There’s always been something unseemly about the Johnson County Commission’s decision to oust its 63-year-old manager with hardly a whisper of explanation.
That the Kansas chapter of the American Society for Public Administration this year named long-time county manager Hannes Zacharias its Outstanding Public Administrator only made matters worse.
Last week came the still more unsettling news that this mysterious move will cost taxpayers big time. The stunning 4-3 decision to terminate Zacharias’ contract will carry a price tag of more than $100,000. That’s because his contract called for a separation payment equal to six months of pay. Zacharias earned $219,665 a year.
Commissioners also voted to pay Zacharias up to $1,500 a month for up to 18 months to cover his health care expenses. Maybe this move was about easing guilty consciences.
It’s not often that the work of a top administrator is so appreciated that residents rise up in arms over his perceived mistreatment. But that’s exactly what’s happened in this case as residents and county employees have loudly and persistently argued that the four commissioners who declined to renew Zacharias’ contract — Steve Klika, Michael Ashcraft, Jason Osterhaus and Mike Brown — blew it.
“This action created an unnecessary political scene and was below the standard of excellence that I expect from Johnson County,” noted Jo Ella Hoye, a Lenexa resident who once worked in the county manager’s office.
In fact, in something of a risky move, more than 550 of the county’s 3,800 employees expressed support for Zacharias in an open letter to Johnson County voters. The workers hail from departments across the expanse of county government.
But all we’ve gotten from the anti-Zacharias faction is a litany of vague concerns. Among them: Zacharias wasn’t conservative enough. Or it was time for a new direction or more out-of-the-box thinking. Or maybe it was because the county somehow has become too reactive, not proactive.
County commissioners have the right to oust their manager. But the manner in which they have proceeded raises all manner of questions about the county’s long-term prospects, not to mention the optics of ousting a distinguished public servant so close to retirement.
One big concern is whether this action now signals a more ideological county commission committed to a more conservative agenda. Never mind that Zacharias showed his mettle by slashing the number of county employees from 4,100 in 2009 to 3,800 in 2015 as the county fought its way out of the recession. He cut $47 million in spending along the way.
A move toward conservatism would be a huge, and roundly unwise, break from the county’s long-standing nonpartisan moorings. Partisan government effectively halves the available pool of replacements for Zacharias, leaving some potentially excellent candidates in the dust. Johnson County became a highly desirable place to live not on the back of ideological purity, but on the wings of nonpartisan political moderation.
Turning its back on such a proud tradition would be foolhardy.
The commission’s timing also is suspect. As Commission Chair Ed Eilert rightly pointed out, four of the seven commission seats are up for election next November. That means that anyone who applies for the manager’s post won’t know who they’re working for come 2019. That could discourage good candidates, too.
The Zacharias situation could have been handled far better. He deserved as much — as did county citizens.