A Jackson County judge ruled Friday night that control of the violence prevention group COMBAT will fall to the county prosecutor -- a ruling that makes official what the county legislature first attempted to do last year.
In a statement, Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said she was pleased with the ruling, which she hopes will mark the end of a "lack of certainty in recent months" that has "been difficult for COMBAT administration, grantees and the public."
Questions about who should control the $19 million anti-drug sales tax program have spurred a year of infighting in the county.
The county legislature first proposed the idea of transferring power last October, when they suggested Baker be tasked with appointing a new executive director for COMBAT, which had been County Executive Frank White's responsibility since 2017.
Then in December, the legislature passed an ordinance to move control of the program from White's office to Baker's. White vetoed the ordinance, but the legislature overrode his veto 9-0. The ordinance passed in December, temporarily handing COMBAT over to Baker. White continued to fight the ordinance, arguing it was illegal.
In January, the legislature sued to enforce the ordinance, as White refused to cede control of the program. Ultimately, the issue went to court, during which time a judge enforced a temporary order barring White and his office from interfering with the prosecutor's control over COMBAT.
The legislature put aside $250,000 of taxpayer money to pay for outside legal counsel for the legislature, prosector and executive. White argued the ordinance was illegal, and asked a judge to dismiss it.
But the judge's ruling Friday could bring an end to all of this.
In a statement, White's Chief of Staff Caleb Clifford said White will not comment until he has an opportunity to consult with the outside legal counsel hired by the county, likely next week.
"However, as he has said from the beginning, the most important issue is not who oversees COMBAT, but to ensure COMBAT achieves its mission of creating a strong, safe community," Clifford said. "His concern and focus will remain on the unacceptable levels of violence and drug use in our community despite the amount of taxpayer dollars that have been spent to curb it. Regardless of this or any subsequent rulings, the County Executive will remain committed to doing everything in his power to address these truly life and death issues."
Baker's statement Saturday indicated she wasn't wasting time getting started. She said her office has already begun the process of retaining a financial audit of COMBAT funds, which has been a sticking point in the feud in the county, as the legislature called into question how White was directing the substantial funds. She added that Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway has agreed to made a performance audit of the program a priority.
"I will oversee this program in a straightforward and transparent manner," Baker said.
Next up on her list will be hiring an executive director, a position that has been vacant for more than a year. Baker said she will begin the search immediately, appointing a selection committee to interview candidates.