Leader Too Quick to Pat Own Back

19 Aug

In the August 9 Leader, Pat Martin wrote a column about how the much-maligned press saves taxpayers money, according to researchers. He then proceeded to pat the paper’s figurative back with a bold “you’re welcome.” But both generally and in the specific example cited in the study, I don’t think the paper is owed many thank-you cards.

I believe in the general result of the study, which says that local news outlets are needed to keep an eye on elected officials and let them know that they can’t get away with shenanigans. I am reminded of this paragraph from Pat Gauen in the Post-Dispatch:

When I started as a reporter at the old Collinsville Herald, many Metro East communities had local newspapers. Some of the best, like mine, held government accountable at the grass-roots level. My investigations included a questionable city bond issue, slacking street repair crews, deficiencies in the fire department, and Medicaid fraud at a local pharmacy.

The specific issue cited in the study was negotiated bond sales by local governmental entities, which cost the taxpayers more in interest than sales that are put up for a bid. However, as I wrote in 2013, all of the school districts in JeffCo were using negotiated bond sales, according to a state auditor’s report. So in this instance, having a local paper did not save taxpayers any money on bond issues.

In fact, it was local state representative and current House majority leader Rob Vescovo who put an end to this practice by passing legislation (as part of SB 111) in 2017 requiring cities and school districts to use competitive bidding on bond issues. So in this instance he is the one who deserves some thanks for saving us money.

Another item Martin mentions from the study is that areas without newspapers have higher government wages, the theory being that administrators will raise their pay if nobody is there to alert the public. But we had a newspaper when Dianne Critchlow was raking in $260,000 per year as head of the Fox school district, so it clearly didn’t harm her earning potential. I think the whole Critchlow scandal offers an example of the Leader showing up after the fact, after the whistle has already been blown, rather than doing any investigating that uncovered wrongdoing. And even when they did show up, the paper refused to ask hard questions about the Critchlow regime, instead printing puff pieces on departing assistant superintendents.

Another example of lax oversight, I think, is in the case of county executive Ken Waller. I have compared him several times to St. Louis County executive Steve Stenger, whose unethical, combative, vindictive behavior is covered extensively by the St. Louis media. If the big city media had more interest in JeffCo (they used to have a JeffCo beat writer at the Post-Dispatch; another casualty of declining revenues, I guess), I think Waller would receive a lot more negative press. But the Leader usually just writes down what he says. In a column purporting to trace the genesis of the Waller-council feud, the paper even forgot about the politician pay raise lawsuit, which is really where the relationship blew up. On the editorial side of things, the paper even endorsed Waller in his race for county clerk (will they do so in November, though?). As for the pay lawsuit, it has been Elliott Davis from Fox 2 who is putting the pressure on participating politicians. Occasionally, local issues do rise up enough to meet the interest of the STL media, fortunately.

In short, I appreciate the need for a local watchdog media, but I don’t think we have it here. I try to do what I can, but I am just one guy who does this on the side (though I appreciate your tips, and I have found that exposing wrongdoing begets even more tips). The Leader employs several reporters to do this work and has a much larger audience. One reporter, Nate Anton, did some great work uncovering Margie Sammons’ misconduct at Rock Ambulance (which I relied upon here), leading to her forced departure, but he was subsequently sent packing by the paper. When the Leader starts uncovering wrongdoing, rather than reacting to it, I will be first in line to offer pats on the back.

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JeffCo GOP Establishment Goes 1 for 3 in Revenge Play

10 Aug

George and Janet Engelbach, who are Mr. and Mrs. GOP Establishment in the county (he dresses up like Lincoln at the national GOP convention), issued their usual set of endorsements for the August GOP primary. As longtime deans of the party machine, one would not expect them to advocate for the defeat of incumbent GOP officials. After all, Ronald Reagan’s famous 11th commandment was “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” However, in three separate races this year, they did endorse challengers. This piqued my interest.

janet tweet 2018-1

(An irony is that they claim to endorse PROVEN LEADERS but they endorse abysmal leader Ken Waller. Another irony is that they claim to endorse TRUE REPUBLICANS but threw their support behind recent Democrat Ed Page for judge).

The three endorsements of challengers are in the middle column, in the offices of Circuit Clerk, Council District 1, and Council District 7. One would think that, for them to go so far as to recommend throwing the incumbent candidates (circuit clerk Mike Reuter and councilmen Don Bickowski and Jim Terry) out of office, there must be some good reason. Those candidates must have done something bad. But no, it comes down to mere revenge, as I found out in this Twitter exchange. Here’s the key tweet:

janet tweet 2018-3

The council person she refers to is George. Let’s review a little history:

A Little History

  • 2010 – Charles Groeteke wins the GOP nomination (unchallenged) and the general election to become the first county councilman for district 4 under the new charter.
  • 2012 – George Engelbach challenges Groeteke in the primary, beats him by 4 votes, goes on to become the new councilman.
  • 2016 – Groeteke returns to challenge Engelbach in the primary and beats him by almost 400 votes, goes on to regain the council seat, which he retains to this day.

Groeteke is part of the Jefferson County Pachyderms, a group that focuses on civic engagement and voter education. It has become a sort of alternate faction in the county GOP. Members of the Pachyderms include Groeteke, Reuter (and his wife, Renee, who is on the county council), Bickowski, and Terry.

The Engelbachs, on the other hand, are part of the JeffCo Republican Central Committee, a group that is elected during the August primaries whose supposed goal is to elect good Republican leaders. We can take the Engelbach endorsements, more or less, as the official picks of the central committee. But the committee majority seems to be more interested in preserving its own control, as seen in 2012 when they rigged the local caucus after it appeared Ron Paul supporters would win the day, and when they got nailed with an ethics violation in 2013 for laundering money that was used to send out mailers on behalf of the establishment’s preferred committee candidates.

Back to Today

So, as you see, the Engelbachs started a tit-for-tat series of primary challenges against an incumbent councilman. Yet, they were so mad about 2016 that they tried to get revenge in 2018 against the three incumbent Pachyderms who they blame for helping Groeteke win back the council seat.

However, Reuter and Terry defeated their challengers (Laurie Laiben and Christian Taylor). Bickowski, on the other hand, lost to challenger Brian Haskins, so the Engelbachs have that result to celebrate.

The questions that remain are: will the Engelbachs endorse Reuter and Terry in November (probably; endorsing avowed Democrats is probably a bridge too far), and will George challenge Groeteke in 2020 (probably not, he’s getting rather old).

August Primary Election Vignettes

30 Jul

Here are some notes I would like to put out there before election day on August 7.

How Much Harmony?

The ability of county government to function harmoniously will increase greatly in 2019, when a new county executive takes the helm and Ken Waller’s reign is over. However, if elected county clerk I still think he could cause havoc, since the clerk is in the chain of approval for government payments. He could decide to gum up payments he doesn’t like, for example payments to lawyers trying to defend the county against the politician pay raise lawsuit. Never mind the hurdles he could place in front of candidates he opposes as county election authority. Given his poor record as executive, I see no reason to entrust Waller with another county office.

This paragraph from the Post-Dispatch’s endorsement in the St. Louis county executive race is eerily, wholly applicable to Waller (minus the energy and enthusiasm part):

Rarely before has regional politics witnessed the levels of vitriol and dysfunction that seem to follow St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger wherever he goes. His admirable energy and enthusiasm too often come packaged with an off-putting, confrontational demeanor. The county and region can no longer afford the abrasive style and questionable ethics that Stenger brings to the table.

Prosecutor Candidate’s DeSoto Role

From what I have seen and heard, GOP prosecutor candidate Mark Bishop, who is city attorney for DeSoto, is involved to a high degree in what happens there, more so than one would expect a city attorney to be. City attorney is supposed to be an advisory role, but my discussions indicate that he had a hand the departure of multiple police personnel. This lawsuit by former officer Mike McMunn sheds some light. This involvement probably explains why a number of former DeSoto officers openly support Bishop’s opponent in the primary, Trisha Stefanski. Given that DeSoto has been embroiled in chaos in the past few months, Bishop’s association with the city might give voters pause.

Some have also criticized Bishop for Facebook posts he has made from local courts, sometimes in his role as city prosecutor, making fun of the attire of defendants, some of whom may lack the time or money to dress up nicely for court. His personal Facebook page has recently been made largely private, so you can’t look them up, but here’s a screenshot of one post:

bishop-court

Late Bloomer

Jason Fulbright joined the GOP race for county collector in May (along with Lisa Brewer Short) during the late enrollment period made necessary when the sole GOP candidate dropped out after filing had closed. But he’s been rather slow to kick off his campaign:

  • He updated his “office sought” with the Missouri Ethics Commission in late June.
  • He wrote a Facebook post kicking off his campaign about two weeks ago.
  • His signs have started to pop up around the county only in the past 1-2 weeks, that I have seen.
  • His April-June campaign finance report shows that he raised or spent less than $500. He did spend money in mid-to-late July on signs and mailers.

It may be true that most people don’t start paying attention to elections until the last few weeks, but then again, others have already sent in their absentee ballots. Part of a campaign’s purpose is to show voters that you are a committed candidate, and in the primary, to prove that you are the person best suited to beat the candidate of the other party. In this case, that person is 32-year Democrat incumbent Beth Mahn, who has recently sued the taxpayers and hired an insider to a job in her office in record speed. I think GOP voters want to know that their candidate will go all out to win this particular race in November. Short, his opponent, started campaigning over a year ago.

We will see how Fulbright’s late campaign works out. He does have name recognition in the high-population northern part of the county due to his service on the Arnold city council and previous bid for state representative.

Interesting House Race

The race for the GOP nomination for the House seat in the 97th district is worth watching. Democrat Mike Revis won the seat in a February special election and will defend it in November against the winner of this primary. Two of the candidates, Mary Elizabeth Coleman and Phil Amato, are former Arnold city council members, and the third, David Linton, is the guy who Revis beat in February. Coleman has the most money, as well as endorsements from state senator Paul Wieland, congresswoman Ann Wagner, and…Arnold mayor Ron Counts.

In a uniony district such as this, here is how the candidates have declared on Prop A (the right to work ballot item, where a yes vote is for RTW):

 

August Primary Election Listicles

28 Jul

Here are some lists that are relevant to the August 7 primary election. Number 4 will shock you! All of these lists refer only to candidates that are facing a competitive primary. If they have no opponent, it doesn’t make much difference.

Candidates Involved in the Politician Pay Lawsuit

  • Ken Waller, GOP candidate for clerk and current county executive – he joined the pay raise lawsuit, which was filed in December 2015, in January 2017, and dropped out as a plaintiff in June 2017 under public pressure. However, he continued to try to thwart the county council’s attempts to pay attorneys to defend the taxpayers against the money grab.

Candidates Who Took the Penknife Pledge Not to Sue Taxpayers

  • Jeremy Day, GOP candidate for clerk
  • Lisa “Brewer” Short, GOP candidate for collector
  • Eric Robinson, GOP candidate for auditor
  • Terry Varner, GOP candidate for county council district 5
  • Charles Huey, Democratic candidate for auditor
  • Christian Taylor, GOP candidate for county council district 7

While the lawsuit would not pertain to council members, it is good to see the two council candidates above express their support for the anti-lawsuit cause.

The pledge is still available for candidates to sign. Get the form at the link above.

Former Democrats Running as Republicans

You can judge whether these party switches are legitimate or opportunistic.

  • Mark Bishop, candidate for prosecutor, ran for the same office as a Democrat in 2006.
  • Phil Amato, candidate for 97th district state representative, ran for county council as a Democrat in 2010.
  • Ed Page, candidate for Associate Circuit Judge Division 11, is a longtime member of the county Democratic Central Committee.
  • Joe Rathert, candidate for Circuit Judge Division 1, ran for the same seat as a Democrat two years ago.
  • Gary Stout, candidate for county executive, ran for the same office as a Democrat four years ago. The county GOP tried to kick him, but none of the aforementioned candidates, off the ballot.

Weird Cemetery Suit in Herky

23 Jul

I would like to highlight a bizarre lawsuit involving Herculaneum Cemetery, which is around the corner from Kade’s Playground there. The suit was filed way back in January of 2017, but I don’t think anyone has written about it. It is still ongoing in the courts and also involves the city and the police.

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Part of the lawsuit alleges excessive use of force by police. Another part of it alleges mismanagement of the cemetery.

Excessive Force

The plaintiff, Christina Pryor, has family members buried in the cemetery, and had complained to the city and others several times about the upkeep and finances of the cemetery. A dispute then arose over whether or not a decorative lantern could be placed on a grave. It was a question of alleged arbitrary enforcement of cemetery rules. The situation escalated to the point that police were called. The suit alleges that Herculaneum police chief Mark Tulgetske arrived in an aggressive manner, chest bumped and yelled at the plaintiff, and told her to leave. She says she responded “I am, dumbass” at which time the chief allegedly yanked her out of her car, twisted her around by the arm, and handcuffed and arrested her with another officer’s assistance, causing great pain and injuries that required surgery.

Pryor was charged with peace disturbance and resisting arrest, but the judge threw out the former charge and Pryor was acquitted after twenty minutes of jury deliberation on the latter charge.

Cemetery Mismanagement

The suit states that the cemetery, which was founded just over 100 years ago, was set up to be operated by an independent organization, known as a “benevolent corporation.” But the suit alleges that the city became the de facto owner of the cemetery in about 2009. The city hall phone number and address were listed as the points of contact for the cemetery. The couple living next to the cemetery, Ken and Edith Chailland, allegedly served as caretakers of the cemetery and accepted payments for burial plots; there are questions of the accounting for this money. They were the ones who argued with the plaintiff about the lantern, leading to the incident with the police chief.

The suit alleges that a new cemetery board was formed in 2016 that stopped the alleged misconduct. But the mayor, Bill Haggard, is still listed as the contact person (along with his cell number) on the city website. He is the chairman of the new cemetery board. Here’s what he said in 2016:

Although the cemetery is named for the city, Haggard said it isn’t city property.

“The city doesn’t own it, and the city doesn’t want to own it,” he said.

Another question about the cemetery is whether it is endowed, meaning that money exists to care for the cemetery in perpetuity. The lawsuit alleges that the cemetery is not, since it does not meet the state requirements for registration and having a trust fund. Nonendowed cemeteries are supposed to make it clear up front to plot purchasers that they are not endowed, but the suit alleges that the Herky Cemetery did not do so.

Big Lawyer

One noteworthy aspect of this case is that the plaintiff’s attorney is W. Bevis Schock, who is kind of a big-time lawyer in St. Louis. He is a hero to us all in that he argued the case that led to the state Supreme Court ruling that red-light cameras (like the ones Arnold used) are illegal. He has also handled a number of lawsuits against lying cops and prosecutors.

DeSoto Should Turn Policing Over to the Sheriff

15 Jul

This will be a rather unpopular opinion in some circles, but here goes. Herculaneum last month solicited a proposal for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) to take over policing in the city, but the city rejected the offer without much discussion (which I think was a mistake). Now, with the current chaos in DeSoto, the city will consider the idea of turning things over to the sheriff. Given the high level of public attachment to the idea of having a local police force, and a general reluctance to give up control, the city will probably reject the idea. However, DeSoto would be better off going with the sheriff.

Here are the main reasons:

Pay. With its passage of Prop P, JCSO has taken care, for the forseeable future, of the officer pay problem that is facing most police departments. They will be able to attract a sufficient number of qualified applicants to field a complete contingent of officers. If DeSoto decides to maintain its own PD, they will have to raise revenue in order to increase police salaries. The city claims it will be able to reassign $200,000 of general fund money away from parks to police when money from its recently-passed parks and stormwater tax starts rolling in, but that assumes that the city will refrain from spending 1/3 of the estimated $600,000 proceeds from the tax each year on new projects and instead use it for park maintenance and salaries, which seems unlikely.

So while it is possible that a proposal from the JCSO will cost more than DeSoto’s current police budget ($975,000 plus $260,000 for dispatching), one has to factor in the additional spending DeSoto must do to bring its department up to standard and raise salaries. Note also that, even if the DeSoto PD goes away, the city will be able to keep its own municipal court and receive ticket revenue.

Training and Experience. A number of recent departures have gutted the DeSoto PD of its experienced leaders. The department has no chief, no detective, and only one sergeant. As Sheriff Dave Marshak indicated in his note, the PD is not up to date on policies and procedures, creating increased risk of liability. The lack of an experienced detective mean victims of violent crimes are less likely to receive justice. The sheriff indicated that, even with the needed money, it would take a long time to bring the PD up to acceptable standards. This is not a knock on the officers in DeSoto, just a consequence of high turnover and low budgets.

Leadership. While they do not seem to recognize this, city leadership is largely responsible for the current issues at DeSoto. In discussions, I have heard blame directed at several different people in city government, and there are others not currently in government who caused problems in their day. What are the chances of this leadership changing any time soon? I have my doubts. There has been some turnover lately, but it does not seem to me like enough has changed to warrant confidence that the city can turn things around and stop driving police officers out of the department.

Misconceptions

I have heard a number of misconceptions from the public in Herculaneum and DeSoto relating to a sheriff switch that I would like to address.

Deputies will have to come all the way from Hillsboro. First of all, deputies don’t sit in Hillsboro waiting for calls, they are out on the roads in whichever of the three zones in the county they are assigned to. Second, the Herky proposal included officers assigned exclusively to the city. The DeSoto proposal will undoubtedly include the same provision.

The JCSO would be spread too thin. If the JCSO takes over policing in DeSoto, the city will pay for the privilege. The JCSO will be able to use this money to hire more officers. Maybe even officers from DeSoto. Therefore, both the city and the unincorporated county will have a sufficient number of deputies on patrol.

Response times are too long. It is true that in the past, due to salary issues, the JCSO did not have enough deputies, and therefore it would take a long time for deputies to respond to low-priority calls. However, with the passage of Prop P, JeffCo has begun hiring many new deputies, even though the tax hasn’t kicked in yet. According to a Facebook post today, the JCSO will be at full strength in two weeks for the first time in 20 years. Response times in the unincorporated county will be improving. And this would be a moot point for DeSoto anyway, since it would have its own dedicated deputies, as I said above.

Probably Not Gonna Happen

In the end, DeSoto will almost surely keep its own police department and its own dispatchers. That is the politically smart choice, because that’s what the vocal contingent of DeSoto residents seems to want. And councilman Clayton Henry has a double conflict of interest in keeping the PD (his wife’s dispatcher job and city ammo purchases from his business). But I think this decision will lead to the city simply muddling along for the next several years or more. I also predict that the city will take this outcry of approval for a hometown police department as an opportunity to propose a tax hike for law enforcement. So get ready for that. However, city leadership will change little, so it is quite possible that good cops will continue to depart from the city at a high rate.

Suggestions for Next DeSoto Council Meeting

12 Jul

At the DeSoto city council meeting Tuesday night, which was belatedly moved to the gym at Vineland Elementary, the council voted on a deal to reimburse the county sheriff’s office for supervising the DeSoto police department for the short term. This is after the city police chief, Joe Edwards, resigned last week. The residents of the city also had the chance to make their feelings known during the comment portion of the meeting. Here’s a TV news report on the proceedings.

The next meeting, on July 16, will also be held at the gym. Before that meeting occurs, I have some advice for the city.

1. Have more than one microphone. There was a mic at a podium to the right side of the council table where speakers would stand, but nothing at the council table. So when the council was going through its motions and votes, nobody could hear anything. This led to a bit of an uproar when the council was voting on the temporary contract with the sheriff. Some in the crowd were mad that voting was happening before public comment, but others were mad they couldn’t hear what the council was doing. The sole microphone was attached to a portable speaker that was stashed in the corner. Move that speaker out and turn it up next time.

2. Don’t let the city attorney run the show. I have been to meetings of several county bodies, but have never seen the attorney (in this case, Mark Bishop, who is running for county prosecutor) play such an active role. He got up to introduce the contract to the council, and even “strongly urged” the council to approve it. Meanwhile the city manager didn’t speak at all. When the aforementioned uproar took place, Bishop was the guy trying to get the crowd to quiet down. The mayor spoke at the beginning and the end, but he’s gotta take charge and put Bishop, who is being sued by a recently-resigned Desoto officer, in the corner.

3. Talk about the actual problems with the city and police department. At the beginning of the meeting, Mayor Rich McCane gave some extended remarks in which he blamed Ferguson, Senate Bill 5 (which stopped cities from making excessive profits from writing tickets), wages, and other things for the current problems with the police department. He only vaguely referred to “internal issues” during his talk, but managed once again to whinge about the thwarted annexation of the Union Pacific property, from which he hoped to gain new revenue. Conversely, during the public comment time, residents spoke about leadership being the main problem. Several relatives of former cops spoke, saying expressly that money was not the issue. The two biggest applause lines of the night were:

  • “We need a change in leadership” and
  • “The chief (Edwards) destroyed the department”

DeSoto operates under a ridiculous “absolutely no comment” rule when it comes to personnel, which they claim is due to state law, but I believe they are going overboard. There is no reason a longtime city manager should get fired, like David Dews did, and the city provides absolutely no reasoning whatsoever. The people who paid for Dews’ big severance deserved to know what happened, and in the current situation, the people also deserve straight talk. If city leaders were as worried about ethics as they were about total silence on personnel issues, then they wouldn’t be in this mess right now.

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