One Johnson County commissioner may have changed the course of local history, and not for the better.
Third District County Commissioner Steve Klika was the swing vote in ousting Johnson County Manager Hannes Zacharias on a 4-3 decision. Klika, a moderate, joined with three hard-line conservative commissioners — Jason Osterhaus, Michael Ashcraft, and Mike Brown — in cutting short a stellar eight-year tenure. Klika’s vote has created a firestorm of citizen protests.
Zacharias, whose last day as county manager was Friday, told me Klika had, on seven separate occasions over several years, suggested to him that he fire seven high-level employees. Zacharias repeatedly refused, and he believes that may be the main reason Klika voted to oust him. Zacharias said that during his entire 16-year career in Johnson County government, Klika was the only elected official who ever attempted to compel him to fire anyone.
Klika denies that he asked for anyone to be fired. He told me he did have issues with a number of county employees. Klika said he “expressed concern” to Zacharias but did not say if that was a factor in his vote.
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This might fit a pattern. It was recently reported that Klika, who serves on the board of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and was chairman for awhile, has been accused of attempting to get an executive there fired. In addition, it was recently reported that Klika was accused of bullying a KCATA female employee by grabbing her head and shaking it hard to make a point.
Klika, whose second term expires in 2021, told me he is a “two-term kind of guy.” He did not elaborate on his future plans.
While Zacharias ponders how Klika’s deciding vote caused his downfall, he remains far more concerned about the bigger picture. To Zacharias, the termination of his contract may have been a watershed event for the county, with three united hard-line conservatives successfully garnering one additional vote to give them some control over county government.
Zacharias is fearful the “new direction” the three conservative commissioners have espoused is really about running Johnson County government like conservatives ran Kansas government until recently. Zacharias was publicly critical of how state government was run under conservative leadership, a critique that did not go over well with conservatives.
Zacharias thinks conservatives could have a major impact on county government. He said he can foresee the day, for example, when the county’s public health department is no longer allowed to provide contraceptives to teenagers. Even though the effort is aimed at reducing teen pregnancies, it’s a program conservatives are likely to want to shut down.
The three conservative commissioners could take aim at county governement efforts to aggressively address issues related to diversity, given the changing demographics of Johnson County. Conservatives balk at such efforts.
Conservative commissioners also have been adamant that county spending be cut. One specific program that already has been targeted for elimination by a conservative commissioner is the public arts program, passed a decade ago by county commissioners, that commits 1 percent of the capital costs of a county building project to installing works of art. Like many Johnson County cities, the county has tried to enhance the appearance of new construction.
Zacharias, when at his gloomiest, doesn’t rule out the possibility of a reduction in health benefits for county employees, a freeze in salaries or other austerity measures that he believes would make it more difficult for county government to compete for top talent.
The former county manager still holds out hope that Johnson County voters will “rise up” as they have done in recent state elections. Zacharias hopes the rebellion happens before hard-line conservatives push the county in a radically new direction.