Government & Politics

‘Nice guy’ Frank White says he’s no pushover in political role

“My legacy is not going to be in bricks and mortar,” Jackson County Executive Frank White says. “It’s going to be in how many people I can help.” He’s now beginning his second year as county executive, which brings some bright moments, such as his smile during a recent meeting of the Jackson County Legislature.
“My legacy is not going to be in bricks and mortar,” Jackson County Executive Frank White says. “It’s going to be in how many people I can help.” He’s now beginning his second year as county executive, which brings some bright moments, such as his smile during a recent meeting of the Jackson County Legislature. skeyser@kcstar.com

Frank White is, at 66, more than a quarter-century removed from his career as the Royals All-Star second baseman immortalized in bronze at Kauffman Stadium.

Arguably, he’s better known today not so much for his smooth fielding and solid plate appearances during the Royals’ first golden era, but for the easy-going demeanor that’s served him well as a baseball ambassador, broadcaster and now the elected head of Jackson County government.

“My reputation,” White said, “has always been ‘nice guy — give you anything you want.’ 

But behind that genial persona, he says, is the same fierce competitor who won eight Gold Gloves and batted cleanup all seven games of the 1985 World Series. So it annoys him when people mistake his friendly nature for weakness.

“It irritates me a lot,” he said during an interview in his corner office on the second floor of the downtown Jackson County Courthouse. “You don’t play 18 years in the sport and not be competitive.”

That competitive streak has been tested a time or two in his first year overseeing county government — most recently in a behind-the-scenes battle with county legislators who dictated changes to his proposed 2017 budget.

Some questioned whether the political rookie had what it took to follow in the footsteps of veteran pols like his predecessor, Mike Sanders, or Harry Truman, who presided over county government before going on to the U.S. Senate and the presidency.

After all, the biggest operation White had managed up until then was the Royals’ farm club in Wichita.

Others cautioned White about the pitfalls of making the leap from his part-time gig on the Jackson County Legislature, on which he’d served barely a year.

“I told him, ‘You’ll never be as popular as you are now,’ ” said Scott Burnett, who represents the 1st District and is this year’s chairman of the Legislature. “You take on the baggage of other people, whether it’s your baggage or not. The buck stops here.”

But on the eve of his second state-of-the-county address this Friday at the Gem Theater, White’s reputation remains intact.

And he thinks he’s shown himself more than capable in the job. Managing a $300 million-plus annual budget, the county executive oversees an enterprise responsible for everything from collecting taxes and paving roads to operating a derelict jail that has been the subject of an FBI investigation since before White took charge.

“There’s a lot more to a job like that than one might think,” he said. “It overwhelms you at times.”

Though White has had his differences with the nine-member Legislature, a majority of its members agreed that White was the right pick when they appointed him last January on an interim basis until voters could weigh in on Nov. 8.

If some now feel differently, they haven’t said so publicly.

“A year into the job ... Frank continues to be a thoughtful, dedicated county executive,” said 2nd District at-large Legislator Crystal Williams, one of White’s biggest fans. “His concern for the people of Jackson County is unwavering.”

Even Burnett, who opposed White on some of the issues that delayed the budget’s passage for weeks, said White has done “a pretty good job” after what White himself acknowledges was a daunting challenge at the outset.

“My sense is that he was a little overwhelmed,” Burnett said. “I don’t think he understood how hard herding all these cats was going to be.”

Learning curve

Others were in line to replace Sanders, whose surprise resignation was announced a year into his third four-year term.

Chief among the group was Dan Tarwater, who has represented the 4th District since the mid-1990s.

“It’s something that I’ve always had my eye on,” Tarwater told The Star when he ran for re-election in 2014. Tarwater predicted that Sanders would step down to run for statewide office in 2016 and figured fellow legislators would appoint him to the post.

But by the time Sanders did quit, not to run for office but to return to private law practice, Tarwater’s chances were dashed.

White expressed an interest in the job almost immediately. And given his popularity with the public — he got far more votes in his first run for the Legislature than any other candidate running countywide in 2014 — it would have been pointless for the Legislature to pick Tarwater or any other local pol who might want the job.

White was a sure bet to beat any interim official in that job at the August Democratic primary, which always decides the race. No Republican has ever been county executive.

White says he stepped forward at the encouragement of fellow legislators.

“They came to me and they asked me if I would want to serve in this capacity,” he said. “It was more the confidence they had in me that gave me the confidence to try it.”

The vote was unanimous, 8-0, and he was sworn in Jan. 11, 2016.

Learning the ropes wasn’t easy. But fortunately most of Sanders’ management team stayed on as he found his footing.

“They know the county,” he said. “I just get out of the way and let them do it.”

Management style

That’s not to say that he’s a passive manager, White said.

Shortly after settling in, he reorganized the chain of command, empowering a new chief of staff, Caleb Clifford from the prosecutor’s office, to be his No. 2.

That arrangement upset some members of his executive team, who had more direct contact with Sanders when he was executive. Now they must go through Clifford to get time with White.

But the county executive counters that the intent was not to insulate himself from the people who work for him, but rather to help top managers focus sharply on crucial issues that could come back to bite him.

For instance, White has instructed the county chief administrative officer, Mary Lou Brown, to devote most of her attention to managing the county assessment department. Chief operating officer Gary Panethiere is now overseeing the Jackson County Detention Center almost exclusively.

Both operations were public relations disasters for Sanders in the last years of his administration.

The biennial reassessment of county real estate in 2013 was initially considered a debacle when thousands of residential properties saw huge increases in value — some as much as 40, 50, even 100 percent — because of data errors.

Order was restored with the help of high-paid consultants and county employees working punishing schedules to clean up the mess. But with 2017 another assessment year, White isn’t about to take any chances of a relapse.

The detention center, meanwhile, has been in turmoil since at least 2015, when the FBI launched an investigation of allegations of excessive force by guards against prisoners.

White has been implementing many of a task force’s recommendations for improving conditions at the jail, such as higher pay for guards and facility renovations. But reports of prisoner-on-prisoner rapes last summer highlighted security failures that put the county in danger of being sued for security lapses.

“I appreciate his commitment to fixing the myriad issues associated with the jail,” Williams said.

His emphasis in both areas reflects White’s concern for maintaining his own integrity “and making sure my name stays out of controversy.”

His focus on ensuring a well-run reassessment and fixing the jail are also examples, he and others say, of what he sees as the most important aspect of his job: making sure county government runs as smoothly as he used to snag grounders rocketing his way.

“My legacy is not going to be in bricks and mortar,” he said. “It’s going to be in how many people I can help.”

Budget battle

His speech on Friday will enumerate a number of accomplishments during his first 12 months on the job. White helped lead the campaign to renew the county’s quarter-cent anti-drug sales tax. Work commenced on the county’s 17-mile connection to the statewide Katy Trail, and he and the Legislature established a program to monitor sales of potentially harmful prescription drugs.

What he likely won’t get into are the sometimes tense moments he and the Legislature have had at times.

“We all have a friendship with Frank,” said Legislator Tony Miller, 3rd District at-large, “but sometimes politics gets in the way of that.”

Perhaps White’s biggest fault in the eyes of some legislators is that he doesn’t consult with them privately before pushing initiatives forward.

He’s more reserved than Sanders, a consummate political schmoozer who would call on key legislators multiple times a day as he put together his budgets. When it came time for a vote, legislation sailed through with little discussion.

White didn’t lay that groundwork this year. The result was a revolt by a six-member majority led by 3rd District Legislator Dennis Waits. They held the budget hostage for weeks, shifting money to pet projects.

“It was a feeding frenzy,” Williams said at one recent meeting.

For instance, White recommended $60,000 as seed money for a civil rights “Freedom Memorial Wall” that’s been the subject of relatively little public discussion. The majority set aside $200,000 in the county park fund for that, without explanation or debate.

That faction’s budget also set aside $250,000 to hire staff to prosecute animal-abuse cases at the suggestion of Waits, who is the Legislature’s chief advocate for dogs, cats and other pets.

Again it was without explanation and a surprise to both White and County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who would be responsible for running a program she hadn’t asked for.

Waits declined to comment.

The budget finally passed days before Christmas, with White seemingly humbled.

“This whole budget was to teach Frank a lesson,” said one legislator who agreed to describe the largely behind-the-scenes struggle on the condition that he wouldn’t be named. Others agreed with the analysis.

However, 2nd District Legislator Alfred Jordan, who was on the winning side, characterized the tussle differently.

“The administration and the Legislature,” he said, “may have different views on how different things should go and that is just part of the negotiation process, not unlike anything you’ve seen in any other branch of government.”

Ever the competitor, White fought back at the first of the year. Aided by a legal opinion, he froze all discretionary spending in the anti-drug COMBAT fund until $500,000 in cuts were made.

Boxed in, the Legislature on Monday considered a plan to do just that. White also stresses that none of the money budgeted for the Freedom Memorial Wall and other projects will be spent until they are vetted and voted on individually later this year.

Neither side is expressing hard feelings. White says he and the Legislature are bound to disagree at times, and legislators say they look forward to working with him.

“I have known Frank White since the late ’60s, when we played baseball together one summer,” said Garry Baker, who was appointed to replace White on the Legislature representing the 1st District at large.

“Not only was he an exceptional ballplayer, he was also a team player and one of the nicest guys you would ever want to be associated with. He is still that same guy today.”

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks

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