Hiring Mike Sanders was the right call made in the wrong way

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders last year announced a deal to buy the Rock Island corridor from Union Pacific Railroad.
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders last year announced a deal to buy the Rock Island corridor from Union Pacific Railroad. deulitt@kcstar.com

Mike Sanders is the expert on Jackson County’s transformational plans to buy the Rock Island rail corridor and extend the Katy Trail into Kansas City.

As county executive, Sanders negotiated on the project for years with railroad executives, teams of lawyers, local city officials and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. Then Sanders resigned his post for personal reasons late last year.

Hiring Sanders to presumably bring the purchase to completion makes a great deal of sense. County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon made the right call in doing that last month.

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Unfortunately, the contract with Sanders was done in the wrong way, without the proper amount of needed public disclosure.

Sanders and Nixon made a big mistake by not making other county officials and the public aware of the legal contract, which calls for Sanders to get $60,000 for six months of work.

Sending out a simple press release or holding a media conference would have helped allay concerns about the contract.

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The secretive way the pact was handled was a failure in good communications by Sanders, a fast-talking politician who always prided himself on his support for open government. Nixon could have told everyone, up front, his exact reasons for hiring Sanders.

However, by not doing any of that, Nixon and Sanders made it easy for county officials who knew nothing of the contract to question how it came about, as they did in a Star story.

Still, as new County Executive Frank White pointed out this week, Nixon has the power in the charter to sign legal contracts such as the one with Sanders, without competitive bids.

And Nixon in a statement pointed out that the contract with Sanders spends public funds the County Legislature has committed to finish the rail corridor deal.

A county executive appoints a county counselor to a four-year term. That gives the office some protection from political attacks by legislators, as occurred Wednesday when Dan Tarwater said he wanted White to fire Nixon.

White correctly declined and jabbed back that Tarwater instead should “focus on the critical needs of county government.”

Still, White should have been told up front by Nixon or Sanders about this deal. White has enough work on his hands as he takes over the top spot in government; he doesn’t need to be dealing with unnecessary questions of integrity at the courthouse.

While the political winds will continue to swirl around the Sanders contract, the damage done by legitimate concerns over how it was reached and announced should not be allowed to stymie the purchase of the Rock Island corridor.

Many local officials, including Kansas City Mayor Sly James and public transit supporters, have long backed that project. It could lead to the construction of trails for hikers and bicyclists, connecting to the Katy Trail that winds across Missouri. Eventually, a commuter rail line might travel down part of the corridor, boosting economic development in the county.

Given attention to the project and his contract, Sanders has good reasons to stay engaged and get the best final deal for Jackson County and its residents.

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