Despite concerns that the move might conflict with state law, the Jackson County Legislature passed an ordinance Monday that would give the body the power to make an end-run around County Executive Frank White when spending tax dollars.
The move would initially allow legislators to pay the salaries of whomever is hired to fill three jobs created at last week’s special, mid-week meeting.
The duties of all three jobs — budget and financial analyst, special projects analyst and public liaison — would somewhat duplicate those already assigned to members of White’s staff.
But with the legislature and the county administration increasingly at odds on issues such as the need for a new jail, seven of the nine legislators support having their own staff to consult on issues and represent their positions to the public.
At the top of the salary range, the three positions would pay a combined $380,000.
The ordinance approved on a vote of 7-2 allows the legislature to initiate spending actions, without White’s consent, when at least two-thirds of the full legislature vote to do so. Currently all spending measures must be initiated by the county executive, and then the legislature can vote the measures up or down.
In a statement issued later, White condemned the move as legislative overreach.
“While I am disappointed, I know now more than ever that I am needed in this office,” he said. “I must continue to stand up to these types of overreaches and continue to do what I know is right.”
White missed the past three legislative meetings, but was there Monday. Other than when he presented an employee-of-the-month award, he sat quietly, never raising an objection to the ordinance.
He left that to the county’s chief lawyer, County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon, who reports to White. Nixon advised the legislature against voting for the change until he had a chance to fully research the legality of the move.
“I think it’s probable that the ordinance would conflict with state law,” Nixon said.
Legislator Dennis Waits asked his colleagues to vote for his measure anyway, saying that the county counselor’s office drafted it for him in the first place.
“This is their language, not mine,” he said.
As he left the meeting, White said he and his advisers would consider his next move. If he vetoes the ordinance, it would be the first since he became executive in January 2016.
His predecessor, Mike Sanders, never issued a veto in his nine years atop county government, while the previous occupant of that corner office on the second floor of the courthouse, Katheryn Shields, was known to use her veto pen rarely. The Star’s archives show the last time Shields vetoed legislation was in 2005.
If White does veto the ordinance, it would take six votes to override him.
White said in his prepared statement that he sent legislators a letter ahead of the vote asking them to table the measure so that they could convene a joint study of county spending policies. Those policies, which allow White to make expenditures without seeking legislative approval, have come under increasing criticism from legislators recently.
“Since being sworn in as the County Executive,” he said, “I have heard two questions from the people of Jackson County more than all others combined: ‘What the heck is wrong with Jackson County? and, Why in the world did you want this job?’ Today’s legislative meeting made answering both of those questions much easier.”
He also praised legislators Crystal Williams and Tony Miller for voting against the ordinance.