Jackson County legislators have sued County Executive Frank White Jr. over control of Combat, the anti-drug program they shifted to the county prosecutor’s office last month.
“We can’t get the administration to follow the law. We don’t know what else to do,” said County Legislative Chair Scott Burnett, D-Kansas City.
White and legislators have clashed over several recent ordinances, vetoes and overrides, and Burnett said those could be the subject of litigation as well.
Legislators sued in Jackson County Circuit Court, asking for a “writ of prohibition” to keep White and his staff from “acting in a judicial or quasi-judicial manner in choosing to defy, ignore and failing to recognize Ordinance No. 5061,” which shifted Combat to the prosecutor’s office. In their filing, legislators cited a 1911 Missouri Supreme Court decision that a non-judicial officer has “no right to disobey (a law) on the ground that, in his opinion, it is unconstitutional.”
White’s office late in the day issued a statement addressing no specifics of the lawsuit but said “the Legislature has continued to ignore the significant legal issues surrounding the oversight of COMBAT, which has led to uncertainty and confusion among staff and the community.”
Legislators on Tuesday also approved a $250,000 fund to pay for litigation involving their offices or those of the sheriff, prosecutor or executive – and they readily agreed that the public will probably take a dim view of tax money being spent that way. White’s office is has already spent more than $200,000 for an outside law firm, and legislators hired their own last week.
“I know this is heartbreaking that we’re in this situation,” Burnett said.
There has been talk of asking the Missouri attorney general to help sort out these questions, and White recently asked legislators to bring in the state auditor for the same purpose, but legislators said Tuesday neither of those ideas is moving ahead at the moment.
Combat is a $23 million-a-year program for anti-drug and anti-violence efforts, paying for things ranging from the Drug Task Force to programs in the schools to keep kids off drugs.
“It’s an important agency. It’s a lot of money,” Burnett said.
When Combat’s director retired late last summer, White cut other elected officials out of the interview process for a new director, bringing sharp protests from legislators and others. Legislators voided his executive action to name a new director and then last month passed ordinance 5061 to move the program to the prosecutor’s office. White vetoed that move, but legislators on Dec. 28 overrode that veto.
Nonetheless, White’s office has called the ordinance void, as it has other recent ordinances on spending and other issues.
Legislators strongly disagree.
“They (ordinances) are the law of the land until a judge says they’re not,” Burnett said.
In an affidavit with the lawsuit, County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said after the override, White made appropriations “for the salaries of other county employees in Frank White’s administration whose job responsibilities are not relevant to COMBAT or its initiatives. Such appropriations occurred without the normal oversight procedures and are contrary to the purpose of COMBAT.”
She said White and his chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, have not worked with her in good faith and that it’s hard to track exactly what actions they have taken with Combat recently.
“Nonetheless,” she says, “… I am aware of substantial evidence that Mr. White and Mr. Clifford have misused COMBAT funds, thwarted my attempts to work cooperatively in the transition of COMBAT to the Prosecuting Attorney, intentionally undermined my authority with the COMBAT staff by issuing directives contrary to Ordinance No. 5061, and have take retaliatory actions against at least one County employee who attempted to comply with that same, unanimously passed ordinance.”
Legislators also made available a Jan. 5 memo to White from County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon underlining that the counselor’s office has said the Combat ordinance raises legal questions but “we have not issued a formal legal opinion on it.” Nixon notes an outside legal opinion, sought by White from the Graves Garrett law firm and agreeing with White’s position.
“We’ve reviewed this opinion and find nothing clearly erroneous contained therein,” Nixon writes. “At this point, we can state that any action that relies on Ordinance 5061 as its authority is questionable at best.”
Other disagreements surfaced Tuesday as well. Legislators rejected White’s appointment of an acting director of finance. White suspended the deputy director of finance last week when that official refused to pay some employees out of Combat funds.
Legislators also approved moving $1.99 million in a new county fund that they say will let them better track how White’s administration is spending money. The county counselor’s office asked legislators to hold off a couple weeks so it could research the idea, and a memo on Tuesday from Nixon to legislators said their authority to take this action is “questionable at best.” They voted 9-0 to approve the ordinance.