The four commissioners who voted to oust County Manager Hannes Zacharias Nov. 30 have been notably vague in their rationale for terminating the employment of the award-winning administrator. But a set of email correspondence obtained through a Kansas Open Records Act request and provided to the Shawnee Mission Post this week sheds some light on at least one issue that appears to have frustrated conservative members of the board in their interactions with the county manager’s office
6th District Commissioner Mike Brown, who defeated incumbent John Toplikar 51-48 in the November 2016 election, was just a few months into the job when a proposal to lease space at the county’s New Century AirCenter to Lineage Logistics for a cold storage warehouse began to generate significant push back from residents in the neighboring community of Gardner.
Light and noise pollution as well as safety concerns from the use of the chemical anhydrous ammonia in the cooling operations prompted a group of Gardner homeowners to organize against the proposal for the 450,000-square-foot, $81 million facility. In July, however, Brown and his six fellow commissioners gave unanimous approval to Lineage Logistics’ development proposal.
In the weeks that followed, Brown, whose massive southwestern Johnson County district includes the airport and Gardner, began receiving a string of criticism from the group that opposed the plans. He engaged with Jana Walker, one of the main protest organizers, via email Aug. 14, saying he wanted to “take this opportunity to detail a few facts needing to be brought forward” and that one of Walker’s fellow opponents of the project had “disingenuously dredged up an issue he though would scare people” about the facility in a public meeting.
Brown’s attempts to quell the controversy appeared to have been ineffective, however, and the protest started to pick up even more steam. As scrutiny of the project intensified, Brown lobbied the county manager’s office and Linear Logistics to get involved in addressing what Brown believed were citizens’ unfair and inaccurate criticisms.
“So is the [County Manager’s Office] tactic to remain completely silent?? Has anyone heard from Lineage Logistics?…” Brown wrote in an email Aug. 26. “At this point the issue isn’t going away or even slowing down…and 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 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 CMO taking any roll in this issue. Loyalty matters tremendously to me…and is returned in equal measure.”
5th District Commissioner Michael Ashcraft chimed in in response, saying he shared Brown’s concerns and that he was disappointed Lineage Logistics officials had not gotten more involved in providing a public defense of the project.
“The Commission was given direct assurance that LL would do that,” Ashcraft wrote. “I am as distressed as Mike that there is no apparent evidence that LL is attempting to offer coherent rebuttal to the misinformation in the community dialogue…”
In response to Brown, Zacharias wrote that he understood and shared “your frustration with the misinformation,” but noting that the parties had apparently agreed Lineage Logistics representatives should serve as the respondent to many of the complaints.
“I too have been frustrated by the lack of response by LL and have not been in contact with them, relying upon you and Don [Jarrett, chief counsel for the county] to maintain this connection as decided early on,” Zacharias wrote. “I am sorry you are in the ‘crosshairs’ of this conversation. Directing these residents to correspond with our office, may be a more effective strategy.”
In August, eight Johnson County residents came together as plaintiffs in a law suit filed against the county for its approval of the Lineage Logistics proposal. Emails in the chain provided to the Shawnee Mission Post show that a county attorney directed employees and members of the board to refrain from communicating about the project via county channels as the office looked to mount a defense against the suit.
“This is a friendly reminder to please refrain from emailing, texting, leaving voice messages, or creating any other written or recorded record concerning the proposed use of the property at New Century AirCenter by Lineage Logistics, including but not limited to, its use of anhydrous ammonia,” Assistant County Counselor Richard Lind wrote Aug. 29. “The attorney for Lineage Logistics called me today to inform me that he is being forwarded your email on this topic…and in his opinion the emails will be discoverable during the litigation, and will not be helpful to our defense.”
In early November, Linear Logistics announced that it was canceling the project “due to a change in customer needs,” though there was wide speculation that the controversy and law suit regarding the proposal played a large role in the decision.