Departing Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders has run such a professional operation that the near panic in Kansas City’s civic ranks when he campaigned for his job seems almost comical in hindsight.
He’s a loose cannon, some said. A fast talker. Overly political. Linked to rogue elements in eastern Jackson County politics. Not the person you want to run a troubled county government so fiscally strapped it could barely meet its payroll.
Despite those concerns, Sanders won the county’s top executive job easily in 2006 and set about proving his critics wrong.
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He hired managers with sterling track records to run county departments. He successfully pushed for changes in the county charter and an ethics code for county workers. Significantly, he clipped the powers of his own office by insisting on a charter provision and state statute that ended the authority of the county executive to issue no-bid, professional service contracts.
The man who in his previous job as Jackson County prosecutor couldn’t resist a news conference rolled up his sleeves and went quietly to work on a bloated budget that has gotten about $30 million leaner over Sanders’ nine years in office. He fixed the problems without ever proposing a tax increase, and the county’s bond rating has been upgraded twice under Sanders’ watch.
When he steps down on Dec. 31 — a surprising decision he announced this week — Sanders will leave Jackson County in much better shape than he found it. The biggest question now is whether his successor will continue in the same positive direction.
As his legacy project, Sanders settled on a visionary plan to run commuter trains on rail lines connecting downtown Kansas City with Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit and other points in eastern Jackson County. He got many of the pieces in place but hit a snag when Kansas City Southern reversed course on making its tracks available.
So Sanders will leave office with the commuter rail plan still on the drawing board. But his efforts are expected to yield a significant asset, perhaps as early as 2017. Sanders engineered a $52 million purchase of Union Pacific’s Rock Island rail bed, which will be converted into a 17.7-mile hiking and biking path that will finally connect Kansas City with the Katy Trail.
Sanders successfully oversaw renovations at both county courthouses. And he collaborated with Kansas City to move people detained on city ordinance violations into a downtown Regional Correctional Center operated by the county’s Department of Corrections. That move has been credited with saving jail costs.
But his corrections record has been tarnished recently by allegations that guards had beaten and otherwise abused an as-yet-unknown number of inmates at the adjacent Jackson County Detention Center, which is where people charged with violations of state law are held. The FBI is investigating the reports, and Sanders has recommended a list of reforms at the jail. Those include better pay for guards, more training, more medical care for prisoners and facility upgrades.
Another glitch in Sanders’ administration took place when a 2013 property reassessment turned out to be riddled with errors. Hundreds of property owners’ values were incorrectly set, and Sanders basically had to order a do-over. He deserves credit, though, for taking responsibility for the problem and managing a swift and thorough fix.
“In an organization this size you’re always going to have issues,” Sanders said. “You deal with them and you do it transparently and publicly.”
The announcement that Sanders will leave county government next week, midway through his third term, comes as a surprise to the public but not to people close to him. They say he has been clearing the decks for his departure for months.
Sanders’ stated desire to be more present in the lives of his children is genuine; he has turned down bigger political opportunities for the sake of family considerations.
The timing of Sanders’ exit, along with his selection of county Legislator Dennis Waits as an interim placeholder, gives potential candidates ample opportunity to mull a move and prepare for campaigns.
The ideal successor will share Sanders’ commitment to collaborating with other area governments as well as his passion for claiming the area’s rail bed assets for use as recreational trails and ultimately commuter rail.
Fortunately, the reforms that Sanders initiated — like the end of no-bid contracts — will help prevent Jackson County government from returning to the mess of patronage and feuding that he inherited.
For that alone, he leaves public office on a high note.