One of former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders’ current duties is to provide advice to his successor as needed under terms of a contract Sanders signed after leaving office.
Trouble is, Frank White, the former Kansas City Royals player who is now the county’s top administrator, knew nothing about the arrangement until The Star reported it two weeks after Sanders received the first of six, $10,000 monthly checks for his services.
Same goes for a majority of the county legislature, which sets the budget and pays the county’s bills.
“It took us by surprise,” legislature chairwoman Crystal Williams said Tuesday. “I found out about it in the newspaper.”
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While Williams and others on the legislature, speaking on and off the record, agree that the arrangement appears perfectly legal and that it makes sense to retain Sanders’ services during the transition to a new administration, the lack of disclosure troubles some officials.
It has prompted discussions about possible changes in the county charter that would rein in the county counselor, who has broad authority to issue consultant contracts, so that something similar doesn’t happen in the future.
Williams said the appearance of secrecy was at odds with her own efforts to assure taxpayers that the county conducts its business in an open, public manner.
“I just don’t understand why it wouldn’t have occurred to the people who knew about this to let the next county executive and the chairman of the legislature know,” she said. “I talk a lot about transparency, and I mean it.”
Sources close to White said he was upset not to have been told ahead of time about the contract negotiated by county counselor W. Stephen Nixon.
But through a spokesman, White on Tuesday did not respond to questions asking when he learned about Sanders’ contract, how he felt about being left out of the loop and whether he has issued new guidelines about keeping him informed.
Instead, the spokesman issued a general statement on White’s behalf stating that “the county charter gives the county counselor discretion over all legal contracts authorized by the budget.”
The Star first reported the existence of the contract in an online post Feb. 1. The majority of the article was about Sanders going to work for an Independence law firm. Shortly before Christmas, Sanders said he was leaving the county payroll to go back into private law practice and spend more time with his family.
The contract calls for him to help complete the county’s purchase of the Rock Island rail corridor for the extension of the Katy Trail into Kansas City, a project he started during his nine years in office.
Under the agreement, Sanders is also on retainer through mid-July to help White and the county’s lawyers “on an as-needed basis,” with no set minimum or maximum number of hours, at the rate of $10,000 per month.
Nixon negotiated the agreement with Sanders, who hired him as the county’s top legal adviser in 2011.
At least six of the eight members on the legislature in mid-January were unaware of the contract until this month. However, Dennis Waits, the longest-serving member, said Tuesday that he had known about it in December.
At the time, Waits was Sanders’ pick to serve as interim county executive during the brief period between Sanders’ resignation and the legislature’s selection of someone to serve out 2016 as county executive.
Waits backed out for business reasons before he could be sworn in. Former legislator Fred Arbanas, instead, held the job for a week until White’s selection on Jan. 11.
An email obtained through an open records request indicates that Nixon sent Sanders a copy of the contract for his review and approval three days after White was sworn in. It became effective Jan. 15.
Legislator Greg Grounds said he wished he had been told about the contract because he felt foolish later fielding questions from a taxpayer who wanted some details.
Two days after the newspaper’s story appeared in print, Grounds assured taxpayer Susan Ramirez in an email that there was no contract. He assumed she was confusing the matter with the hiring of Sanders’ wife, Georgia, as an aide to legislator Garry Baker.
Baker had just been appointed to fill the seat White vacated to become county executive.
“I’m assuming that because there is no contract of any kind with Mike Sanders,” Grounds wrote.
In recounting the exchange Tuesday, Grounds said in an interview that he was embarrassed not to have known that a contract did, in fact, exist.
“I felt sort of silly,” he said. “I wished I’d had a heads-up.”
Ramirez based her inquiries to Grounds and other county legislators on a belief that the contract Sanders received should have been open to bid. The county charter sets $5,000 as the limit on contracts the county executive can award without going through the public bidding process.
Openness in county contracts was one of Sanders’ campaign issues when he first ran for and was elected to the job of county executive. He also supported changes in the charter that included the $5,000 rule, saying it was “bad policy” to let the county executive hand out no-bid contracts over that amount.
Sanders declined to comment Tuesday.
However, the county counselor is not subject to the $5,000 limit. He or she can spend whatever is needed on outside legal help, as long as there’s money in the counselor’s budget.
Nixon declined an interview. But he responded to questions about his powers in a written statement, saying the county charter “gives the county counselor broad authority to retain legal counsel by contract. The exercise of that authority is not subject to a competitive process.”
The statement explained why the choice of Sanders was important in completing the $52 million purchase of 17.7 miles of rail right of way from Lee’s Summit to near the Truman Sports Complex.
“The contract in question was issued by the county counselor using funds set aside for legal fees for the Rock Island Corridor acquisition,” according to Nixon’s office. “As negotiations continue regarding closing on a final deal, the county counselor desired the assistance of the person most knowledgeable of the ongoing discussions.”
Sanders brokered the deal, half of which will be paid for by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority for use as a trail and perhaps a commuter rail line, if money is ever found for that.
Williams said it might be time to think about changes that would give the legislature more oversight over contracts for outside legal counsel.