Government & Politics

The vote was unanimous: She’s now Johnson County’s new manager

Penny Postoak Ferguson, center, was appointed county manager Thursday. Also present were Aaron Otto, left, acting assistant county manager and Don Jarrett, chief counsel for the county.
Penny Postoak Ferguson, center, was appointed county manager Thursday. Also present were Aaron Otto, left, acting assistant county manager and Don Jarrett, chief counsel for the county. lhorsley@kcstar.com

Months after the Johnson County Commission abruptly ousted County Manager Hannes Zacharias, the commission has appointed the woman who was Zacharias’ deputy as his successor.

The commission voted 7-0 Thursday to appoint Penny Postoak Ferguson, 49, as the new county manager. She had been serving as interim county manager since the county commission stunned the community by voting 4-3 to terminate Zacharias’ employment contract as of Dec. 31, 2017.

The commission majority said at the time that the county needed new leadership and a new direction after more than eight years with Zacharias at the helm. The commission had also talked about a national search for his replacement.

But in the end, the commission went with a longtime county insider. Postoak Ferguson had been hired as assistant county manager in June 2010 and had served as deputy county manager since August 2012.

She is the first woman appointed since the position of county manager was created along with a new county charter in the early 2000s.

Commissioners explained their decision Thursday, saying Postoak Ferguson has done an excellent job as an interim manager for the last six months and they had confidence in her leadership.

“Penny is uniquely qualified. Yes, she came up under the tutelage over time with Hannes, but Penny has her own path,” said Commissioner Mike Brown, who had voted not to renew Zacharias’ contract. “She has her own way of thinking about doing things. She has her own management style.”

Brown said he felt Postoak Ferguson had done a better job of communicating with the commission.

Commissioners Steve Klika, Michael Ashcraft and Jason Osterhaus, who also voted against Zacharias’ contract renewal, agreed, saying she has capably tackled some unfinished business, such as a new mobile app for county services and new transit contracts with Lawrence. They praised her preparation of the upcoming county budget and her ability to diplomatically balance competing constituent demands.

Klika said she’s a skilled negotiator and compromiser.

“I think she can work with the various commissioners with all their varying interests, and she kind of brings them together,” he said. “She’s helped work through some tough issues.”

Commission Chair Ed Eilert and Commissioners Jim Allen and Ron Shaffer, who had opposed Zacharias’ removal, nonetheless said Postoak Ferguson has their full faith and confidence. Eilert said he thought the county would probably have made the same selection even if it had conducted a national search, and skipping that step saved the county about $30,000.

Postoak Ferguson will make $223,910 initially and get a 3 percent raise in January 2019. The initial contract term is 14 months, through Sept. 15, 2019, with an intent to renew it for two years after that, subject to agreeable terms and conditions.

She also gets a $750 monthly car allowance and $125 monthly cell phone allowance.

Postoak Ferguson said she was very grateful for the support and help from the county’s dedicated employees during this interim period.

“I am excited for the work that we will do together as a board and with staff continuing the work that our residents deserve and have come to expect,” she said.

She said she’ll focus on the county’s big priorities, including a new courthouse and sewer plant that are the most expensive capital improvement projects in county history. But she’ll also focus on other issues of major concern to residents, such as parks and libraries, affordable housing, and the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

Before she came to Johnson County, Postoak Ferguson was assistant city manager in San Antonio, Texas, for nearly four years. Before that time, she worked for the city of Overland Park for four years as a deputy city manager and assistant city manager.

She also served as executive director of budget and research from 2000 to 2002 for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan.

She is a native of Lawrence, is a member of the Choctaw Tribe of Oklahoma, and attended Haskell Indian Nations University. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Kansas.

Zacharias’ ouster took Johnson County residents by surprise. He had served as county manager since 2009 and most people expected his contract to be renewed late last year.

More than 550 of the county’s 3,800 workers signed an open letter to Johnson County voters expressing support for Zacharias as their boss.

Eilert, Shaffer, Osterhaus and Ashcraft are up for election in November, and the county manager issue may be a campaign topic.

In 1976, 22-year-old Hannes Zacharias traveled solo along the Arkansas River from his Dodge City hometown to New Orleans. Now, 42 years later, the former county manager of Johnson County will recreate and expand on that kayak adventure.

Meanwhile, Zacharias is on an epic journey this summer, kayaking the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.

He has been hired to join the faculty of the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration as a professor, beginning Jan. 1.

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