eKC feature
July 28, 2006


Three for the county
by Bruce Rodgers

Jackson County government is like the big, slow-moving impish teenager everyone on the block is aware of. Not quite out of control but always acting like he’s up to something — or wants to be. As long as he can be seen moving about, the neighbors don’t pay much attention. But if he disappears, and no one knows anything about what he’s doing, then people get nervous.

Respect doesn’t come with such watchfulness. Likewise, Jackson County government isn’t much paid attention to unless there’s a shoving match in the legislature’s chamber, a legislator goes to jail for fraud or some other greed-inspired crime, property tax assessments hit homeowners hard in the wallet or it’s leaked to the media that the FBI has some Jackson County official under investigation.

Yes, Jackson County government is the Rodney Dangerfield of metro politics. Three Democrats — a fourth isn’t actively campaigning — and one Republican, waiting in the wings until after the Aug. 8 primary, are seeking to take Jackson County to the woodshed — or at least to begin counseling — as the new county executive.

Reasons for running

Why are Mike Sanders, Charles Wheeler and Richard Tolbert running for Jackson County executive? Like most public office seekers, it’s an effort largely of their own making.

County prosecutor Sanders said he didn’t plan on running until late 2003.

“We started to have issues surrounding taxes, issues surrounding COMBAT and a fairly public discussion (about) the Shields administration using the dollars as promised.”

Up until that point Sanders described his relationship with current County Executive Katheryn Shields as good. “I trusted what she was saying,” he said.

The big issue that arose was money in COMBAT, the county’s drug prevention and treatment programs funded by a sales tax. A seven-member commission, appointed by the county executive, manages COMBAT funding. Approximately $5.5 million is disbursed each year. County executive Shields, at that time, claimed that there was no extra money available for COMBAT.

“You’re an elected official, you have a responsibility to the taxpayers. If you’re going to do the job, regardless of what that is (then) you’re in the business of fixing problems,” said Mike Sanders

Sanders said people “came to him” with a different line. “One person told me there was $6.and a-half million unaccounted for, another told me it was as high as $10 and one-half million that was unaccounted for,” said Sanders.

The prosecutor pressed for an audit and additional money was found. His involvement, he said, started him on the way toward thinking about running for county executive.

“You’re an elected official, you have a responsibility to the taxpayers. If you’re going to do the job, regardless of what that is (then) you’re in the business of fixing problems,” said Sanders. “I’m not big in the role, ‘I’m the prosecutor, therefore, it’s not my problem’ — it’s all our problem. I think there’s a great need within the county to fix those problems.”

Departing state Sen. Charles Wheeler agrees there are problems in county government, “and think I can solve them,” he said.

Wheeler hardly needs to add to his resume. He holds both medical and law degrees, is a former coroner of Jackson County, former judge of the Western District of the Jackson County Court and a two-term mayor of Kansas City, MO. His surprise primary victory in the 10th District four years ago reflects Wheeler’s public popularity. “Charlie,” as so many call him, has a personal political style that seems to attract a broad spectrum of people to, at least, listen to what he has to say.

Wheeler thinks there’s too much turmoil in county government. “I want to restore calm and reason to Jackson County government,” he told the crowd at the Blue Valley Community College candidates’ forum on July 18. “I think it’s a disservice not to put (my) talents to work.”

Wheeler brushes aside comments that he was bored as a state senator; that he had no power as a member of a minority party or that in Jefferson City he was out of the public limelight and didn’t like it.

“I learned a lot about what goes on in Jefferson City,” he said. “I wanted to bring it back to local government where I’ve had most of my experience, and combine the two.

He feels he’s made connections in state government that can help Jackson County government. Wheeler denies that Shields had any thing to do with him becoming a candidate. He casually noted, “I was looking for other political opportunities and someone told me that Katheryn was thinking of not running for a fourth time and I said, ‘Well, I’d like to explore that,’ and I did.”

Wheeler believes he can get along with just about anyone — and he probably can when measuring the endearment he seems to attract from the public. He is actively campaigning, visibly trying to dispel any notion that at 79 (Wheeler will be 80 a few days after the primary) he isn’t up to the job.

Sanders and Tolbert shy away from mentioning Wheeler’s age or questioning his health. It’s an approach indicative of their respect for Wheeler and to avoid a politically dangerous maneuver that could backfire. Polls on Wheeler’s web site (www.wheelerintegrity.com) show that a majority of persons asked don’t thing being 80 years old is a factor in holding the county executive’s office, and Wheeler’s new whimsical TV commercial stresses Wheeler’s vitality and his appeal in projecting politics as something that is also fun.

Tolbert, too, feels the appeal of politics since returning from — as he puts it — “political exile” in California following his departure from the city council in Kansas City in the 1970s. And he’s proven it since coming back to KC, having been a candidate in scores of local races under the banner of various political parties.

Though he says he’s a “life-long Democrat,” Tolbert is also Jackson County Chairman of both the Reform Party and Libertarian Party. He said that if he loses the Democratic primary, he may be on the November ballot for county executive under the Reform Party label.

“I’ve never got any respect or consideration from the Jackson County Democrats,” said Tolbert. Even so, Tolbert has won office again. He is trustee for the 3rd Dist. with the Metropolitan Community College District.

His political career began when he was 19 under the tutelage of Leon Jordan, founder of Freedom Inc. along with Bruce Watkins. The club sought to give African American voters more power and to develop black candidates for political office. Tolbert said he was one in which Jordan was “grooming” for the future.

Freedom, under Jordan’s leadership, pushed a public accommodations ordinance in Kansas City, led voter registration drives and helped get black candidates elected in city, county and state offices.

“(The years) 1964 to 1970 were a golden age,” said Tolbert. “We had political leadership in the black community that everybody could be proud of.”

Tolbert remains a Freedom Inc. member and said he has “bucked” Freedom. “I represent the Leon Jordan wing of Freedom Inc. — community comes first.”

He calls himself an “outsider,” believing that a “healthy community requires a vigorous opposition” to the status quo. “I’ve been a practicing politician for 42 years and work for reform politics,” Tolbert told the crowd at the Northeast Candidates Forum in late June. “I want to get government responsive to the people.”

Their issues

When thinking about the challenges facing Jackson County, Wheeler is a big-picture kind of guy. His comfort zone is not a day-to-day management style but talking ideas and forming policies around those ideas. He says he wants to bring government entities together — the suburbs with the city, the state with the county — to bring programs to people.

Never one for the nitty-gritty of managing the specifics behind policies, when asked to outline what his initiatives were once elected, Wheeler replied, “I think there are all kinds of opportunities. A good example is the East Village (downtown development). I think that will be a great project and shows an example of the state and city working together.”

“I represent the Leon Jordan wing of Freedom Inc. — community comes first,” said Richard Tolbert.

The J.E. Dunn Construction Co., and Swope Community Builders are the project’s main proponents. Tax break assistance in the form of TIF and state supplement TIF has been pushed for the project. Wheeler views himself as a “conduit” between government entities to get projects like East Village moving.

Calling himself a “global thinker,” Wheeler also considers public transit as something on his agenda.

“I’m going to get together with Ms. (Annabeth) Surbaugh (chair of the Johnson County Commission) and the chief executive of the United Government of Wyandotte County (Joe Reardon) and see what we can do together. Light rail is a classic example.”

Wheeler would also like to increase funding for health care. “I think the public is strapped for good health care.” It’s a concern that reaches in into Wheeler’s philosophy of government.

“We have to educate the public to their increasing responsibilities as we all grow older generation by generation,” said Wheeler. “That poses some constraints on the rabid entrepreneur that we’ve known in the past and requires a convergence of Republican and Democratic views as to what needs to be done as far as stimulating the economy so it generates additional revenues so it can take care of ever-increasing elderly people.”

Tolbert agrees with Wheeler that health care is a big issue. He expressed support for universal health care at the Blue River candidates’ forum. And he agrees that public transit is also an issue. But Tolbert’s big focus is the county itself, and how it interacts with the ordinary citizen. “The average citizen is sort of ignored,” he said.

He also questions whether county government is needed. “Has it outlived its usefulness?” he asks. Tolbert, if elected, would seek to set up a commission of Jackson County residents to study the issue and bring back recommendations. Areas to consider, he said, are city/county consolidation or splitting Jackson County in two with Kansas City, MO becoming a county within itself.

“My number one issue is to use Jackson County as an experiment to try and bring back more democratic and grassroots representation,” Tolbert said.

“Politicians in America need reform, not just Jackson County,” he continued. “We need more involvement and participation by the average citizen. I’m in favor of public financing of campaigns. The (political) parties are of a very narrow cast.”

Tolbert knows what he’s advocating is a process. “My immediate priority is for the county to be more user-friendly to the average citizen.” He cites monthly real estate tax payments, instead of one lump sum at year’s end, as an example.

For Sanders the frustration Tolbert outlines is because of the way the county is run and who runs it.

“We have to have a break from the past,” Sanders said. “I think the county has old ways of doing business, and those old ways are politics over professionalism. And that’s what we have to get away from. I think what I represent is a break from the old ways.”

Sanders chides the fact that Jackson County departments are often under managers picked for their political contributions to a campaign rather than the knowledge they can bring to the job.

“We don’t need individuals that raise money for campaigns — they need to be people who actually run efficient government, that know what they are doing,” said Sanders. “Ultimately, I think the best politics is running good government.”

Sanders is concerned that high property taxes are making more difficult for middle class families to live in Jackson County. The county has adopted a certificate of value standard to assess the market value of property. Sanders said the COV approach made property taxes jump. He wants to reevaluate the COV approach.

“I think we have to go back and evaluate what happened to cause this dramatic rise in property taxes,” said Sanders. “If COVs was the way to go, was that process fair? Did we do this correctly?”

Being the county prosecutor naturally has Sanders thinking about public safety, an issue that he thinks is on the mind’s of Jackson County residents. Sanders put the public safety issue within what he calls the “jail matrix” — a court ordered cap on the jail population that forces administrators to release or not jail some offenders. He wants to end the cap and says solutions to jail overcrowding can be found by forming agreements with other jurisdictions.

“Everyone needs jail space,” he said. “Let’s pool our resources and build a facility that benefits everyone.”

Whether finding ways to save the county money or to increase services to taxpayers, Sanders frames the questions around “efficiencies in government,” which he believes can be found by getting away from politics and inviting professionalism. He calls Jackson County “fertile ground” in finding those efficiencies, especially in examining the county’s use of outsourcing and personal service contracts.

“I think everything needs to be improved. Everywhere you look there are red flags about efficiencies and the way that operation is being run.”

Shields and Freedom

Where Sanders won’t make Wheeler’s age an election factor, he is not shy in pointing out that he is running more against the current Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields than Wheeler.

“I don’t think there’s any question about it that Shields and (her husband attorney Philip) Cardarella have an incredible vested interest in him (Wheeler) wining this race.

“I think they have brought as much as they can politically to bear to support his candidacy,” continued Sanders. “The fear I have had, and the fear we have had, is just how much influence they have not only over his campaign, which is clearly a huge amount of influence, but the influence they would have over his administration.”

Wheeler avoids being taken down that path. When asked if he talked with Shields frequently, he said, “Yes.” When asked if Shields is a campaign advisor, he again replied, “Yes.”

Sanders’ fear of Shields’ influence if Wheeler wins the county executive race rests largely upon how the $575 million taxpayers voted for in Truman Sports Complex renovations will be spent.

“The county has to be intimately involved as to where that money is being spent,” said Sanders. “It’s a hands-on job. You can’t just turn this over to individuals as county executive; you just can’t be a figurehead. You’ve got to looking at the numbers, looking at what’s going on, inspecting the property, setting that tone and example as to how attention is going to go into all these projects.”

Wheeler recognizes that how that money is spent will be under scrutiny.

“I want to restore calm and reason to Jackson County government,” said Charles Wheeler. “I think it’s a disservice not to put (my) talents to work.”

“I think the biggest concern of the taxpayers is that the recent bond election (tax for stadium renovations) will be handled properly. That requires a certain amount of cooperation between Katheryn Shields and myself.

“The starting steps are extremely important,” Wheeler continued. “I’ll be looking over her shoulder as she tries to get the county legislature and the Jackson County Sports Authority to kick this project off smoothly.”

Tolbert opposed the tax for stadium renovations. He says, “Entertainment is not a government function.” But he’s certain that “mischief” can occur. That view coincides with Tolbert questioning whether county government is necessary because county personnel “really don’t have much to do.”

All three candidates agree that the public has a perception that corruption haunts Jackson County. Sanders and Tolbert believe bringing professionalism to county management is a way to fight it. Wheeler said the perception is “one of the things I will have to overcome.” He said holding a weekly press conference as county executive is a way.

Fueling the perception corruption is how candidates get political endorsements. Heading the list is Freedom Inc.’s endorsement of Wheeler.

Sanders contends, and other political observers agree, that Freedom Inc. was to endorse him. His refusal to agree to Freedom’s want of naming the new county prosecutor reportedly shifted the endorsement to Wheeler. Sanders was taken by surprise by the change but said his refusal to agree to the Freedom’s “control of the selection process” is a “microcosm (of) how I am not a business-as-usual candidate.”

Yet, Sanders seems to want it both ways — laying claim the he’s different by not getting the endorsement yet disappointed that he didn’t get it.

“I’m not naïve. I understand it’s an important endorsement. It doesn’t decide an election but it’s something you’d rather have than not have. But that was a road I was unwilling to go down.”

Tolbert didn’t expect to get Freedom’s endorsement despite being a member of the organization. And said half-seriously that he thinks he’s “owed an explanation why Freedom didn’t support the black candidate.”

He also wonders if the demand made to Sanders “crosses the line.”

“To offer a quid pro quo to a man in office may have been violating the law,” said Tolbert. “There’s always political bargaining going on but does it make a difference when you’re talking to an officeholder.”

Still, Tolbert defends Freedom’s overall endorsement approach, calling it “within bounds to form a coalition.”

Wheeler is untroubled by the endorsement but welcomes it. “I’ve never been accused of promoting patronage,” he said. Wheeler claims he made no promises to Freedom except “to continue the policies that they (Freedom) grew familiar with when I was mayor of Kansas City.”

Wheeler admitted to having one-on-one conversations with Freedom president attorney Mark Bryant, and to talking about the endorsement.

(Neither County Executive Katheryn Shields or Mark Bryant returned calls for this article.)

Not-giving-it-much thought issues

Jackson County cover 600 square miles that include some 18 municipalities. Its budget is nearly $260 million. Collecting taxes, providing indigent health care, policing rural areas, conducting judicial operations, maintaining roads and bridges, and taking care of recreational facilities are what most of the county’s 1,700 employees do. Budgetary and quality-of-life issues are a constant.

While 21st century issues like health care and public transit appear to be on the candidates’ plates, other issues that are on minds of the public don’t seem to register.

When asked about the energy costs the county endures, Wheeler answered, “That’s President Bush’s problem. Energy costs are a direct result of presidential policies.”

When pressed about green buildings and flex-fuel vehicles for the county, Wheeler responded, “I’m very ecology minded” — misusing the word ecology when perhaps he meant “environment.”

On the county parks system, Wheeler called it “great property and needs a lot of development.” When asked what he meant by development, he responded, “Those lakes and park facilities around them. I understand there’s a general respect for the administration of the parks system.”

Sanders called the park system a “gem,” but seemed more interested in talking about the need for another county-run golf course. Tolbert barely acknowledged a need to talk about the park system.

None of the three seemed to know about the developmental pressures on the parks, particularly Jacomo and Blue Springs lakes. A ride down Woods Chapel Road would enlighten them. None reflected a desire to expand the county’s trail system, specifically extending the Indian Creek trail, which links to the Johnson County system, beyond it’s 99th & Holmes ending point.

A question about how to appeal to youth and getting people more involved in county politics didn’t result in many ideas. Wheeler wanted to give the young “an active role in shaping” policies concerning the elderly “that they one day will enjoy.” Sanders talked about the county needing “to do a much better job working with and communicating with Jackson County residents.”

Tolbert’s answer struck a chord when he was asked what he would offer to youth. “I have Leon Jordan to offer them,” he said. “Part of the responsibility of leadership is to prepare those to pick up the banner when you fall or die.”

“Leadership” is the primary attribute to run any government entity. These three claim to offer it. Looking beyond oneself is the key element that makes leadership work well. In politics, that’s sometimes asking a lot.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.


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