Relations between Jackson County Executive Frank White and the county legislature, already tense, worsened this week when White decided he will no longer discuss issues raised by legislators at public meetings unless the topic is on the published agenda.
White told the legislature’s chairwoman, Theresa Galvin, about his new policy in private, after a sharp public exchange between White and legislator Dan Tarwater at Monday’s meeting of the legislature. The topic was a recently released report on the county jail, which Tarwater accused White of censoring for political reasons.
Tarwater announced White’s policy change regarding how he will deal with questions from legislators in a written statement that he issued late Wednesday afternoon. In it, he criticized White’s administration for a lack of transparency.
“This request is unlawful and unreasonable and should not be considered by the legislative body,” Tarwater said. “Frank White should show up to meetings, answer questions when asked by the legislature, and should (those) questions make him uncomfortable, he should not attend.”
White issued his own statement Thursday afternoon that did not directly respond to Tarwater’s complaint. But White acknowledged that he had discussed with Galvin the need under the state Sunshine Law to send out agendas ahead of meetings “in a manner reasonably calculated to advise the public of the matters to be considered.”
The jail study was not on the agenda Monday. However, case law is unclear on whether Monday’s discussion was in violation of the statute, said media law attorney Jean Maneke, an expert on the Sunshine Law.
“I could argue it either way with a straight face,” she said. If the topic was likely to come up during the catch-all period when the county executive gives the legislature updates on county business, it might well have been suitable under the law.
Regardless, White said advance notice of all topics to be discussed would “allow us to ensure that the appropriate parties are prepared to testify and answer your questions and/or concerns in an accurate and timely fashion.”
He closed with “The Man in the Arena” quote from one of Teddy Roosevelt’s most famous speeches and invited critics to join him “in the arena” as he tries to get things accomplished for the county.
White got upset Monday afternoon when Tarwater pressed him to explain why his administration had heavily edited a report prepared by a consulting team hired to analyze operations at the county jail. The final Shive-Hattery report released to the public in January was less than half the size of the original report that Iowa-based Shive-Hattery submitted to the county in November.
White said the full report was never hidden from legislators, who were always free to view the document in its entirety, as long as they did so in the county counselor’s office. But Tarwater, Galvin and other members of the legislature have said White’s office never made that plain and were surprised when The Star reported that entire sections on health care and programming were cut from the final report.
What’s more, Galvin is skeptical that the report was censored because of “security concerns” on the suggestion of the county corrections department, which White cited again Monday as the reason for the editing. When Tarwater challenged his explanations, White took umbrage.
“I don’t like being called a liar,” he said.
The clash comes as the county is about to embark on its biggest and most expensive building project since the renovations of Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums a decade ago. A new jail could cost as much as $270 million, the Shive-Hattery report said. Its planning and construction will require cooperation between White, the legislature and Sheriff Darryl Forté, who as of January took charge of jail operations after a voter-approved charter change.
After almost two years of conflict, tensions between White and the county legislature had begun to ease in the last half of 2018, and both sides hoped that they could work better together with the seating of a newly constituted county legislature. Four of its nine members are new this year.
But that began to change after The Star revealed on March 3 that White’s administration had withheld large chunks of the Shive-Hattery report and edited others without legislators’ clear understanding.
Tarwater stressed the need for greater openness and accused White of trying to shut down debate on important issues.
“Just to be clear, the Jackson County Legislature is a duly elected body of the government and has the right and duty to ask questions of the county executive at any time,” Tarwater wrote. “The county executive is not an imperial ruler.”
Legislator Crystal Williams said Thursday that she was “disappointed” by the growing friction and challenged her fellow elected officials, the men especially, to calm down and work together.
“I am so tired of watching men fighting with each other over issues that could be solved with constructive discussion and transparency,” she said.