Government & Politics

Dan Tarwater says Jackson County counselor should be fired for Mike Sanders contract ‘deception’

Dan Tarwater
Dan Tarwater

Jackson County’s top legal adviser should be sacked for the “deceptive” way he awarded a $60,000 consulting contract to former county executive Mike Sanders, longtime county legislator Dan Tarwater says.

“He should be fired,” Tarwater said, referring to county counselor W. Stephen Nixon. “He was clearly trying to deceive everybody.”

Tarwater weighed in a day after The Star reported that Nixon gave Sanders a six-month consulting agreement worth $10,000 a month for six months but didn’t tell members of the Jackson County Legislature or his boss, newly appointed county executive Frank White.

Legal services contracts worth far less come before the Legislature for approval, Tarwater said. One was for $2,000. Another was for $5,000. Both were approved in public session.

“Then for a $60,000 one not to come to us and no one know about it,” he said, “they did that on purpose.”

Tarwater and most of the other county legislators learned about Sanders’ contract by reading about it in the newspaper, which received a copy of the contract from the county only after asking whether such a document existed.

Officials made no public mention of it, nor was a copy on file with the county clerk’s office, which normally keeps service and consulting contracts.

Nixon did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Sanders previously declined to comment.

But White rejected Tarwater’s call for him to fire Nixon and criticized Tarwater for publicly airing his concerns about Nixon’s job performance.

“With all due respect to legislator Tarwater,” White said in a written statement, “I believe the county counselor followed county charter procedure in issuing this legal contract. I would not even entertain a discussion of removing a Charter Officer who has simply followed the county’s guiding document.”

White said it was “unfortunate” that Tarwater had “chosen to politicize this issue instead of working with my office and other legislators to focus on the critical needs of county government.”

The Legislature cannot fire Nixon. According to the county charter, the county counselor serves at the pleasure of the county executive.

But Tarwater said the Legislature can certainly lobby White for Nixon’s removal and hope he acts.

“We have to ask Frank to do it,” he said.

Sources close to White, including a number of legislators, said he was initially angry when he learned that Nixon and former Sanders staffers in the county executive’s office knew about the deal but did not tell him.

Sanders’ contract calls for him to help finish negotiations for the purchase of a Rock Island rail right of way, which will become a hiking and biking trail and possibly a corridor for commuter rail service.

It also requires him to advise White on county matters as needed.

Several legislators told The Star on Tuesday that they were more irked at the lack of disclosure than the content of the contract. Because Sanders was so instrumental in arranging the Rock Island deal over a number of years, they said, it made sense to retain his services in the short term.

Tarwater could not be reached for comment for the earlier story. But when he returned a call Wednesday, he offered a different perspective, saying Sanders is being overpaid.

Rather than receive a flat monthly fee of $10,000 through July 15, Tarwater said, the agreement should have paid Sanders only for services rendered.

Tarwater said that on Tuesday he sent Nixon 17 questions related to the contract and as of Wednesday afternoon he had not gotten a response.

Nixon, who was hired by Sanders, has been county counselor since January 2011. He previously was a Jackson County circuit judge for 13 years, the last two as presiding judge.

Before his appointment to the bench by Gov. Mel Carnahan, Nixon was the elected mayor of Lake Lotawana and a lawyer in private practice.

The Legislature appointed White last month to serve as county executive through the end of 2016, when the voters will choose someone to serve out the final two years of Sanders’ third four-year term. Sanders announced in December that he was resigning to return to private law practice and spend more time with his family.

White, who resigned his seat on the Legislature to take the county’s top job, has not made a formal announcement on whether he will enter the August Democratic primary, but he has hinted he is likely to.

Tarwater has made no secret of his desire to be county executive. But he said Wednesday that he will not run if White does.

“Frank’s a good man,” he said.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks