsuit should start right now,” said Legislator Dennis Waits. D-Independence. “I think the time for talking is over.”