Dismissed for Competence?

Hannes Zacharias helped his Kansas county win national recognition for a variety of programs. The county commissioners had nothing but praise for him. Then they fired him.
by | February 2018
Hannes Zacharias, center, at a Kansas Mortgage Registration Roundtable. (Flickr/kcrarphotos)

The old governmental adage that personnel is policy has rarely been demonstrated as clearly as it recently was in Johnson County, Kan. There, a bare majority of the county commissioners voted to oust County Manager Hannes Zacharias, claiming they wanted to pursue new policy directions. The fact that Zacharias was widely considered a star performer didn’t save him.

Zacharias had been county manager for eight years before his tenure came to an end at the start of this year. Before that, he had served Johnson County in other roles for eight years. Under his leadership, the county had earned national recognition for programs ranging from juvenile justice to parks and recreation. A month before his ouster, Zacharias won a management award from the University of Kansas. Even the commissioners who decided it was time for him to go had nothing but good things to say about him. “I’m not going to offer anything but personal praise for Hannes,” says Commissioner Michael Ashcraft.

So why fire him? The answer is that Ashcraft and his colleagues wanted more control. They wanted to have more say over agencies and budgets, rather than just signing off on options the county manager offered them. They also wanted to lower the county’s tax rates and limit regulation -- something they felt couldn’t easily be done with Zacharias at the helm. “I do not believe the philosophy going forward should be that we can only do less with less,” Ashcraft says. “We should be able to do more with less. That should be what we’re continually striving for.”

Johnson County, which is just across the Missouri River from Kansas City, Mo., is the largest and most prosperous jurisdiction in Kansas. It’s generally had higher taxes, but also better services, than most other places in the state. Business owners and individual taxpayers are satisfied with the mix, says Tom Robinett, vice president of government affairs for one of the local chambers of commerce. “From our membership, we heard quite an outcry,” he says of Zacharias’ termination. “We just thought it was a big mistake.”

More than 550 employees, or about 15 percent of the county workforce, signed an open letter praising Zacharias and lambasting the decision to fire him. “In 28 years, this is the most disappointing vote I’ve been part of,” says Commissioner Jim Allen. “When it came to the vote, this was the first time I ever said in thousands of votes not only no, but hell no.”

Johnson County is split politically between a more liberal northern half and a more conservative southern half. It was the commissioners from the south that wanted Zacharias gone. Despite the county’s wealth, it will face increased budget pressures due to a fast-growing population of senior citizens and clusters of homeless people. A majority of the commissioners would like to rein in future costs in a county whose budget recently topped $1 billion.

There’s another problem. The firing came at a particularly tough time. A majority of the county commissioner seats are up in November. That might make potential manager recruits skeptical about long-term security in the job.