A recent dustup at a meeting between Sedgwick County commissioners, staff and elected officials hinted at cracks in the foundation of how the county is organized and at tension that observers say they notice at times.
Unlike at City Hall, county department heads don’t all report to one person. At the city, department directors report to City Manager Robert Layton, whose role is akin to the CEO of a company. At the county, only some department directors report to County Manager William Buchanan.
The clerk, county commissioners, district attorney, register of deeds, sheriff and treasurer are elected and answer to voters. The appraiser, county counselor, county manager and director of public works report to the commission. The head of the planning department, chief financial officer, director of human services, assistant county manager, chief information officer, human resources director and communications and community initiatives director report to Buchanan.
On Tuesday, the clerk, register of deeds and treasurer voiced frustration that they weren’t consulted about proposed changes to financial policies such as how petty cash and credit cards are handled.
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Their frustrations in turn frustrated Buchanan.
“In the budget process to get to a zero deficit, they offered no suggestions,” Buchanan said Friday. “And here’s a policy that’s going to make us more efficient and (save us money), and they seem to be balking at that idea.”
No elected officials, except Sheriff Robert Hinshaw, offered suggestions on how to cut their departments’ budgets. Treasurer Linda Kizzire said she didn’t feel she could cut her department without affecting services.
Other department heads had no choice: Buchanan told them to cut.
Ed Flentje, professor of public administration at Wichita State University’s Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs and a former interim manager for the city of Wichita, said there likely is occasional conflict because of the county’s organizational structure.
Elected officials such as the clerk, district attorney, register of deeds, sheriff and treasurer “could even say to county commissioners, ‘I’m elected countywide, you’re just representing one-fifth of a county.’ And they do. I assure you they do. Not just here but across the state,” Flentje said.
Each commissioner represents an area, or district, of the county. There are five districts.
Register of Deeds Bill Meek said he works well with Buchanan and thinks the manager does a good job most of the time getting input from elected officials.
But on Tuesday, he told Chris Chronis, the county’s CFO, “We’ve been left on the back burner. It’s really frustrating. You’re creating policies that we can’t comply with. We’re not represented in the group.”
Elected vs. appointed
Flentje said conflict in the way the county is organized is inherent because of “the nature of those offices.”
Elected officials such as the clerk, register of deeds and treasurer, he said, “are required to follow state statutes. … The county clerk has 900 statutes mandating tasks to be performed by the county clerk. And so you put that with an up-to-date, well-organized county government, you obviously run into conflict.
“The roots of all this is that our county government was essentially organized in a Jeffersonian, Jacksonian era, where you specified the offices and made them subject to election. Our county government simply reflects that history. … The city of Wichita organization and 100-some-odd cities in Kansas reflect the progressive era and place the administration of cities under a manager.”
In the 1990s, Buchanan argued unsuccessfully that the clerk, register of deeds and treasurer were administrative jobs, and should be filled by appointment, not by election.
“It would be easier to streamline services, cut the budget if everyone reported to him,” Flentje said of Buchanan. “If you want to have more control over the budget and consistency in personnel management, you’re going to go with a streamlined organization. If you want to give lots of different folks better access, more influence, maybe you go with elected. I could see it both ways.”
Kelly Arnold, the county’s clerk, said he and other elected officials want a seat at the table when policies are set — from financial policies to personnel policies.
Staff from the register of deeds and treasurer’s offices served on a committee that reviewed the policies discussed last week. After the meeting, Chronis e-mailed a list of who served on the committee to commissioners and other elected leaders.
“This morning there was a suggestion that elected officials had not been represented,” Chronis said in the e-mail. “Here are the committee members who were invited to participate based on feedback we had received last year from department and division heads and elected officials.”
A staff member in the treasurer’s office who served on the committee said in an e-mail that The Eagle obtained that “What I remember is that it was pretty much presented to us as ‘this is the way it’s going to be.’ ”
Buchanan said it’s clear to him that the county needs to include the elected officials, not just members of their staffs.
“The lesson that we learned is that we’re going to have to invite the electeds instead of their staff. Inviting their staff does not work,” he said.
Arnold said he and others didn’t get a chance to look at the proposed policy changes until the day before commissioners were to vote. Because of concerns expressed by Arnold and others, commissioners postponed a vote on the changes until this week.
“Any time any policy is going to be possibly changed or updated, we as elected officials would like to have a chance to at least look it over,” Arnold said. “Nobody from my office was invited.”
Commissioner Richard Ranzau agreed that department heads, including those who are elected, need to see changes “sooner than the day before we vote on it.”
“The impression that I’m getting from people who don’t report to the manager, whether they’re elected or not, is that they are treated differently,” Ranzau said.
Meek noted that state statutes dictate what he, the clerk and treasurer can and can’t do. Those are the rules they must follow, they said.
One major change discussed Tuesday was no longer having employees use credit cards to buy supplies such as pens. The county is going to a “shopping cart” system in which it will contract with suppliers, and when a department needs supplies, it will order them via the shopping cart instead of sending employees out to buy them.
Proposed additions to policy also outline the consequences of misusing a county credit card.
Kizzire said it’s helpful to her staff to be able to run out to buy something they need. She also questioned how the disciplinary part of the policy would work.
“Who’s going to write us up?” Kizzire said Friday.
Meek and Kizzire said they work well with Buchanan. Arnold declined to comment when asked if there was any tension between the elected leaders and the manager.
“I’m not going to get into that,” he said.
“I feel that I personally have a good relationship with Bill and I always have had,” Kizzire said.
Kizzire also said she believes her position should be elected.
“If you had an appointed person, the public has no say on whether that person retains that position,” she said. “I think it’s better checks and balances for the county.”