A judge has affirmed a move by Jackson County legislators to move the Combat anti-drug and anti-violence program to the county prosecutor’s office. County Executive Frank White Jr. had rejected that move, and county legislators said he was simply ignoring the law.
They took him to court, and now they have won.
As a matter of decades of precedent and as outlined in the County Charter, legislators have the power to decide who oversees the program, Circuit Court Judge George E. Wolf said in a ruling issued late Friday.
Combat is a $23 million-a-year program, paid for through a quarter-cent sales tax the voters have renewed several times, encompassing everything from the county’s Drug Task Force to programs in the schools to keep kids off drugs.
“It’s an important agency. It’s a lot of money,” Legislature Chair Scott Burnett said at the time the lawsuit was filed.
Combat was under the county prosecutor’s control when established in 1989, and the Legislature moved it to the county executive’s control in 1996.
But White and legislators have clashed on several issues over the last two years. About a year ago, it was Combat. Its director retired, and White – saying he was trying to avoid a public selection process for a new director – left legislators and Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker out of the process and named someone on his own. Those elected officials protested.
Later in the year, legislators voted to remove the program from White’s control, giving it Baker.
Baker said she will begin looking for a new Combat director, will audit the program’s funds and is asking the state auditor for a performance audit.
“I will begin immediately to undertake the work necessary to restore trust in this important tax,” Baker said in a statement released by her office, adding that she will “oversee this program in a straightforward and transparent manner.”
White’s office issued a statement saying he won’t comment on the judge’s ruling for now.
At the time the legislators went to court in January, they acknowledged that the public is likely to be unhappy with parts of the county piling up legal fees to sue other parts of the county. Legislators at the time approved a $250,000 fund to pay for litigation involving their offices or those of the sheriff, prosecutor or executive. White’s office at that point had already spent more than $200,000 for an outside law firm.