Back in the 2000s, former Kansas City Royals great Frank White was famously passed over to manage the big-league club after a stint managing the Royals’ minor-league affiliate in Wichita.
He needed more seasoning, some said.
But after only a year on the Jackson County Legislature, the county’s top job is White’s, if he wants it, fellow legislators say.
And he does, at least on an interim basis, as White has made clear through public statements and behind-the-scenes discussions with county officials.
The $145,000-a-year position of county executive is suddenly open because fellow Democrat Mike Sanders is resigning in the midst of his third term.
But is White ready to take on the task of running a $300 million operation that affects the lives of 680,000 Jackson County residents?
His supporters say yes, and they include members of the county Legislature, which will select Sanders’ replacement.
“Frank White is the right person at the right time for this job,” said Crystal Williams, now in her second term and likely to be elected Monday as the Legislature’s chairwoman for 2016.
“He is very committed to competent and friendly county services, as well as caring deeply about our employees,” she said.
If his fellow legislators appoint him, White would serve until the end of the year, leading up to an election where voters will pick someone to finish out what would then be the remaining two years of Sanders’ four-year term.
White did not respond to requests for comment. But his campaign spokesman from his 2014 bid for a seat on the Legislature emailed a comment on White’s behalf.
“Frank would be honored to serve as interim county executive for the next year, if asked to do so by his peers on the legislature,” Pat O’Neill said, adding that White had not decided whether to run for the remaining two years.
O’Neill said White “wants to take a little more time to study the job before making a final decision.”
Legislators will have 30 days to pick Sanders’ replacement, otherwise the presiding judge of the Jackson County Circuit Court will do it for them, under the terms of the county charter.
A delay is unlikely, Williams said, as White has nearly unanimous support.
“It appears we are all looking forward to working with him,” she said.
Sanders announced his resignation a few days before Christmas, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family after nine years as county executive and before that as county prosecutor from 2002 to 2006.
His resignation was to become official Thursday, but it now won’t take effect until Monday at the earliest. The original plan was for Dennis Waits, the longest-serving member of the Legislature, to step into the job for a brief period until the Legislature made its pick.
But Waits pulled out at the last minute, citing a business conflict with his legal practice and a reluctance to leave his seat of 29 years, even though that brief job change could have boosted his pension fourfold.
Now Sanders says he will make an announcement Monday.
The county executive has big responsibilities.
That person oversees departments that assess property for taxing purposes, collect those taxes and allocate them with legislative approval to provide services as varied as running the county jail, paving roads, recording deeds and running the parks system.
The county executive partners with the sheriff’s department, the courts system and the county prosecutor.
“Whether it’s Frank or anyone else, it’ll be a challenge,” said Legislator Greg Grounds, one of only two Republicans in the Legislature.
But unlike a baseball manager, who must have expertise in nearly every aspect of the game, current and former county officials say, being a county executive is more about setting an agenda, having good judgment and leaving the details to the bureaucrats.
“While it is obviously true that Frank White does not have as much political experience as others,” county Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said, “I have found one’s years as a politician to be a poor predictor for what type of leader they are or will be.”
White wouldn’t be the first person to run county government without executive experience in government.
“The key in any job is that you have experienced people around you,” said former Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields, now a member of the Kansas City Council for her second go-around.
Shields left her council seat to run for county executive and won in 1994.
She had a lot more political experience than White has, but she hadn’t previously been a top executive of anything. She went on to serve 12 years.
“With anyone,” Shields said, “the issue is the people he brings around to help him.”
Whether it’s White or some surprise, last-minute pick who ends up serving as county executive in 2016, that person won’t be starting from scratch.
Sanders leaves behind a seasoned crew of administrators who have, for the most part, run the county efficiently within limited resources.
Among them, Sanders’ chief of staff, Calvin Williford, has been managing the transition and will be staying on at least temporarily.
“Every county executive who has been successful,” Williford said, “did so by recruiting and retaining qualified staff around them.”
In addition to Williams, other legislators willing to comment publicly said they see White’s likely selection as a positive move.
“He does his homework and knows the legislative procedure and will work very hard as county executive,” Scott Burnett said.
Freshman Legislator Tony Miller agreed, saying White had shown himself to be good at building consensus on issues important to him, which include parks and fighting crime.
“When I asked him why” he wanted the job, Miller said, “he told me that this position would put him in a place to really help people.”
If White does get the job, the Legislature will need to fill his seat in the coming weeks. The Democratic County Committee will submit three names for his position within 15 days of each vacancy, and the Legislature will pick one.