In the shadow of a large city, county government is too often overlooked. But it’s impossible to miss what’s going on here.
A year or so ago, I headlined a column “Does ‘Jackson’ County have a future?” At the time, I questioned whether being named after a slave owner, Trail of Tears ribbon-cutter, and Democratic Party founder dishonored the county. A year or so later, I have to ask whether it dishonors the memory of President Andrew Jackson to have this particular Jackson County bear his name.
There is a structural reason why Jackson County is all but condemned to scandal and mismanagement—but first, a word on those recent shenanigans, shenanigans so impressively sleazy they would have made Boss Tom Pendergast proud.
Laundering money through a quadriplegic? Having three ways with your wife and an overpaid subordinate? Almost getting your home foreclosed on multiple occasions? Local Democrats might be thinking at least none of our hijinks reads like a chapter out of Fifty Shades of Grey, and they have a point there, but scandal in Jackson County is so pervasive one would be hard-pressed to know where to begin impeaching.
Little in the way of good news ever comes out of county jails, but few jails anywhere have produced as much bad news as Jackson County’s. In 2013, there were only 13 incident reports; by 2016 that number had increased 10-fold, and the incidents were hard-core—escapes, beatings, rapes, attacks on officers, and a whole slew of civil lawsuits to compensate the victims.
In December, the corrections director resigned. County Executive Frank White appointed the deputy to take the director’s place. This was one of the better news days for the former All-Star second baseman. In the past few months even the hapless Royals have been getting better press than Frank White.
Here’s news of White being “banned” from managing the Jackson County anti-drug agency. There’s news of Jackson County legislators “filing a suit” against him. Here are those same legislators hiring “outside counsel” to challenge White’s budget manipulations. There’s the Dems on the legislature turning to a “Republican attorney general” to investigate White.
Then there’s news of White’s bacon being saved by a “secret financial rescue.” And here’s my personal favorite, White almost “losing his house to foreclosure for the third time since 2016.” In what other First-World county could this possibly happen?
The almost “losing his house” led to the “secret financial rescue” and involved former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders. When Sanders surprised his fans by stepping down in 2016, the legislature unanimously picked White to take the job, Pendergast being dead and thus not available.
White needed the $145,000 salary. He had not been paying his state or federal income tax for several years and owed the IRS $80,000. Of more immediate concern, U.S. Bank was about to foreclose on his Lee’s Summit home.
That is when Sanders’s law partner, Ken McClain, secretly bailed White out.
The song “I Believe,” in the Broadway hit musical Book of Mormon has this one memorable lyric, “I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.” If Jackson County was the Garden of Eden, the current status quo is totally “after the fall.”
Mike Sanders fell hard. When he stepped down, local pundits took him at his word that he did so for his family. The pundits obviously forgot this was Jackson County.
From the shenanigans making headlines at the executive level to whoppee time in the sheriff’s office, Jackson County is falling a tad short on ethical adherence.
The congenial and generally presentable county executive—he once appeared on Dr. Phil—knew the feds were closing in. The “optics” were bad even by Jackson County standards. Sanders was accused of laundering up to $100,000 in unspent campaign funds through a quadriplegic friend, kicking a little bit back to the guy, and spending the bulk on gambling junkets to Las Vegas. In the way of historic resonance, a gambling jones also did in Tom Pendergast.
Just when local handicappers had Sanders down as a shoo-in for Jackson County Sleaze-of-the-Year honors, along came dark horse Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp—former Jackson County sheriff, that is.
The tales of Sharp’s sexual misadventures will give the House report on Gov. Eric Greitens competition for the year’s most lurid prose in the non-fiction category.
What makes Sharp’s scandal arguably worse than Greitens’ is that Sharp abused his office. His alleged offenses included rewarding a mistress with trips, pay raises, and promotions. Plus, Sharp was the sheriff for crying out loud, the county’s chief law enforcement officer.
A sheriff has not gotten press this bad since Robin Hood dispatched that guy in Nottingham. The media put a perversely happy spin on the naming of Sharp’s replacement.
“Darryl Forte, who served nearly six years as Kansas City’s first African-American police chief,” the local newspaper gushed, “accomplished another historic first when he was named the first African-American sheriff of Jackson County.”
Dear editors, this is not an occasion to brag about “historic firsts.” A more useful line of inquiry would have been to explore why Forte stepped down after less than six years as KCPD chief.
And as to “diversity,” in a city/county with a black male mayor, a black male congressman, and a black male county executive, the hiring of a black male as sheriff fits no known definition of the same.
Unfortunately, real reform is nearly impossible. Jackson County has been a one-party county for as long as anyone can remember, and the local media favor that party, but the problem goes deeper. County government in a county dominated by a major city almost inevitably fades into the shadows. Almost no one knows—or cares—what this ghost government is up to.
Unlike in Wyandotte County, where there was significant overlap between county and major city, in Jackson County, there is no easy way to restructure. A fix is worth exploring, but in the meantime, the best we can do is to rename the county to reflect its reality.
“Pendergast County” sounds about right. If we name the county after anyone else, that person’s family might just sue us for slander.