While outwardly genial in his public persona, former Kansas City Royals great and current Jackson County Executive County Frank White has an independent streak that irritates his fellow elected officials in county government.
Tensions first flared nearly a year ago during budget deliberations when White was outflanked by a group of county legislators who didn’t agree with his spending decisions.
Then it was over the recurring troubles at the county jail. Even his biggest supporter on the legislature at the time, Crystal Williams, questioned White’s refusal to label it a crisis, which led to White’s falling out with the sheriff.
Now that increasingly frayed relationship between White and the county legislature has finally unraveled over what normally would have been a kumbaya moment.
By cutting legislators and other elected officials out of the selection process for appointing a new head of the county’s anti-drug agency, White suffered the worst beat-down of his short political career.
On Monday, the eight members of the legislature that appointed him to the job with unanimous support 20 months ago — he later won the position outright in last year’s general election — voted to reject White’s pick to head COMBAT, the agency that administers the nearly 30-year-old Community Backed Anti-Crime Tax.
With the added vote of Garry Baker, who was appointed to fill the legislative seat White vacated for the top county’s job, that made it 9-0 against Teesha Miller’s selection.
Not because anyone questioned Miller’s qualifications to administer the agency, which dispenses more than $22 million each year to fight drug-related crime and violence.
But because White broke what legislators and County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said was a promise to include them, as well as Sheriff Mike Sharp, in the process to select a successor to Stacey Daniels-Young, who retired in August.
Indeed, some members of the legislature had welcomed Miller’s appointment in February to head the county’s new prescription drug monitoring program, which is largely aimed at fighting opioid abuse.
Miller was set to start work at COMBAT on Wednesday, one week after White announced her selection in a news release.
Miller previously had “directed programs and business systems” during the previous 12 years working with a variety of organizations, including Children’s Mercy Hospital and St. Luke’s Health System, the county said in announcing White’s pick.
She has a master’s degree in healthcare administration and a bachelor’s in management from Park University, the county said.
But at a contentious meeting in Independence, legislators said it was “disheartening” and “disappointing” that they weren’t consulted on the selection.
“This has nothing to do with the person; it has to do with the process,” said Dan Tarwater, a long-serving member of the legislative committee that has oversight over COMBAT.
White bristled at the criticism during an 18-minute exchange that began with Baker saying she found the process “troubling” as someone who led the campaign to renew the COMBAT sales tax last fall.
“The charter say that the county executive has the right to appoint anyone he feels is able to do the job as COMBAT director,” he said.
While he originally intended to bring other public officials into the hiring process, White said he switched course after realizing that those meetings would have been open to the public. Some finalists for the position, he said, were not comfortable with that.
After the meeting, White issued a written statement decrying the legislature’s decision to block the appointment.
“Teesha Miller is an exceptionally qualified individual for COMBAT director,” White said. “Despite repeated praise for Teesha’s work and character, the fact that the Legislature voted to fire her without taking the time to hear from her directly is absurd.”
White also alluded to what he said was “political pressure” in the process, but the statement did not say what he meant by that, or whether there was behind-the-scenes pressure to pick someone else for the job.
Asked to clarify on Tuesday, county spokeswoman Marshanna Hester said in an email:
“The County Executive is saying that he makes decisions based on what’s right for the County. He is not going to put someone in a position just because elected officials have a friend who they think should get the job.
“He believes that special interests politics are getting in the way of doing what’s best for the County. For that reason, the County Executive knows he’s not the best politician. He’s not in this position to simply get re-elected. He focus is to make the right decisions while he has the leadership opportunity to do so.”
Hester did not respond to whether the “friend” in question was longtime Deputy COMBAT Director Vince Ortega, who was among the four finalists and had the support of some members of the legislature.
The names of the other finalists were not available.
White announced Tuesday that he plans to appoint interim director, who will not be considered for the permanent position but still be subject to legislative approval.