Weeks of growing tension between County Executive Frank White and members of the Jackson County Legislature boiled over Monday as legislators overrode White’s veto of a measure that he saw as a challenge to his authority.
The successful override vote was expected. What wasn’t was the cathartic exchange that preceded it, which exposed in the most public fashion so far the differences and hard feelings between White and the governing body that appointed him to the post nearly two years ago.
“If this is going to be a dogfight,” White said at one point, “then it’s going to be a dogfight.”
He said he held no animosity toward members of the legislature but sensed that some were beginning to take things personally and worried that would make it harder to tackle some big issues ahead, such as building a new jail.
“Once it becomes personal, it’s hard to change the course,” White said.
Dennis Waits of Independence, the longest serving legislator, said he and other members have no personal gripes with White.
“I like the heck out of you,” he said.
But Waits said he and others have grown frustrated with White’s seeming lack of urgency in addressing the jail issue. The county should be moving forward on plans to replace the three-decades-old Jackson County Detention Center and figuring out how to pay for it, Wait said.
Instead, more than three months after a consultant declared jail operations a “crisis” that needs to be address quickly, White has scheduled a news conference for Tuesday afternoon to announce the formation of a jail task force and “discuss its mission.”
Waits scoffed at the notion of forming another committee to follow up on the actions of the original jail task force that then-County Executive Mike Sanders formed two years ago, as well as two consultant studies conducted this year.
“We don’t need more studies,” Waits said.
It was Waits’ idea to draft both of the ordinances that White vetoed in the past 10 days and that subsequently were restored. Both grew out of the jail issue.
The first one created three new positions that White said will cost the county $500,000 in salary and benefits each year: a financial adviser, special projects analyst and a public relations specialist. And the second ordinance gives the legislature the authority to take money from the budget to pay those people without asking for the permission of the chief financial officer on White’s staff, as long as six of the nine legislators support that.
White said the jobs duplicate the duties of those already on the county payroll. Waits, however, said the jobs are needed because he thinks White and his staff are not up to the task of preparing the county budget, planning for a new jail or representing the legislature’s stances on issue to the public.
Other differences also arose at the meeting, including whether the county’s longtime financial officer, Troy Thomas, quit, as White maintains, or whether he was fired, as Waits insists.
“Thomas was not fired by me,” White said.
Observing from the back of the room, Thomas begged to differ and is expected to be working for the legislature soon.
There was agreement on two things. First, the county has a lot of work to do before jail fixes and other needs are addressed.
And, White said, “We can’t get there if we don’t communicate.”