The Kansas African American Affairs Commission has been without an executive director for seven months, and some say it’s because Gov. Sam Brownback’s office held up the selection process for partisan reasons.
Former commission members said the board last summer interviewed several potential leaders for the commission and chose three. The selections were presented to the governor, but none was approved.
“These people were disqualified only because they were not Republicans,” said James Barfield of Wichita, who was involved in the selection process before his commission appointment expired in June. “The administration wants to micromanage the board, to use the board not to address issues it’s supposed to address but to enhance the Brownback administration.”
The governor’s office went as far as to push for Felita Kahrs, a Republican and the wife of Jeff Kahrs, chief of staff at the Department for Children and Families, said Barfield. She wasn’t qualified because she wasn’t available to work full time, he said.
While gubernatorial appointees typically hail from his party, there shouldn’t be a political litmus test for the executive director of a minority advisory commission, critics say. On the commission, the governor controls three of the seven appointments.
Eileen Hawley, Brownback’s spokeswoman, said that she couldn’t discuss the specifics of interviews or hiring decisions but that the administration strives to select the best candidate to serve the commission and Kansas citizens.
“The primary role of the commission and its executive director is to enhance awareness of issues of concern to the African-American community and to effectively share with them information about policies, programs and available grants,” she said.
“It is important the executive director be able to work with all members of the Legislature and to collaborate with diverse communities across the state in advancing the important work of the commission.”
In response to Barfield’s comment about Kahrs, Hawley said, “Any individual may apply for a job with the commission.”
Besides the three commission members appointed by the governor, four leaders of the Legislature each appoint a commission member. No more than four members are to come from one political party.
The commission is authorized to choose an executive director subject to the governor’s approval. Typically, the commission has provided more than one name to the governor’s office.
The advisory commission was created by the Legislature in 1997. The statute says the commission “may appoint, subject to the approval of the secretary of human resources, an executive director who shall be qualified by education and experience to assume the responsibilities of such office.” The commission was moved from the human resources department to the governor’s office in 2004.
Patrick Woods of Topeka was a commission member until September and was involved in the process to pick a new executive director. Mildred Edwards resigned the executive director’s post in May and took a position at Westar Energy in Topeka.
Woods said the commission in June sent three names “to try to be as accommodating as possible to the governor’s office.” Woods was appointed to the commission by Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. Barfield was appointed by former House minority leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Brownback in 2014.
The governor’s office didn’t give a reason the commission’s selections were rejected, Woods said.
“This was not about politics on the part of the commission,” Woods said. “Our statutory duty is not to do what’s best for the governor or the Republican Party. Our duty is to recommend programs that will improve the lives of African-Americans in Kansas. If they’re not committed to that, that’s their problem, not ours.”
Glenda Overstreet of Topeka was one of the three commission selections. She is a former president of the local and state NAACP organizations and has a doctorate in business administration.
Overstreet said she had a telephone interview with governor’s office staff, including Kim Borchers, the governor’s secretary of appointments. The interview was “very abrasive,” Overstreet said.
Borchers “wanted to know why I had never supported Gov. Brownback in any of my articles,” a reference to op-ed columns she writes for The Topeka Capital-Journal, Overstreet said. “My articles are opinion that deal with issues, not supporting any candidate or person.”
Overstreet said she is a registered Democrat but doesn’t think that makes her ineligible for the position.
“We have to appoint someone the community will embrace, someone who really has a passion for working with the community,” she said.
The two other people selected by the commission were Mark McCormick, executive director of the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita, and Andrea (A’Jay) Scipio, a staff director with the commission in Topeka.
“The way it appears to me is it’s almost as if the governor is trying to dictate who they select,” Hensley said. “It’s unfortunate they’re playing politics with a very important commission.”
And, Hensley said, it’s bad timing.
“This comes at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is really picking up momentum, along with the race relations issues at the University of Missouri and KU,” he said.
Hawley said the commission has since forwarded the names of two additional selections to the governor’s office and they are under consideration.