Frank White just got schooled — big time.
The former Kansas City Royal, who’s served as the Jackson County executive for the last 1 1/2 years, is still something of a political neophyte. It showed this week as the county legislature, on a 9-0 vote, rejected White’s pick to run COMBAT, the agency that fights illegal drug use.
What was astonishing was how open county legislators were about what they did. The rejection of Teesha Miller, they pointed out, had nothing to do with her credentials and everything to do with the process White employed to hire her.
Lawmakers insisted that they be consulted about the pick. When that didn’t happen, they hammered White in the most public way possible with that unanimous vote. For White, it was a stunning comeuppance.
But let’s get real here: With the county jail in crisis, now isn’t the time for a power struggle over who’s the boss in Jackson County, Missouri. These days, problems with the jail just keep on coming.
Rapes, beatings, filth, FBI raids, guard shortages, low morale, lousy pay, contraband, a class-action lawsuit. This week came the news that Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker had charged four county jail inmates with felonies in connection with a brutal August assault of a corrections officer.
Baker said she’s fed up with a too-lax jail environment that contributes to ongoing violence. “The operations of this jail must improve,” she said.
But wasting time on political infighting when conditions at the jail continue to deteriorate won’t get the job done.
Frustration with White is understandable. He’s not shown a willingness to learn from past mistakes or move aggressively on a problem that lingers month after month. That’s forced veteran legislators to work around him. They’ve found ways to document the appalling conditions and spread the word about just what a dangerous facility the jail is while White twiddled his thumbs.
The county executive finally agreed to raise guard pay in an effort to boost recruiting and ease a dangerous personnel shortage. White also has released a long-overdue plan to reshuffle priorities to get more guards on the floor. Many of those ideas had been around awhile, and when he announced them in mid-August, some lawmakers wondered what had taken so long.
“No rocket science here,” county legislative chairman Scott Burnett said that day.
Given the leadership void in the county executive’s office, the time has come for veteran county legislators, such as Burnett, Dennis Waits and Dan Tarwater, to publicly step forward and push White even more aggressively. They need to do so even though it’s White’s job to run the jail.
A united thrust on the jail is what’s needed, both short- and long-term. The jail must be stabilized. At the same time, long-term planning for a new jail must begin. That will require an aggressive campaign to convince an otherwise apathetic public that a $200 million facility is needed.
White remains a remarkably popular public official, thanks to his days with the Royals. But the actions of the past few days suggest the aura is fading. Lawmakers are now willing to challenge him.
He needs to step up in a way that he’s so far avoided. When it comes to dealing with the jail, a united front is essential.