Politics & Government

Sedgwick County Commission moves to hire familiar face as new manager without a search

Commissioners discuss Scholes, FBI

Sedgwick County commissioners David Dennis and Jim Howell have differing perspectives on the ousting of County Manager Michael Scholes and an FBI investigation into whether Scholes was targeted for cooperating with agents.
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Sedgwick County commissioners David Dennis and Jim Howell have differing perspectives on the ousting of County Manager Michael Scholes and an FBI investigation into whether Scholes was targeted for cooperating with agents.

Negotiations for the highest unelected position in Sedgwick County government will happen without a job search.

Commissioners say a search for a new county manager would be a waste of time and taxpayer money because they already have the best man for the job: Interim County Manager Tom Stolz.

Some commissioners suggested Stolz should have been chosen as county manager in 2015 over Michael Scholes, who was paid $205,427 to leave in December.

Stolz is now in negotiations with the county to drop “interim” from his job title. A vote to approve the contract could come as soon as next week.

Stolz has been in public life for 37 years. He spent 31 of those years with the Wichita Police Department, rising to deputy chief. He has spent the past six years with the county, first as the director of the Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department and then as assistant county manager of Public Safety, Code Enforcement and Emergency Management before moving into the interim deputy county manager position in 2017.

“If you would have asked me three or four months ago if I wanted this job, I would have said, ‘No way,’” Stolz said. “But this county has a tremendous core of hardworking, loyal employees who I appreciate a great deal. I want to be a part of the solution to the recent damage to the county’s reputation.”

Commissioners lobbed charges and countercharges of unethical and illegal behavior at each other in 2018 as a majority sought to fire Scholes. The county also has been involved in two FBI investigations, including one that led to Commissioner Michael O’Donnell facing federal charges of wire fraud and money laundering related to his handling of campaign funds.

The move to negotiate a contract with Stolz came during a regular commission meeting Wednesday, following an explanation by Interim County Counselor Michael Pepoon of the county manager hiring process.

Stolz was a finalist for the position in 2015, when the commission ultimately chose Scholes. The commission hired a company to find candidates, which ended up taking almost a year. A field of 85 was whittled down to four finalists.

The county manager position is the highest unelected office in county government; the manager oversees the day-to-day operations of most of the county government divisions.

“We believe if we again engage a headhunter, we’re probably looking at around $30,000 to $40,000,” Pepoon said.

The 2015 process

Wednesday’s meeting was the first time details of the 2015 search panel’s preferences were made public.

Sedgwick County did not host a public forum for its four finalists in 2015 to answer questions from the public, unlike searches for Wichita’s city manager and police chief and the Wichita school district’s superintendent.

In a controversial move, the commission picked Scholes during a closed-door meeting before making an official, public offer a week later.

The 2015 job search consisted of two different panels, a county leadership panel and a business-civic community leadership panel. The two panels interviewed four finalists and ranked them based on who they thought was best for the job, Pepoon said Wednesday.

The panels are designed to give the commission recommendations, but their choices are not binding.

O’Donnell said Stolz was the No. 1 choice for each member on the community panel.

“That’s just startling to me that every single member selected Mr. Stolz to be our top choice and our former county manager (Scholes) was selected No. 4,” O’Donnell said.

Scholes was the lowest ranked of all the interviewed candidates by that panel, according to O’Donnell.

“That was certainly news to me,” Stolz said to The Eagle after the commission meeting.

The business-civic community leadership panel that favored Stolz was chaired by Joe Johnson, Wichita Independent Business Association and included Wess Galyon, Wichita Area Builders Association; Jeff Fluhr, president of the Greater Wichita Partnership; Colin McKenney, president of Nonprofit Chamber Services; Kenya Cox, president of the Wichita Chapter of the NAACP; Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell; and Jennifer Baysinger, coordinator of the Coalition for a Better Wichita.

How the county leadership panel ranked the finalists was not discussed at Wednesday’s meeting. That panel included the county clerk, sheriff, reports director, chief financial officer, communications director, human resources director, chief information officer and the public safety director.

“Right in front of us”

By all accounts at the commission meeting, Stolz is a favorite of county employees and commissioners. Former City Councilman and Commissioner Pete Meitzner said he has developed a friendship with Stolz after working with him at the city and the county level.

Commission Chairman David Dennis said he asked every county employee to send him a note on the county manager situation and received “a flurry of emails” from people who think Stolz is the top choice.

“The entire atmosphere of Sedgwick County has changed to one of trust” under Stolz’s leadership, Dennis said.

Commissioner Lacey Cruse, who started in January, said Stolz has already won her over.

“As a young woman who is new to all of this, who could be the age of his children, he has always treated me with the utmost respect. He has treated me with the utmost respect, and there have been some people who haven’t,” Cruse said.

“I’m not really interested in spending tax dollars to find somebody we already have right in front of us,” she said.

“And from what I’ve heard, speaking with staff and community members, we already had the guy three years ago. So, we shouldn’t even be having this conversation. He should already be there,” Cruse said.

A 5-0 vote

Commissioner Jim Howell, the lone commissioner to raise concerns about hiring Stolz without a search, defended the past search process, which he was a part of.

Howell said Stolz has “done a tremendous job.” But he had reservations about the public perception of hiring without a search.

“This can’t be about friendship. We sometimes get accused of doing things for the wrong reasons. I would like to make sure that people understand that we want to do this because of qualifications and experience. Again, Tom Stolz has got tremendous qualifications and experience,” Howell said.

“I just want to say that we have made our choice based on everything, not just on personal relationships,” he said.

The motion to start negotiations with Stolz passed 5-0. Stolz said he’s willing to answer any questions and concerns about any matter related to the position and that he would not have objected to a search.

Meitzner, who made the motion to start negotiating with Stolz, said considering cost and time involved, a search should be avoided.

“(Hiring Stolz) — it’s one of those things that’s obvious,” Meitzner said. “When something’s obvious, you should move on it.”

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.

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