Commission members spar on issue of nepotism
Commissioners Jim Johnson, left, and Jason Hightower debate nepotism and falsifying records during Monday's commission meeting. Commission Chair Danny McCullough did not attend. (Screen capture/Linn County Kansas Live Stream)
By Charlene Sims, Journal staff
MOUND CITY – On Monday, July 31, Linn County Commissioners Jim Johnson and Jason Hightower spent nearly half an hour discussing differences in opinion, mostly on issues of accountability and nepotism. Commission Chair Danny McCullough was absent
As they were getting ready to go into an executive session about a contract issue with the county mowing contractor, Scarecrow Farm Lawn Care, Johnson asked why it took the commission a year and a half to discuss the contract problem.
Scarecrow Farms has had the contract to mow the grass around all county buildings including fire stations and senior centers. At an earlier meeting, Fire Chief Randy Hegwald had brought up an issue about the mowing at the Prescott Fire Station.
He reported that he had found out that the Scarecrow mower had been mowing the old fire station which was the Prescott City Hall last year instead of mowing the current fire station. Because the current fire station grass was being mowed by the city of Prescott, no one noticed last year.
Hegwald started noticing this year when the Prescott Fire Station did not get mowed and he checked around and then reported it to the commission.
Jessica Hightower, checked into it and worked out a reimbursement from Scarecrow Farms to the county but the commissioners did not accept that last week.
Scarecrow Farm owner, Levi Fyock, was at the meeting to discuss this reimbursement with the commissioners.
Johnson asked if the commissioners knew that the grass was not being mowed when the bill was submitted? So who approves that bill?
Johnson asked Hegwald if he approved the bill? Hegwald said that the mowing had started last year before he began working for the county, so he did approve the bill because the lawn was mowed.
Johnson asked Public Works Director Shaun West if he signed off on the bill after he knew that it was not being mowed. West said that he knew that the problem was being worked out and, instead of delaying the total bill for all the locations, he did sign off on it.
Johnson asked who set up the individual places to be mowed. He said it concerned him about what else the commissioners doesn’t know about, and he continued on about who signed the bill and how he thought that was falsifying records.
Despite that charge, however, Johnson was not able to make a case that any county employee falsified records.
Fyock came up to the podium and told the commissioners that when the person at the city or at the Prescott fire department figured out the mistake, they could have come to the county or contacted his company.
Commissioner Jason Hightower asked Johnson if this is really what was bothering him.
Johnson said there were a lot of things bothering him but this was a pretty big concern to him.
“It proved my point quite well,” said Johnson. “I think our nepotism is playing a big game with all our taxpayers. When you sit there and your wife’s boss is working for us.”
Fyock interjected and said that he would be willing to pay back two weeks worth of mowing charge but asked that the commissioners understand that his company did drive down there and mow even if it was not the location they were supposed to mow.
Johnson continued on with his accusations to Jason Hightower saying, “It’s a problem. You put us in quite a predicament is the way I feel about it,” he added, apparently referring to Hightower’s election to the commission seat.
Assistant Public Works Director Jessica Hightower, is Commissioner Jason Hightower’s wife. She was employed by the county for several years before her husband was elected to serve on the commission.
Jason Hightower essentially was elected to the commission in August 2022 when he won the Republican primary for commission District 1.
At that time County Counselor Gary Thompson deemed that it was neither nepotism nor a conflict of interest because, as commissioner, Jason Hightower did not directly supervise his spouse.
Jason Hightower was elected to be the Republican candidate for the District 1 commission seat by a comfortable margin, and with no challenger from either an independent or Democratic candidate, was easily elected to office.
During Monday’s meeting, Hightower responded to Johnson’s with his own.
“What about the predicament you put us in by having us do the interviews for the shop foreman?” he asked.
“How did I do that?” asked Johnson.
Hightower said that Johnson was the one that was pushing for the commissioners to interview candidates in July for the foreman’s job. That is not usually the commission’s responsibility, although it is customary for the commission to give final approval to hire.
He asked Johnson if it wasn’t nepotism when Johnson was trying to get his handpicked candidate to get the job.
Hightower told Johnson that while he was saying that the commissioners need to have oversight, the commission did not need to be micromanaging different departments instead.
“So when we have three commissioners and one has to recuse himself,” said Johnson,“Danny and I are at odds with what is going on. So just feel free to go down that road. We’ve got problems the way we’ve got this set up.”
In a separate interview on Tuesday, Jason Hightower noted that the only time he as had to abstain from voting as a commissioner was when an issue came up about Peoples Telecommunications receiving county money to run fiber optic cable. Hightower is on the Peoples Telecom board.
On Monday, Fyock interrupted the heated discussion between the commissioners and said that he would be happy to credit back the cost for Prescott because he did not want to lose the contract with the county.
Johnson told Fyock that he should have called when he realized the problem.
“I’m just saying what I think,” said Johnson. “I don’t think you did the service and I don’t think you should get paid.”
“I am inclined to disagree with you but will be happy to credit you the money,” said Fyock. “I apologize for any turmoil I’ve created.”
After agreeing that Fyock would credit back $945 minus two mowings that Johnson agreed on, the commissioners continued on with their discussion.
“Jim, you keep throwing around the word nepotism,” Hightower said. “And the meaning of that is the practice of those in power of favoring relatives, friends or associates especially by giving them jobs.”
“Who do you appoint to your positions?” asked Hightower. “Friends, associates?”
Johnson said that he appointed people that ask or reach out about the positions.
“You don’t see how this fits in this discussion?” asked Hightower.
Johnson said he did not.
Hightower said that Johnson must have a different dictionary than he did.
Johnson continued that Hightower put the county in a difficult position because he (Johnson) and McCullough are at odds on everything. He said they shouldn’t be in this situation.
“I am just trying to stop a train wreck before it happens,” said Johnson.
Hightower said that was the reason that he ran for commissioner is because he saw where Johnson was pushing the county.
Johnson said that Hightower was making it pretty personal.
Hightower asked, “Is it not personal?”
“I didn’t do what you did to me. You did it to the whole county by doing what you did,” said Johnson, again apparently referring to Hightower’s decision to run for office.
The heated discussion ended there and Public Works Director West started his report.
Later in the meeting, rural Mound City resident Mike White, asked the county counselor and County Clerk David Lamb if in the past it had ever been considered to have a five-person or seven-person commission and how that would be done.
Thompson said a resolution would have to be made by the county commissioners to put that question on the ballot for Linn County voters.
Lamb said that at one time a resolution had been drawn up to that effect, but the commissioners decided not to pass it.
White asked Lamb and Thompson, in their points of view, what would be the benefits and the negatives of doing this.
Thompson said a benefit would be that the county wouldn’t have the situation that Johnson was talking about earlier in the meeting. If one commissioner is not able to participate in a vote, and the other two do not agree, the county is just up a tree, he said.
Lamb said that he would have to look up quorum rules, but it might be possible that two members could set on a board or be at a meeting together because they did not constitute a quorum.
Lamb said a negative would be more expense to the county because of paying more salaries and benefits.
White asked how that would look, would the county add more districts?
Thompson said that there would be new districts added. The resolution would propose the districts. Lamb said they would have to be set up so that the populations were as even as possible.
“I am certainly not for growing government,” said White.
(To view the proceedings of this meeting, click here to go to the Linn County Kansas Live Stream site. The discussion begins a few seconds after the 15-minute mark.)