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Wyandotte County ushers in historic change with slate of new African American leaders

A man in a tan windbreaker stands in front of a brick wall talking. He is framed by the silhouette of a TV camera and another shape. There are TV microphones in front of him.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Tyrone Garner talks with the media following his election in November as mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.

For the first time, several key positions in Wyandotte County’s Unified Government are filled by African Americans. But can new leaders in Kansas' most diverse county turn around a long history of coverup and corruption?

Barely a month after Tyrone Garner was sworn in as mayor and CEO of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, he and the county commission selected Cheryl Harrison-Lee to be the new interim county administrator.

The appointment means African Americans, for the first time in county history, hold five key UG positions simultaneously: mayor, police chief, district attorney, county administrator and general manager of the Board of Public Utilities.

For Garner, the milestone was about more than just breaking racial barriers.

“What resonates more to me than anything else is that I see a new energy in people really caring about Wyandotte County, wanting better for Wyandotte County — wanting better for themselves, their families and their neighbors,” he said.

Other elected officials and political watchers there sense that vigor, too, but it may take more than a new set of leaders to create better government.

Daniel Serda has been immersed in Wyandotte County’s community and political scene for two decades. The city planner said residents’ frustrations have been building for a while.

“The most consistent theme that I've heard for at least the last 10 years is that, you know, people's patience was wearing thin,” he said.

In all corners of the county, residents are frustrated over high taxes and utility bills, little development in the most segregated areas, and a lack of responsiveness and accountability in the government, said Serda, who works for the Local Initiatives Support Coalition of Greater Kansas City.

For years, he said, elected officials have told residents that massive civic investments in western parts of the county will eventually pay off for everyone. But it hasn’t happened.

“We’ve gone through at least three mayoral election cycles where that’s been the central theme of those campaigns — and I don’t think it’s any accident that we had two mayors that only served single terms,” Serda said. “There’s something of a shared acknowledgement that … the political winds are changing.”

There’s also a federal grand jury investigation currently hanging over the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department, looking into former detective Roger Golubski, who is accused of exploiting and raping African American women.

A man wearing a blue police officer's uniform with a badge talks while standing at a podium.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Karl Oakman was named chief of the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department in May. He is the second African American police chief in Kansas City, Kansas, and the first since the Unified Government formed in 1997.

As KCUR reported in January, subpoenas in the case indicate the U.S. Department of Justice may be casting a wider net than just Golubski.

Given the state of things, Serda said the new set of political leaders doesn’t quite constitute a new era, but it’s a step in the right direction.

“To what extent that change is going to percolate through the entire administration remains to be seen,” he said.

An awakening, and some pushback

When Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree took his oath of office in 2017, he became the first African American elected to the role in Kansas.

His transition was not without tension.

“We had a prosecutor's office that, quite frankly, hadn't had any real change of power in 50 years,” Dupree said. “It was tough. I got a lot of negative pushback and … sadly, I even felt and saw racism.”

Most of the resistance, though, was a result of Dupree’s approach to the work. Dupree used the formation of the Conviction Integrity Unit, now the Community Integrity Unit, as an example.

“There had never been someone who went and reviewed and reinvestigated the cases, and then were willing to come out openly and say that this office messed up,” Dupree said.

His 2020 reelection is proof that at least some Wyandotte County voters are with him.

“There has been a wave that has awakened people that traditionally have not really been too much engaged with the voting process,” he said. “Wyandotte, I believe, voted in change, and they're expecting change — not just for white people or Black people or brown people, but for all Dottes.”

A man wearing a blue shirt with rolled up sleeves sits on the edge of a desk in his office. Behind him are many family photos and a shelf with law books.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
When he took office in 2017, Mark Dupree was the first Black district attorney elected in the state of Kansas. He won reelection in 2020.

Marcus Winn, a community organizer for faith and social justice nonprofit MORE2, said there are already encouraging signs coming from the Garner administration.

Last week, the mayor announced the creation of seven committees aimed at finding solutions to the county’s most dire problems, including homelessness, safety and justice. A special committee of UG commissioners will review the government’s foundational charter document, with an eye toward reform.

There’s also been movement on the Safe and Welcoming Wyandotte proposal, which would create a municipal photo ID and bar local authorities from coordinating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Tyrone Garner said during his campaign for mayor that he believed that there was the need for a Department of Justice investigation of KCKPD. We have been calling for that investigation to occur for years,” Winn said. “So I think that’s a good sign.”

But there have been discouraging signs, too. Like the $800,000 retiring administrator Doug Bach received in a separation agreement with the county.

“I think that raises some very serious questions,” said Winn. “How was that decision made? Who made it? Was there any oversight? Did anybody push back?”

Janice Witt, a perennial political candidate in the county, expressed concern on Facebook over the $85,000 spent on a Yukon Denali for the mayor’s official use.

Managing expectations

Before her unanimous appointment to the Unified Government, Cheryl Harrison-Lee worked as a municipal administrator in Gardner, Kansas, and Florida. She also serves as chair of the Kansas Board of Regents.

Harrison-Lee is the first African American administrator in Wyandotte County, but “it’s not the first time I’ve been a first,” she said.

Headshot of Cheryl Harrison-Lee wearing a white blouse with black spots.
Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas
Cheryl Harrison-Lee worked as a municipal administrator in Florida for nearly 30 years, including in Orlando and Daytona Beach.

Her experience has led her to believe the five officials filling those key roles in the UG will ultimately be judged by how they do their jobs, not by the color of their skin.

“It's not enough to be the first,” she said. “It's important to demonstrate the competency, it is important to operate with excellence and it is important to make sure that I approach it with … a high level of transparency and integrity.”

For now, Harrison-Lee has been appointed to fill the role for a little more than a year, but she will have a huge influence on peoples’ day-to-day lives; The county administrator is the Unified Government’s top manager for operations.

She is just the third county administrator since the Unified Government was established in 1997, and the first to be appointed within a month of a new mayor’s inauguration. The timing presents a novel opportunity for transformative change, observers said.

But Harrison-Lee isn’t trying to get ahead of herself.

“There is such a desire to move Wyandotte County forward, that it's gonna be important to manage expectations,” she said.

That could be a hard pill to swallow for Wyandotte County residents seeking a swift end to years of disappointing government leadership.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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