Hannes Zacharias’ exit from Johnson County signals an undeniable new shock wave

Jana Walker didn’t get any applause for her remarks during a recent public comment session supporting County Manager Hannes Zacharias. The people jamming the commission’s hearing room were more interested in slamming the four commissioners who had voted against renewing his contract, and warning about the consequences of what they saw as a conservative political power play.

If they’d listened to Walker, though, they might have learned something about the real reasons behind his departure.

“I wish all of you would have been here for the past five or six months and heard all the citizens that have come and spoken here week after week,” she told the crowd. “There’s a huge concern with transparency, and a change needs to happen.”

Walker was one of those citizens. She had appeared faithfully at many commission meetings, along with other neighbors, begging the commission to rescind its approval of a cold-storage plant, one that uses anhydrous ammonia, slated to be built at New Century Air Center.

Now she was part of a group, organized by adjacent landowner Mike Jensen, and its members were conducting a master class in how to shame their county representatives. They’ve been relentless, appearing at each commission meeting, regardless of whether their item was on the agenda. They’ve conducted press interviews. And they’ve filed a lawsuit.

All of which has made it hot for the commission members who voted in favor of the Lineage Logistics plant. Some of that heat had nowhere else to go but the county manager.

And things are about to get hotter. 

The decision to send Zacharias away at the end of the year was an earthquake in the usually low-drama zone of Johnson County politics. No one expected it. And the reasons were less than clear. Zacharias’ own statement was hardly revelatory: “As expressed to me, the majority wants to take Johnson County in a more fiscally and socially conservative direction, impose more direct oversight by the commission over county operations, and adopt a more ‘laissez-faire’ attitude toward regulation. Although this governmental decision runs somewhat contrary to the County Charter, I respect it.”

The reaction was immediate. County employees and other supporters of Zacharias crowded into the hearing room the next week for a comment session that felt more like a resistance rally.

Patty Logan, of Leawood, spoke on behalf of Stand Up Blue Valley, a school-support group. “We find laughable his [Commissioner Steve Klika’s] assertion that he did not allow politics to enter into his decision,” she said. “You may put your political ambitions and career for a handful of anti-tax voices ahead of your district now, but be reminded that voters are more engaged than ever before. We will not tolerate elected representatives who do not actually represent us.”

A few days later, Stand Up Blue Valley withdrew its support of Klika, who had voted against renewing the contract. Klika is a former board member of the Blue Valley school district.

Zacharias said he drew his conclusions about the conservative direction from recent commission action cutting money for public arts and because of a lack of support by some members on diversity efforts. 

But it’s hard to find anyone else on the inside who really thinks the commission will fall in line with the no-new-taxes crowd. Of the quartet who voted out Zacharias — Jason Osterhaus, Mike Brown, Michael Ashcraft and Klika — Klika has taken the most heat. 

But Klika is an unlikely standard bearer for conservatives. A couple of years ago, they were promising retribution for his involvement as a key player in rehabbing the old King Louie building into a county museum and arts center. At one point, he supported the appointment of Dr. Allen Greiner as public health commissioner, even though he considers himself anti-abortion and the doctor was opposed by Kansans for Life. (A different, disturbing story about Klika surfaced two weeks ago.)

The citizens’ group’s outcry against Lineage Logistics wasn’t solely responsible for Zacharias’ ouster. Observers point to a cluster of reasons, including dissatisfaction with the way public art is decided upon, and new commissioner Mike Brown’s first vote. But the group is part of a trend, and the Zacharias vote laid bare the stark differences between the county’s suburbs and the rural areas beyond. Where suburban voters see good schools, parks, trails and a triple-A bond rating, rural residents are more likely to remember the hoops they had to jump through to divide a lot or establish a business on their property. 

For months, county commissioners have been watching a parade of rural residents who complain that their issues are poorly understood. There was a dispute over whether to allow a farm winery in rural Olathe. The owner of that property, Kirk Berggren, eventually got a judge to rule that state law allows the winery, but before that happened, he said that county staffers appeared exceptionally watchful of his operation, as though looking for small violations.

A jump in property valuations has also created dismay, particularly in rural areas that are growing, such as Spring Hill and Gardner. Zacharias’ ouster was foreshadowed last summer, when commissioners narrowly reappointed appraiser Paul Welcome on a 4-3 vote, citing constituent complaints about the valuations.

As recently as December 14, commissioners heard from several farmers who said they weren’t being listened to about road construction they said did not meet the county’s own specifications on compaction.

Then there’s Lineage Logistics. Commissioners were hopeful last June about the prospect of the big new commercial resident leasing county land at the air center. 

After the requisite trip through a zoning board and a public hearing, commissioners approved the plan for the cold-storage facility. But Mike Jensen and some other neighbors were unhappy, saying the plan was ramrodded through.

Jensen said the county ruined his land years ago because it wasn’t tough enough on drainage requirements for Kimberly-Clark, his former neighbor. Runoff from Kimberly-Clark silted in his pond and created a gully through his property, he said. He also said the county played games with the rules on the protest petition, using a hook-shaped strip of land that separates his property from Amazon.com to keep some neighbors from being qualified to sign.

He brought friends and neighbors to the commission hearing, but their objections didn’t stop the project. The lawsuit filed later was the first mention of the anhydrous ammonia Lineage would use as coolant, but it wouldn’t be the last. County and corporate officials said an ammonia leak in the proposed closed-loop system was highly unlikely. Nevertheless, the idea that an ammonia fog could someday descend toward the Gardner Lake neighborhood and a county detention center galvanized neighbors from farther away than just the immediate area. They signed petitions asking to become plaintiffs in the suit. And they began showing up every week, along with films of ammonia spills, to ask commissioners to reverse themselves.

The timing was perfect. Over in Leavenworth County a citizens’ group was earning national attention for its opposition to a proposed Tyson Foods chicken-processing plant that also would use anhydrous ammonia. That plan eventually fizzled; the company announced that it would put its Kansas plan “on hold.” 

Pressure from Jensen’s group began to make commissioners uncomfortable, particularly Mike Brown. Since the Lineage plant would be in his district and he had voted for it, some of the most pointed public comments were aimed at him.

Because of the lawsuit, commissioners became tight-lipped when residents came calling. But behind the scenes, some were angry, calling on the company and the county manager’s office to do more to counter Jensen’s group. Brown, who would later vote against Zacharias, was particularly upset. 

In emails obtained by Jensen’s group, Brown had some words for the county manager’s office. 

“So is the [county manager’s office’s] tactic to remain completely silent??” he wrote in one email to the staff. “I’m on the front line and can hear crickets behind me. Again, my continued support of LL fades more with each minute that passes and I’ve heard from Hannes repeatedly that the CMO is here to support me as a commissioner and for me to hand off the tough stuff to them to handle but I certainly don’t see the CMO taking any roll [sic] in this issue. Loyalty matters tremendously to me … and is returned in equal measure.”

Brown did not return calls for this story. 

Lineage Logistics eventually tabled its plan for a new cold-storage plant. Jensen has not dropped the lawsuit, though. He says he doesn’t want to risk not being able to bring it back if the company changes its mind. “We don’t trust them,” he tells The Pitch.

That lack of trust is what has driven him to the next step — the nonprofit activist group, which he says will represent others who feel similarly wronged.

The Concerned Citizens for Responsible Government already existed to fight the Lineage plant. But Jensen sees its potential for something more. He’s in the process of filing for CC4RG to become a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, with the purpose of helping other county residents who don’t feel they’re being heard.

“Unfortunately. I’m like a lot of other people,” he says. “We don’t get too concerned about what government’s doing until it affects us. I don’t feel like I can, with a clear conscience, stick my head back in the sand now that I’ve seen the way some things are being done.”

The group will have Daniel Hellweg, a political consultant from Lenexa, as its executive director. 

The idea isn’t to channel any one party ideology, Hellweg says, but rather to operate as a kind of consumer protection group. “The most beautiful thing about this is that Democrats and Republicans can come together to see that development is done in a responsible way,” he says. “It’s not a partisan organization.”

Jensen has more than 1,000 names on his membership roll — enough to check agendas and station observers at county meetings. He wants to use the group to speak up for people who feel like they are being run over by the government structure.

“Everything is done bang, bang, bang, fast, fast,” when it comes to development in the county, he says. “What they really want is to do it without the public being informed.”

The nonprofit will carry a bigger microphone than one person at a public hearing, he adds. Developers spend a lot of time selling officials on their proposals — which, Jensen says, can lead county officials to overlook pitfalls. When public input is limited to “an open public comment session where you gripe for five minutes about a decision made a year ago,” he says, “that is not a meaningful process. In fact, it’s no process at all.”

For now, CC4RG’s focus is trained on county issues. But because a 501(c)(4) can raise money and lobby, Jensen’s outfit could eventually become more involved in politics and in city governments. Though designated “social welfare” groups by the Internal Revenue Service, 501(c)(4)s in recent years have been wielded to advance political interests. As CC4RG grows and raises money, it could spend its resources to bring lawsuits, canvass neighborhoods or support candidates. “That’s something the board hasn’t made a decision on but we don’t want to remove it from the table, either,” Hellweg says.

The 501(c)(4) groups are special for another reason: They don’t have to disclose donors to the public. Jensen and Hellweg demur when asked if, in the interest of transparency, they would publish a donor list. Jensen says he wants to, but both say they’d have to hear counsel about the legal ramifications before making a decision.

Jensen maintains that he personally likes all the commissioners and just wants to see things done right. “The county doesn’t do everything poorly,” he says. “Some things they do really well. They miss the mark in development, transparency and openness, and I feel they miss it badly.”

That message hasn’t been lost on some commissioners. Asked about their votes on Zacharias, both Ashcraft and Klika say the county needs to improve how it deals with citizens. “People have that fear of government,” Ashcraft says. He describes some people’s experience of county government as a “constant drip, drip, drip” of hassles. Sewer-hookup fees, vehicle registration policy, questioning a property valuation — most processes seem made to be dreaded. 

Klika, too, says his dissatisfaction with the way such things as agritourism have been handled played into his feelings on the county manager’s office. “People will forgive you for a decision if they can be involved in the process,” he says. “I think we’ve lost some of that.”

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