The 2017 recipient of the award for Outstanding Public Administrator in Kansas was recently ousted. Or, to put it more gently, his contract was not renewed.
Hannes Zacharias, Johnson County manager, found himself on the wrong end of a majority vote by four of seven county commissioners. Unlike the recent open rift between Kansas City Manager Troy Schulte and the Kansas City Council — which prompted Schulte to dare the council to fire him — there was no public discord among Zacharias and the commissioners. The decision to end Zacharias’ contract seemed to come out of the blue.
This might make a great Agatha Christie murder mystery. Only, in this case, we know who did it. What we don’t know is precisely why. What were the motives? We may never know for certain because this was a personnel decision made behind closed doors in executive session. To be sure, some important message was delivered to the head honcho, who joined the county in 2001 and became its county manager in 2009.
This mystery doesn’t preclude speculation, based on my own observations and interviews with numerous community leaders. The common thread that comes through loud and clear is that Zacharias might be too progressive for the tastes of the conservative commissioners.
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Zacharias has a reputation as an outstanding administrator, but he also is not afraid to ask for a property tax increase to meet the needs of a growing population of nearly 600,000 residents in a county that has also seen a sharp increase in poverty, mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness.
Zacharias serves as a volunteer board member on United Community Services in Johnson County and also serves on the board of the Greater Kansas City United Way. His heart may be too dedicated to helping the needy in the eyes of conservatives. To serve those additional needs can drive up the county budget, which may seem like the wrong priority to some who think budgets should be lean and sometimes mean.
Zacharias might argue that in tough times, he got tough. He reduced the number of county employees from 4,100 in 2009 to 3,800 in 2015 and cut $47 million in spending. He has maintained those reduced personnel levels, even when the economy improved.
But that may not be good enough if one believes the county manager spends too much.
Conservatives might argue that Zacharias has been too eager to recommend increases in the county property tax. He tried that in 2015 and was turned down. In 2016, Zacharias recommended a miniscule increase in property taxes, which passed. It was the first increase in a decade.
But conservative commissioners Michael Ashcraft, Mike Brown, and Jason Osterhaus believe the county has a spending problem. Commissioner Steve Klika, who also voted to terminate Zacharias, may have had other unclear motives since he is not known as a conservative. County Chairman Ed Eilert and Commissioners Jim Allen and Ron Shaffer see things differently. They see growing needs in the county that must be addressed. Eilert has pointed with pride to the county’s financial performance and triple-A bond rating while striving to serve the growing and increasingly diverse Johnson County population.
Zacharias has been openly critical of the Legislature, which, when dominated by conservatives, imposed revenue cuts on Johnson County government that slashed millions of dollars from the county budget. Conservatives have little quarrel with those budget cuts.
This conservative tug to the right on the commission may show itself more clearly as the commissioners decide who will replace Zacharias. What kind of priorities for the future will the ultimate finalist embrace? The answer will be quite revealing and should give Johnson County residents a clearer picture about where county government is headed.