The decision to oust the Johnson County manager — which has prompted an outcry from hundreds of county employees and private citizens — could be reversed at Thursday morning’s county commission meeting, but that appears unlikely.
The Johnson County Commissioners voted 4-3 last week not to renew longtime County Manager Hannes Zacharias’ contract past Dec. 31. County procedures allow for a reconsideration of that vote at Thursday’s meeting, if one of the people voting with the prevailing side brings it up.
But three of the four commissioners who voted not to renew Zacharias’ employment contract — Michael Ashcraft, Steve Klika and Mike Brown — told The Star that they stand by last week’s vote and have no interest in revisiting it. The fourth commissioner, Jason Osterhaus, did not respond to a request for comment, but he voted in 2014 and 2015 not to renew Zacharias’ contract.
Commission Chairman Ed Eilert, who supports Zacharias and disagreed vehemently with the majority vote, said this week that he’s heard “widespread community disbelief” over the vote.
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“The concern is very widespread,” he said, “when Johnson County is recognized as one of the top performing counties across the nation.”
He noted that the county has high citizen satisfaction scores and has won numerous awards this year for its services and professional management. Commissioners Jim Allen and Ron Shaffer also voted to retain Zacharias and said they were very dismayed by the vote. Shaffer said he’d received many emails from people upset about the decision.
But Ashcraft, Klika and Brown each told The Star they want a new new manager for the county and it’s time for a change. Zacharias has been county manager since 2009.
In an interview in his office this week, Zacharias said he’s been balancing the concerns of a divided commission and “riding a 4-3 vote for a long time. Now it’s 3-4.”
He said he couldn’t reveal what was told to him in closed session about the reasons his contract wasn’t renewed but that the majority wanted to go in a new direction, although “the specifics were pretty thin.”
He reiterated that his understanding of the basic reason was “the majority wants to take Johnson County in a more fiscally and socially conservative direction, impose more direct oversight by the commission over county operations, and adopt a more ‘laissez faire’ attitude toward regulation.”
The vote, according to current and former elected officials and county observers, focuses a spotlight on long-simmering and behind-the-scenes tensions on a divided Johnson County Commission.
They say it illustrates conflicting, sometimes shifting, views among commissioners about how to deal with growth in urban versus rural areas and people wanting lower taxes and less regulation versus those wanting a higher level of county services. It also exposes differences of opinion over myriad issues ranging from the public arts funding to how the county should deal with transit, affordable housing, rising poverty, inclusion and diversity.
Eilert said he had visited with several hundred county employees in recent days who were also very concerned and disappointed by the decision, “not really understanding the decision, based upon the high level of performance that Hannes has exhibited in leading the county.”
More than 550 of the county’s 3,800 employees have indicated their support for Zacharias in an open letter to Johnson County voters. Their names were on a list shown to The Star, but the employees were not willing to have those names shared publicly. The letter was supported by workers from corrections, health and environment, development supports, human services, mental health, wastewater, courts, the library system and the district attorney’s office.
“We are shocked and utterly discouraged by the decision of Michael Ashcraft, Steve Klika, Mike Brown and Jason Osterhaus to end the tenure of our county manager Hannes Zacharias,” the letter said. “Unable to find fault with any aspect of his performance, they cite the need for a change in vision. For our part, Hannes’s vision for county government is one of fairness, safety, good stewardship, progress, communication and participation.”
One county employee, Jessica Murphy, an emergency services supervisor at the county mental health center, did go public to start a change.org petition that had been signed by more than 800 citizens by Wednesday morning, urging a reversal of the commission vote. She said she was representing herself, not the county or her department.
“Under Mr. Zacharias’ leadership, the county has flourished — from an increase in both parks and libraries, the opening of the Arts and Heritage Center and a plan to build a new courthouse and Tomahawk wastewater facility,” the petition said. “Mr. Zacharias has supported Human Services in a county that needs it just a much as the next one. He has recognized the need to supplement funding for the mental health system and support early intervention to get citizens the help they need.”
A small group of county employees rallied Wednesday evening in support of the county manager in front of Johnson County administrative offices.
Joe Young, a 20-year county employee, said Zacharias “exemplifies servant leadership.”
“I don’t know how you can get more fiscally conservative than we’ve been,” Young said. “This is a great place to live and work, and Hannes made that possible.”
Zacharias said he was gratified and heartened by the support but saddened by the circumstances.
“This is not how I wanted to complete my tenure here,” he said. “I do not want to be the center of this kind of attention. I want to do my professional duty as they’ve told me and I want to exit this position with professionalism and grace.”
In 2014 and 2015, Zacharias’ contract was renewed on a 5-2 vote, with Ashcraft and Osterhaus voting against renewal. In 2016, Zacharias’ contract was renewed on a 6-0 vote with Ashcraft absent. But early this year, Mike Brown replaced John Toplikar as the southern Johnson County commissioner, so this was the first contract he has voted on.
Brown told The Star he had felt a lack of transparency and responsiveness from the manager to a variety of his concerns, including with the county budget and the county arts commission and arts spending.
Klika, who in the past has voted to retain, changed his vote this year. He said his vote was made after months of deliberation.
“I’ve heard comments to the effect that I’ve gone over to the dark side, being a conservative,” he told The Star. “I don’t vote politically. I vote on the issues, and I do have a business. I do look at things from a business perspective.”
In a statement Wednesday he wrote, “As a growing county facing numerous challenges, we require progressive, out-of-the-box thinking that is focused on our citizens’ needs and expectations. My concern is that, as a county, we have been reactive and not proactive, more organizationally focused than citizen focused. We must be as nimble as possible in order to adapt to change.”
Ashcraft acknowledged change is stressful but said he has made his concerns known to the county manager for several years. He also said the employees have no reason for concern about their own jobs.
“I think we have great employees. I think we will do well...I would say Johnson County has a bright future.”
Overland Park resident Dennis Batliner, who has addressed the county commission on a host of issues from recycling to the budget, said he does think change is warranted. He said he thought the county manager “has had too much free rein for too long.” Among other concerns, Batliner said it’s time for the county to focus more diligently on containing costs and trying to reduce the county mill levy.
The selection of a new manager comes just as the county needs to start preparing the new budget and as it embarks on some huge building projects, including a new county courthouse and a new wastewater treatment plant. It also comes ahead of elections next November. Current terms for Eilert, Shaffer, Ashcraft and Osterhaus all are up in 2019.
For his part, Zacharias said the county is on very strong footing and he believes it will thrive in the future. He said he’s focusing on providing a smooth transition over the next month.
“For me,” he said, “I hope that my reputation is intact to go ahead and use my passion for public service for Johnson County and the region. I’m not done yet.”