Government & Politics

Joco workers, residents plead to keep county manager. But commissioners don’t budge.

A crowd in Johnson County comes out to support dismissed county manager

Johnson County employees and citizens pleaded with the county commission to renew the county manager's contract, but that effort failed.
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Johnson County employees and citizens pleaded with the county commission to renew the county manager's contract, but that effort failed.

For 90 minutes on Thursday, Johnson County employees and citizens pleaded with the Johnson County Commission to reverse last week’s 4-3 vote to oust County Manager Hannes Zacharias.

But the four commissioners who declined to renew Zacharias’ employment contract — Steve Klika, Michael Ashcraft, Jason Osterhaus and Mike Brown — listened without any comment, and then didn’t budge from their decision. That means Zacharias’ job ends Dec. 31. He has been county manager since 2009.

Commissioner Jim Allen made a motion to negotiate a new contract with Zacharias that would begin Jan. 1, and it was supported by Commissioner Ron Shaffer and Commission Chair Ed Eilert, who both voiced strong support for the county manager. But that motion failed on a 3-4 vote.

Penny Postoak Ferguson
Penny Postoak Ferguson will be the interim Johnson County manager. Johnson County government

After the crowd left, commissioners named Penny Postoak Ferguson, the current deputy county manager, as the interim county manager effective Jan. 1.

Thursday’s discussion exposed a big rift between apparently moderate and conservative viewpoints over the direction of the county. Some who testified warned commissioners that they’ll remember this decision during the next election cycle in November 2018. Current terms for Eilert, Shaffer, Ashcraft and Osterhaus are up in 2019.

“This action created an unnecessary political scene and was below the standard of excellence that I expect from Johnson County,” said Jo Ella Hoye, a Lenexa resident and parent who worked in the county manager’s office from 2010 to 2013. “These are the antics that are dismantling our state government, hurting our federal government and dividing our people, and I will not sit on the sidelines and let them infiltrate our local government.”

She was among the vast majority of speakers who praised Zacharias as a superb manager and administrative leader of a county that’s nationally recognized for its parks, citizen satisfaction scores and government services.

HannesZacharias_horizontal
Hannes Zacharias Courtesy Johnson County government

Tom Robinett, vice president of public policy and advocacy for the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce, said the decision had sent shock waves through the chamber’s 800 business members.

“We do not believe that the non-renewal of Hannes’ contract accurately reflects the will or desires of the business community or the county’s taxpayers,” Robinett said, adding that he was speaking for the chamber, which urged the commission to renew the manager’s contract.

“Why sacrifice the consistency and predictability that is so highly valued by the business community without having clear, well-articulated reasons for doing so?” he asked. “Change solely for the sake of change creates anxiousness, apprehension and concern and is counterproductive.”

Patty Logan, with the Stand Up Blue Valley education advocacy group, read a statement from the organization particularly taking issue with Klika’s vote against renewing the county manager’s contract. She said the group had endorsed Klika in 2016 when he said he was a fellow moderate. Klika has voted in favor of retaining Zacharias’ contract in past years but changed his position this time.

“We remind him and the other three who voted to terminate Mr. Zacharias’ contract that things have changed in Johnson County. You may put your political ambitions and career, or a handful of anti-tax voices, ahead of your district now,” the statement said. “We will stand in unison against partisanship and extremism. And we will remember your votes the next time we have the opportunity to cast ours.”

Klika did not address the comments, but in a statement Wednesday he said he wanted new leadership because the county requires “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.”

Ashcraft, Osterhaus and Brown have each outlined different concerns they had with Zacharias, including the need for more transparency, responsiveness and accountability. Zacharias has said the general impression he got was that the majority wanted to go in a more fiscally and socially conservative direction, with less regulation, and more commissioner oversight over county operations.

One person did testify Thursday that it’s time for a change in county management.

“I support the decision,” Overland Park resident Neil Melton told the commissioners. Afterward, Melton told The Star that he’s a conservative and concerned about the county’s property tax and spending levels.

But Mike Boothe, a longtime county employee in the health and environment department, said the county is fiscally prudent and already has the lowest county mill in Kansas. He said Zacharias has instilled a culture in which employees strive for excellence and continuous improvement in services to the citizens.

After the vote to negotiate a new contract failed, Zacharias told media representatives that he appreciated all the support from employees and residents. As for what’s in store for the county, he said the commissioners need a period of serious conversation and introspection.

“There seemed to be obviously a very strong rift among the county commissioners about where they want the direction of the county to go” he said. He said they strongly disagree over funding for priorities such as the arts, transit and diverse communities versus traditional basic services such as roads. “I think that’s the kind of soul searching they’re going to have to go through.”

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

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