Perry Says She Has No Conflict, But Here’s Exhibit A

17 Jun

The Missouri Attorney General, in response to a complaint, wrote to county council and Jefferson R7 school board member Tracey Perry stating that she has a conflict of interest in holding those two positions. Legally, the AG stated that she effectively resigned from the board when she joined the council. They gave her 30 days to respond to this, and Perry says she is going to fight the ruling.

Perry also claims in an interview that she has no conflict of interest. That would only arise, she says, if three or more R7 board vacancies arose at once and the county executive had to make appointments to fill them, as happened in Hillsboro R3 recently. She would recuse herself in that event, she says.

But I say she does have a conflict of interest, and here is Exhibit A to prove it.

Zoning Proposal

In March 2019, the county planning and zoning commission (P&Z) and subsequently the county council considered a rezoning request from an applicant wanting to build a mini-storage and RV storage business on Highway 61, across the road from Plattin Primary School in the R7 district. Here’s the location:

r7 storage proposed site

As a councilwoman, Perry participated in the final decision on whether this proposal would be allowed to proceed or not. And as a board member, she heard in detail what R7 leadership thought of the idea. This is from the complaint filed with the AG (emphases mine):

During the March 2019 Jefferson R-VII School Board Meeting, a discussion item was brought up by School Board Member Wayne Surratt, who noted that Ms. Perry could not comment due to her position on the County Council to avoid a conflict of interest. The discussion was the position of the Jefferson R-VII Board of Education and the upcoming County Council vote regarding the rezoning of the property directly across from Plattin Elementary. The recommendation of the Board was to support Ms. Perry and vote against the rezoning of the property directly across Plattin Elementary. Several points were made to the concern for student safety and traffic increase near the school.

Ms. Perry voted with the School Board’s recommendation to defeat the proposed rezoning. Ms. Perry was later publicly thanked by Mr. Wayne Surratt on his Facebook account named ‘Smart Development for R7.’ He posted, “Thank you councilwoman Tracey Harris Perry for representing our interests tonight at the county council meeting. The rezoning was defeated. It was slightly confusing as a positive, so the measure passed on a 5-1-1 vote, but the measure was a denial. There will not be a mini storage or RV storage on that site. Win one for the community!”

In addition to the discussion at that meeting, superintendent Clint Johnston (who Perry helped place on administrative leave) and Surratt (Perry’s crony in that matter) spoke out against this proposal at the March 14 P&Z meeting, as reported in the Leader. Surratt also voiced his disapproval for the project at the March 25 county council meeting. In addition, councilman Brian Haskins, the only person to vote for the rezoning, stated at the council meeting that he walked the property with Perry. At the council meeting, Perry introduced the resolution (page 5) to deny the rezoning request and moved to bring the resolution to a vote. And she voted against the project. So we know that Perry was involved in discussions about this project, knew the project well, knew full well how the school district felt about it, and helped vote it down.

Therein Lies the Conflict

What we don’t know, and what is impossible to tease out, is whether Perry voted against the zoning proposal with the county’s interests in mind or R7’s (or her own political concerns with each constituency). This is the definition of a conflict of interest.

She might argue that A) everyone else except Haskins voted against it too, or B) the county’s and school district’s interests were the same in this situation. But those points are irrelevant. I pulled this from Wikipedia:

“A conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.”

In this case, we don’t know if Perry’s primary interest (which in this case should have been her role as councilwoman) was unduly influenced by her secondary interest (her role as R7 board member) as it pertains to this issue. It is easy to make the argument that this project would be good for the county but bad for the school (from the administration’s perspective). I think the county needs this kind of business, especially the RV storage part of it. Haskins and the representative of the project, Dan Govero, made the points that the proximity of this site to the interstate is ideal for this type of business, that traffic going in and out of the business would not occur at the same times as school traffic, and that this use will generate less traffic than other uses, including even housing. I think R7 doesn’t like this business because 1) they’d rather have nice open land next to them, 2) barring that, they’d rather have expensive houses that would generate big property taxes, and/or 3) they think a storage business is trashy.

Perry’s Response

In an interview with KJFF Radio that contained hubris, diversions, and claims of victimhood, Perry addressed the zoning issue. I will transcribe her response for you (emphases mine):

For example, we had someone that wanted to come up and put some storage units in R7 area. The school board made a comment that they wanted to talk about it, well the school board is not in control of planning and zoning and changing and that property. If it was the school board’s property they wanted to put up a storage unit, that’d be a different story. The only problem in that situation is they cannot present to me any information about what they feel is right or wrong if it’s already gone up in front of a planning and zoning committee because I can’t hear evidence that they may present in a hearing that may come up in front of the county council so I would have to leave the room, and just let them know I can’t hear this information. I can only hear this information before any petition has been filed or before it goes up to planning and zoning, so it’s a matter really of education, so it’s not necessarily a conflict, it’s just that I have to abstain, they wouldn’t make any decisions at the school level to wanna change any of that stuff.

This is 100% BS, because Perry did hear what the superintendent and school board thought about the project. She was at the March school board meeting where this was discussed (which took place AFTER the P&Z meeting, by the way), and she didn’t leave the room. And it is highly likely that she knows about Johnston and Surratt speaking at the P&Z meeting. Furthermore, she says in the interview that if a conflict were to arise, she could just abstain. She didn’t abstain here. She voted. She failed her own ethical test.

This just shows her total lack of self-awareness as it related to the incompatibility of her two offices. She also explains in the interview that she’s going to explain to the AG why they are wrong to say she must leave the school board. She says in the interview that the ruling doesn’t apply because Jefferson County has a charter government now, and not the old county commission system. As if the AG doesn’t know that? As if she knows better than the experts in Missouri law?

Who knows how long this process will drag out, but I think it is safe to say that Perry will soon be off of the R7 school board, one way or another.

 

 

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Tax Hike Haskins and His Park Proposal

7 Jun

Jefferson County councilman Brian Haskins (1st District, GOP) has unveiled a plan to ask voters to raise taxes in the county to fund a 650% 550% increase in the budget of the county Parks Department, according to the May 16 Leader. This appears to be all in the name of building a recreation center in the lightly populated west part of the county (he talks about building other parks, but it is clear that the rec center is his main goal). His 3/8-cent sales tax would increase the county parks budget from $1 million per year to $6.5 million, with another $2.5 million going to JeffCo municipalities to use for their parks. Of note, Haskins did not ask the cities if they want this tax, although we know that JeffCo city politicians will never turn down a tax hike.

Haskins uses a bit of false equivalency and false math to argue for parks. First he compares expenditures by cities on their parks to what JeffCo, an unincorporated county, spends. He says Farmington spends $189 per person while JeffCo spends $4. Let’s compare:

Farmington population: 18,500

Unincorporated JeffCo population: 158,000 (approximate)

I’m not sure where he gets the $189 number, but presumably his park calculations for Farmington include expenditures on the Civic Complex there, which is projected to lose $1.4 million in 2019. The subject of unprofitability of rec centers came up at a council meeting when this topic was discussed (with Arnold getting a mention for its money loser), but Haskins rejected the idea that rec centers need to operate in the black, since we don’t ask roads or libraries to turn a profit.

If JeffCo spent $189 per person, our parks budget would be $30 million. Is that what Haskins wants?

How Many Parks?

Haskins also states the canard that JeffCo only has two playgrounds and 1.5 miles of trails. Anyone who lives here knows that is preposterous. I know what he is doing; he is citing only those playgrounds/trails that belong to the county government. But guess what? JeffCo also has the following:

  • Two state historic sites and a state park (not counting Dunklin’s grave)
  • Several state parks just outside our border
  • Parks in nearly every municipality in the county, with trails and playgrounds.
  • Several conservation areas (like Glassberg, Labarque Creek, Valley View)
  • Many schools with playgrounds

All of these are available to residents of unincorporated JeffCo. To say that these don’t count, and so we have to hike taxes to build county-operated parks, is bogus.

I will also note that Eureka has a rec center. It is 15 minutes away from High Ridge, 20 from Cedar Hill. A JeffCo family can join it for $65 per month. Fenton and Arnold also have rec centers that are not far away from the northwest area of the county where Haskins wants to build his own version.

So Many Taxes

Taxes are going up every year around here. There have been from 4 to 12 tax hike proposals on April ballots in recent years across the county. And most of these tax hikes pass because the people that benefit most (e.g. fire fighters and teachers) show up to vote while few others do. The county is talking about building a new jail and courthouse that will require funding. We can’t be passing giant tax hikes at the same time so Haskins can have a rec center in a lightly-populated part of the county.

In an editorial, the Leader took the predictable position that the council should just let the people vote. But we are not a direct democracy. We elect representatives to (hopefully) make good decisions for us. They should reject this bad idea, not punt it to the ballot. Besides, JeffCo voters have been making some poor decisions lately as it relates to tax hikes. Let’s not give them (us?) another chance.

Claims from Wife of Pevely Alderman Have No Corroboration; Leader Article on the Accusation is Fake News

28 May

The May 23 Leader contains a report of an accusation by Diane Coulson, wife of Pevely alderman Larry Coulson, that former alderman Dave Bewig threatened her and/or her husband. Mayor Steph Haas used this threat as a pretext to expel Bewig from the May 20 board meeting and ban him from future meetings. The Leader describes the accusation as a he-said, she-said kind of event, quoting the Coulsons’ accusation from the police report and Bewig’s denials to the paper. However, the police report contains several items that call into question the reliability of the Coulsons. The Leader ignored all of these items.

First of all, here is the police report. Go read it. I will wait.

Here are the items that I believe speak to the lack of trustworthiness of the Coulsons:

  • They made three contradictory statements about who Bewig threatened to “shoot in the back of the head.” First it was Larry, then it was Diane, then it was “not sure.”
  • Diane twice lied (or was very confused) in front of a police officer (Greg Long) about whether she had been talking to Long about filing a police report. Long stated in the report that Diane said she was going to get a restraining order. Then the mayor, and later her husband, approached her. She told both of them that she was talking to Long about filing a police report. Long denied this both times, since she had only mentioned a restraining order, and he explained the difference. Diane continued to insist that she told the cop she wanted to file a police report. Alternatively, it is possible that Diane was confused about the difference between a police report and an order of protection. But given that Larry had been a cop, I doubt it.
  • Diane stated twice to officer Long that SHE was going to kill Bewig.
  • Despite several people, including police officers, being nearby when Bewig supposedly made his threat, nobody else heard him say it. And Dave Bewig is not one who speaks softly.

Given these facts, we have ample reason to doubt the Coulsons’ claims. One could explain this as Diane merely mishearing something, but given the way the mayor and her cronies jumped at the chance to use the report to their advantage, this starts to look like a manufactured stunt. The way that the Bewig eviction from the May 20 meeting played out adds additional reason to believe this is all a stunt. I will explore that in a later post.

Note also that no restraining order has been served against Bewig, so either the judge denied it or the Coulsons did not follow through on their announced intention to pursue one. Bewig filed for a restraining order against Diane, but he was denied.

The reporting officer stated that she wants the incident forwarded to the county prosecutor “due to this incident involving two Alderman (sic).” It is clear that the officer is doing this because of the political sensitivity, not because of the abundance of evidence of a crime. But city attorney Sean Westhoff used that statement to justify the expulsion of Bewig.

But when is Diane Coulson going to be banned from meetings? She is the only person in this incident for whom we have proof of a stated threat of violence. Haas said “we will not tolerate that type of behavior,” but apparently she is very selective of what she will and will not tolerate.

It is true that Bewig was impeached by the board in 2015 (under questionable circumstances), and that he can be abrasive and use salty language, but Pevely can’t ban him from board meetings based on such weak sauce as this.

Leader Fake News

Now, I don’t use the term “fake news” lightly, but we know that the Leader reviewed the police report described above, as it is mentioned in the article. How is it that the Leader failed to mention all of the evidence that serves to discount the Coulson claim? The paper included the above-mentioned statement by Westhoff in the article, but said nothing of the numerous holes in the Coulson story. In fact, the Leader takes two of the contradictory statements from the Coulsons about who was threatened, and treats them as two separate claims:

According to the report, Coulson’s wife allegedly heard Bewig threaten her husband.

Larry Coulson told police that Bewig “has continued with a course of conduct over the past year” that is a “direct attempt to intimidate a city official.” [Note – no evidence is provided to back this up.]

A police officer is quoted as saying Diane Coulson told him that Bewig had threatened her, too.

The fact is that Larry told one officer that Diane heard Bewig threaten Larry. But Diane told another officer that Bewig threatened her. These are not separate incidents, these are two descriptions of the same incident. Instead of treating this as a contradiction, the Leader treats it as a pattern of conduct by Bewig. They completely twisted evidence that makes one party look bad 180 degrees to make the other party look bad. Five days after the incident, Diane told police she wasn’t sure who Bewig threatened.

I made a comment the other day on my Facebook page that certain county politicians and officials should donate generously to the Leader‘s plea for donations, in thanks for all the friendly, favorable coverage the paper gives them. Mayor Haas was one politician I mentioned. Give the way the Leader article on these “threats” is spun against Bewig, Haas should give an even larger donation.

Pevely Officer Blows The Whistle Again

19 May

On the same night that the Pevely board of aldermen voted to fire two police officers (the one who assaulted a detained man and the one who helped cover it up), they also voted 6-0 to give officer Joe St. Clair a letter of commendation.

In the full version of the video of the Robert “Ryan” Watson assault incident at the Pevely police booking area (starting at the 38-second mark here), you can see an officer step in front of Watson (his superior officer) as Watson heads around the counter in a hot rage. Watson ignores the officer and blows past him. That officer was St. Clair.

watson video

In addition, acting police chief Larry Miller said that it was an officer that initially alerted him to the incident, which occurred on April 23. Watson was fired on May 8.

Adding all this evidence together, we can assess that it was St. Clair who alerted Miller about the incident. We know that he witnessed it firsthand, after all.

This is not the first time that St. Clair has raised alarms about improper police conduct. In 2015, after leaving his previous job with the Bellefontaine Neighbors police, St. Clair let KMOV know that the mayor and police chief there had enacted a per-officer quota of 50 traffic tickets, ordinance violations, parking violations, etc, per month. St. Clair provided paperwork to prove it. The mayor and chief said they were doing nothing wrong, in typical corrupt north St. Louis County municipal fashion. However, these allegations led to the Dept. of Justice getting involved in the situation.

Officer St. Clair deserves commendation for holding other officers accountable for wrongdoing. And Miller and the board deserve credit for acting quickly to get rid of Watson and his thin blue line partner, Wayne Casey.

However, the fact is that an outside investigation is needed of the Pevely PD. There have been too many misdeeds in the past few years. The JeffCo Sheriff’s Department uncovered lots of problems in recent investigations of the Hillsboro and DeSoto police. I’m sure if given the chance to take a comprehensive look, they could find a lot of things to fix in Pevely. But it seems like Mayor Stephanie Haas and the board don’t want to let that happen. Haas denied to media outlets after the Watson video emerged that there were any problems with the Pevely PD. But here is a video from January in which two former officers outlined many problems they had seen in the Pevely PD. They asked for an outside investigation, but no action was taken on that. I think that, if Watson’s victim chooses to file a lawsuit, which is a no-brainer decision, actions such as these by the city will only help raise the dollar amount of the final settlement.

Jefferson R7 Being Extra Secretive in Superintendent Spat

7 May

The Jefferson R7 school district announced on April 17 that superintendent Clint Johnston was on a leave of absence, but that’s all they said. They won’t say why, they won’t say if the board voted to put him there, and for 10 days they would not say if Johnston was being paid while on leave. School board member (and county council rep for district 5) Tracey Perry told the Leader that he was indeed being paid. Three marathon closed session meetings later, we still have no answers.

It appears that there is a 4-3 split on the school board over the matter. This is based on the vote that was taken at the April 23 board meeting to enter into special session, broken down as follows:

Anti-superintendent: Wayne Surratt, Natalie Fallert, Perry, and Heather Schnitzler

Pro-superintendent: Kelly Becherer, Shane Wolk, and James Jackson

It is common for school districts to stay mum when disciplinary issues arrive, especially when superintendents are involved. And there are some legal restrictions that apply. But I maintain that R7 is being much more secretive than is necessary. Let’s look at how some other local school districts have handled similar issues (there are sadly plenty of examples):

Crystal City

When Crystal City placed its superintendent on leave, it was reported that it was paid administrative leave. They would not comment on the initial action of placing him on leave, but said that the board later voted unanimously to extend the leave and to hire someone named Ann Shields (likely her) as an external independent investigator in a move that was related to the superintendent situation. The superintendent, Philip Harrison, later agreed to retire after being on paid leave for six months.

Fox

Fox revealed that it placed four administrators on paid leave by unanimous votes after libelous Topix posts against district critics were traced to their homes, the first dominoes in the Critchlow scandal. They did not reveal the names right away, but they became known shortly thereafter. Of the four, one was fired, one (superintendent Dianne Critchlow) retired, and two others were punished but kept their jobs. The school board also voted to ask for a state audit, which was conducted.

Grandview

Grandview School District announced in December 2016 that the school’s business manager had been placed on paid leave in October, and that a special audit was being conducted. They didn’t admit that the two moves were related, but they clearly were. The business manager, Angela Huskey, was fired, and the district revealed the extent of her theft from the district. She eventually plead guilty to mail fraud and was sentenced to five years in jail after she was found to have committed major embezzlement.

DeSoto

DeSoto School District placed superintendent Andy Arbeitman on paid leave by a 6-0 vote of the school board, and suspended him from his duties in 2012, the district announced. What he did was never revealed, though it was reported that parents submitted a letter of allegations against him to the school board. He eventually got a cushy $208,000 severance deal before getting hired by Critchlow at Fox, getting another huge buyout there, then going to Grandview. He has since moved on to be a middle school principal in the Meramec R3 school district.

So you see, while school districts are normally tight-lipped when employees get in trouble (particularly superintendents), they reveal more information than Jefferson R7 has done so far. This suggests that R7’s claims that they can’t tell us anything else are bogus.

County Purchasing Evidence Building; Could be Used by City PDs

16 Apr

On April 8 the Jefferson County Council approved the purchase of a building in Pevely to be used by the Sheriff’s Office for evidence storage. The Sheriff is running out of space for evidence storage, and new laws and litigation require police to keep evidence for longer time periods than before, while being sure to maintain the integrity of the evidence for use at trial. So the need for space to store evidence will only increase.

The building the county is buying is on Mason Circle Drive, off of Highway 61/67 just north of Highway Z. The purchase price was $780,000, and it is about 10,000 square feet on 3 acres.

new evidence bldg

Municipal Option

The Sheriff is considering the option of allowing municipal police departments in the county to use Sheriff services for evidence storage. Handling of evidence has been a major area of concern among local police agencies. The Sheriff investigated the police in Hillsboro and DeSoto within the past year after problems arose in both cities, and found problems such as unsecured, unlabeled, and missing evidence, lack of training, and water leaks and mold in evidence rooms.

When new police chief Frank Selvaggio took over in Byrnes Mill after poor practices were revealed there, he found drugs and weapons that were not packaged and labeled correctly, as well as a rape kit without a case number to identify it. He also discovered a lack of proper officer training in evidence procedures.

And this is just the police departments that have been investigated or released information on their own. Who knows what evidence situation we would find in other JeffCo police departments?

The Proposal

The Sheriff would charge a monthly fee to participating police departments, and require them to follow JeffCo policies and procedures. Selvaggio mentioned at the March 6 Byrnes Mill Board of Aldermen meeting that the proposal would cost that city an estimated $220 per month. The board indicated that it would be interested in participating.

Sheriff Dave Marshak indicates that the Sheriff’s Office would not pursue this plan unless it is cost-effective for his office and there is room for the additional evidence (the new property does have room for expansion). This idea is still in the phase of assessing the potential interest from the cities and the ability for the Sheriff’s Office to offer the service on top of its own responsibilities, and will move to the next phase later this year when the Sheriff takes possession of the new evidence building and completes necessary modifications.

If adopted, a shared evidence facility would be another great step forward in improving municipal policing in our county, along with the changes that have been forced in DeSoto, Byrnes Mill, and Hillsboro. This would contribute greatly to the ability of crime victims in the county to achieve justice by improving the ability to successfully prosecute criminals.

Municipal Election Notes, 2019 Edition

8 Apr

A few observations on last week’s voting:

School Bonds: While there were many school propositions on the ballot, Fox and Grandview had the only bond issues (as opposed to straight tax levy hikes). These proposals required approval by 4/7 of the voters, or 57.14 percent, as per state law. While Grandview barely cleared this threshold, Fox did not, and so its Prop S failed, although it did get over 50%. I am not sure that many realized that the 4/7 requirement was in place – there was some early excitement among Fox fans (and sadness among Prop S opponents) when the vote totals initially came in.

In some cases, a 2/3 vote is required for bond issues. According to MuniBondAdvisor:

A four-sevenths majority is required for general-obligation bond issues submitted at regular elections in April, in August primaries (in even numbered years) and in November general elections (in even numbered years). At all other elections, a two-thirds majority is required.

I guess the idea is to encourage government entities to hold these votes during higher-turnout voting dates, although with only 17% turnout in JeffCo, April elections don’t get much interest from voters.

In any event, expect Fox to come back with another bond proposal. They will lower the dollar value (this one was worth $70 million) and perhaps add some other tweaks in an attempt to make the proposal more palatable. They will say that the fact that a majority of Fox voters were for Prop S gives them the moral authority to try again.

911 tax: The vote to retain a 1/4-cent sales tax for JeffCo 911 passed big, with 70% of the vote, despite vocal opposition by state senator Paul Wieland, a Republican. The Southern Missouri Conservative Fund also sent a mailer opposing the tax. This political action committee got all its money this cycle ($7,000) from…Wieland’s campaign account. The mailer also weighed in on the race for JeffCo Health Board, with the main interest of denying re-election to John Scullin, who is also chairman of the 911 dispatch board. This effort was successful.

I am not totally sure everyone understood that 911 does not provide ambulances and fire trucks, but merely does the dispatching (which is important, of course).

The big question of this campaign was: is this a tax increase or not? The 911 people said no. A 1/4-cent sales tax for 911 was passed in 2009 with a 10-year sunset provision, meaning that it was going to go away unless the 911 proposition passed at this election. So your taxes would have gone down had nothing happened or had the vote failed (911 has another 1/4-cent sales tax besides this one). Therefore I believe that this is, in fact, a tax increase.

Byrnes Mill: I have long begged for some competition for the inept group that runs Byrnes Mill, but beyond a close race for mayor in 2017, there has not been much of it. This year, however, saw challengers for mayor and two board of aldermen seats.

However, the mayor’s race was not much of a contrast. You had the incumbent, Rob Kiczenski, who has been in BM government long enough that he should have known the city PD was a raging dumpster fire (as we saw last fall), taking on Gary Dougherty, who as police chief presided over said dumpster fire. Kiczenski won the race with 62% of the vote.

The two contested board races were not close, either, as both incumbents (who were also willfully ignorant about the state of the PD) cruised to re-election.

Hillsboro Mayor: Buddy Russell remarkably won a write-in campaign with 71% in a three-way race for Hillsboro mayor. One of the people he defeated was former mayor Dennis Bradley, who in his previous stint was accused of assaulting a sheriff’s deputy, after which he resigned. During the campaign he was accused of stealing an opponent’s sign. Russell will have to oversee the rebuilding of the city police after it was found earlier this year to be in poor, poor shape, and the previous mayor, Joe Phillips, weakly resigned when he got criticized over even considering turning policing over to the county sheriff.

Fox C-6 School Board: As usual, the Dianne Critchlow supported/associated (and also teachers’ union endorsed) candidates won, Judy Smith and Carole Yount.

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