Frank White Jr. said Wednesday that his focus remains the same as it was when he took the job of Jackson County executive two years ago – the quality of life of people living in the county, with an emphasis on making things better for county employees, too.
“That is my passion. That is what drives me. … I think everything we do in life starts and ends with people,” White said at an Independence Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
He acknowledged criticisms over the County Detention Center and sharp differences with county legislators that have led to his vetoes of several legislative actions and to litigation.
“The separation of powers are there for a reason. … I have to at least stand up and fight for what’s right.” he said.
When he took office, he said, 20 percent of county employees were making less than what he calls a living wage. Now all county employees are making at least $10 an hour. White also has continued the county’s practice in recent years of budgeting for merit raises as well.
“I want to make sure when they get up in the morning that they feel good about going to work,” he said.
White called attention to what he called “bad press” at the County Detention Center, starting with the severe beating of an inmate by jail guards in July 2015. That led to an FBI investigation of the jail that White suggested Wednesday has now ended. The FBI has never said whether it was done looking at the jail.
“And I think some of it was overblown,” he said of criticism and press coverage of failures at the jail. He said the jail is old and, when he came to the job, in poor condition.
“Is our jail great? No,” he said, adding that the county has made about $5 million in improvements recently and continues to seek higher pay – and therefore lower turnover – for corrections officers.
He also mentioned the jail task force that he named in November and that is scheduled to meet at least into mid-June. It’s expected to recommend a new jail – something county consultants urgently recommended last summer – and suggest that jail’s size.
The group still has not announced the times and places of two promised public forums on jail issues, but White said they’ll be next month.
“You deserve to have input,” he said.
White also referred to the lawsuit over the county’s anti-drug/anti-violence program called Combat. Legislators last year voted to move the program from White’s office to the office of the prosecuting attorney, who is elected on her own and works closely with Combat.
White vetoed that move and legislators overrode the veto, putting the ordinance into effect, but White refused to follow that new ordinance. Legislators have taken White to court, and though the case is far from going to trial, a Circuit Court judge has ordered White to abide by the ordinance for now, and he has.
“That’s just politics,” White said Wednesday. “These are things that can be worked out.”
He added, “I wish it wasn’t at this point, because litigation costs you money.”
The County Legislature on Monday is scheduled to take up a request by White to ask the state auditor to review county finances.
“And that’ll give us even more clarity and transparency,” he said.
White said it’s his job to stand up for the citizens of the county.
“I really feel like I’ve been in public service all my life,” he said. “ … This is what I want to do until I retire.”