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April 2018 Election Recap

8 Apr

Let’s look at some of the headlines from the local elections held a few days ago.

Taxes: Six of nine tax measures succeeded in all.

The property tax for the county sheriff passed in a big way, with 64% of the vote. A sales tax hike for police passed in Hillsboro with 71% of the vote.

Byrnes Mill went 1 for 2 on tax hikes after going 0 for 3 last year (with two close losses). This time, a road maintenance tax won by 31 votes and a transportation tax failed by six votes. Will the city try the failed tax proposal again in a future election?

Antonia Fire’s 35-cent property tax proposal failed by 56-44%, after a 50-cent tax lost by the same margin in November. This time 2,100 people voted, versus 1,489 last time. Will the district try again in a future election? Maybe 25 cents next time?

A tax for a Hillsboro library failed for the third time in recent years, with 64% voting against a property tax proposal. Will they try again in a future election?

Despite all the turmoil in city government with firings, resignations, and lawsuits, DeSoto’s Prop P park and stormwater tax passed with 67% of the vote.

DeSoto: Some shake-up took place, as one city council member who was serving as mayor, Larry Sanders, was knocked off, and one school board member (recently fired as city manager) who was previously appointed to the board to fill a vacancy, David Dews, failed to win a full term.

Pevely: Big turnover, as three incumbents, all part of the faction that wanted to fire acting police chief Tony Moutray, were defeated. One, Rick Arnold, also facing an n-word controversy, lost to a write-in candidate.

Arnold: Two incumbent councilmen won close races. In ward 4, Gary Plunk beat Randy Hoselton by three votes. In Ward 3, Vern Sullivan beat Rod Mullins by 12 votes. Sullivan was assisted by a third candidate, William Denman, who received 62 votes, which would have been more than enough to put Mullins over the top. Denman also played spoiler in the mayor race last year, when incumbent Ron Counts beat councilman Phil Amato by 176 votes while Denman got 276 votes. It’s almost like Denman entered these races for that specific purpose…

Denman’s name has popped up in Arnold before in association with a shady political group called Citizens For a Better Arnold (CFABA) that used outside money to push candidates who supported red light cameras. Early on, CFABA supported Amato, but later on Counts moved over to the dark side, and Amato recently broke with the Counts regime (and with the Democratic party, he claims). It is all rather shadowy.

Also in Arnold, he who I like to call the Critchlow candidate, Jim Chellew, was predictably voted onto the Fox school board.

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Long List of April Tax Measures

17 Mar

Local elections will take place on April 3, and the 15% or so of voters who bother to show will be faced with many tax hike proposals, just like we were a year ago. Here is a full list from the county website:

  • Sheriff’s Office: 35-cent property tax increase for pay increases for deputies, as well as training and equipping. This is motivated by the fact that a number of deputies have left for higher pay elsewhere. I know may people who oppose all tax increases who see the need for this tax and support it.
  • Hillsboro library: 28-cent property tax increase to fund a new Hillsboro branch of the Jefferson County Library. Efforts to establish this branch failed in 2012 and 2014.
  • Hillsboro: 1/2 cent sales tax for police.
  • Arnold: increase in business license fees in order to triple its revenue from this source to pay for police and improve streets and parks. This is after trying and failing to increase sales taxes in 2015. This seems to be part of a general strategy to increase the burdens on Arnold businesses.
  • Northwest R-1: a bond issue for various facility improvements. While taxes will not go up under this measure, it would prevent a tax from expiring in about 2034.
  • Byrnes Mill: two 1/2-cent sales taxes, one for capital improvements and one for transportation. This is down from the three taxes the city tried and failed to pass a year ago. One sales tax lost on a tie then, and another lost by three votes. Again the city blames SB5, which stopped the city’s policing for profit ticket-writing strategy, for the need for new revenue.
  • DeSoto: 1/2-cent sales tax for storm water control and parks.
  • Antonia Fire: 35-cent property tax for staffing, training, and equipment. This is less than the 50-cent tax the district tried and failed to pass in November, which lost 56-44%.

I went ahead and created a chart of April tax measures voted on and passed in each of the past 5 years, for comparison. This does not include the Prop V vehicle tax votes that each local entity held over the past couple of elections.

tax vote chart

Sweeney Rebuked by MO Appeals Court

4 Jan

Robert Sweeney, who serves as attorney for multiple local government entities, including the cities of Arnold and Byrnes Mill, and who appears frequently in these pages, has once again achieved that combination of malfeasance and incompetence that he is known for. This time, his client was the Northeast Public Sewer District (NEPSD) of Jefferson County. In this case, the Appeals Court for the Eastern District of Missouri slammed Sweeney for filing a “frivolous appeal” and awarded legal costs to his opponent as a punishment.

Case Background

  • NEPSD took an easement on the property of one William Feucht of Fenton by condemnation and paid him $570 (Sweeney has experience with land taking – Arnold used eminent domain against a number of people and businesses to help a private developer build Arnold Commons. This led to long legal proceedings and surely big legal bills).
  • Feucht sued and won a jury trial that awarded him $11,500 for the property.
  • Sweeney appealed the verdict on the sole grounds that Feucht’s service in the Marines, which was mentioned during the trial, was irrelevant and prejudiced the jury.

The Decision

Now here is where the incompetence comes in. In order to appeal on certain grounds, you have to present that argument in the original case. If you don’t object to something at the time, you can’t complain about it later.

The reason Feucht’s service came up was that he was an accountant in the Marine Corps. He claimed at trial that this was part of his qualifications for being able to to state that his land was worth more than NEPSD gave him credit for.

Before evidence was presented at the trial, Sweeney made vague statements like (paraphrasing) “I may object to one or two slides” and “I don’t know what relevance this Marine thing is.” But when Feucht testified on his qualifications, and when he entered his Marine meritorious promotion certificate into evidence, Sweeney did not object. He also never motioned for a new trial. So he lost any right to appeal based on this issue.

And here we turn to the malfeasance. The court states that, even if Sweeney was able to appeal the mention of military service, he would have lost on the merits. The Sweeney Law Firm, actually represented by Bob’s daughter Allison on the appeal, claimed the discussion of Feucht’s military service was “extensive.” The court rejected this claim, pointing out that only a few lines of testimony on the subject were offered. And the court stated that being an accountant was highly relevant and central to Feucht’s ability to claim that he knew what his land was worth.

Penalty

Because of the blatant frivolity of this appeal, the court took the drastic step of forcing Sweeney to pay Feucht’s legal expenses (and he can’t get NEPSD to pay the money for him). But since Feucht was representing himself in front of the appeals court, and thus had few costs, he only got $350. Note: Sweeney lost to a guy representing himself! (Feucht did have an attorney for the original trial and early on in the appeals process.)

Here are some excerpts from the unanimous opinion of the three-judge panel hearing the case (link to the full opinion here):

 

sweeney-sewer1

And this:

sweeney-sewer2

Devoid of merit…failed to take basic steps…bad faith…careless attitude…no prospect of success…lack of professional effort.

These are damning words.

I have long theorized that Sweeney files meritless cases for two reasons: 1) he knows most people can’t afford to fight him in court, and 2) to inflate his legal bills. Both reasons appear to apply here, though the first did not work out for Sweeney. In addition to the $350 levied by the court, NEPSD should demand that Sweeney pay back his legal fees for this appeal.

With Sweeney’s history of failure (see links below), local government entities need to ask themselves why they continue to employ the Sweeney Law Firm, or in the case of Arnold, give him a big raise. It is clearly not in the best interest of these entities or the taxpayers to pay money to a lawyer that continues to litigate and lose weak cases.

Here is a list of Sweeney clients:

  • Arnold
  • Byrnes Mill
  • North Jefferson Ambulance
  • Public Water Supply District No. 13 (Lake Tishomingo)
  • Northeast Public Sewer District
  • City of Iberia, Missouri
  • Jefferson County 911 Dispatch
  • Washington County 911 Dispatch
  • Big River Ambulance District
  • Bismarck Fire Protection Association
  • Saline Valley Fire Protection District
  • Potosi Fire Protection District
  • DeSoto Rural Fire Protection District
  • Glaize Creek Public Sewer District

Sweeney Lowlights

Here are some Sweeney greatest hits:

  • His poor ballot language forced a tax revote
  • He kicked a candidate off the ballot and lost the resulting lawsuit, so new ballots had to be printed
  • He advised Arnold to deny a councilwoman’s request to see a city hall visitor log. The state attorney general intervened with a hard rebuke and threatened a lawsuit against the city.

Arnold Mayor Rewards His Ally Sweeney

18 Oct

This post has been on my back burner for quite some time, as it dates back to June, but better late than never, I say.

One of the first acts of Arnold mayor Ron Counts after he won re-election in April was to reward one of his biggest allies, city attorney Bob Sweeney, with a pay hike. Sweeney has done a lot, while zigzagging across ethical lines, to keep the Counts regime in power and to quash opposition, and I guess it was time to thank him (hmm, why not do it before the election)? On June 1, Counts asked the city council to give Sweeney a 40% pay raise, from $100/hour to $140/hour, and the pliant council unanimously agreed.

Here is how Counts justified the move to the Leader:

“One thing I have learned about Bob that sets him apart from anyone I can think of, as far as having an attorney, is Bob really loves our city. You can hire an attorney and usually they’re just hired guns, but this guy (Sweeney) is for real. He grew up in the city and raised his family here. He has a long history with the city and he truly cares about the city and wants it to be a success. I think when you get these kinds of people who do a good job for you, you need to do what you can to keep them.”

I guess that’s why he lives in Crestwood? I think what Sweeney loves about Arnold is that the city gives him lots of money and power. And when Counts says Sweeney does a good job, he means a good job of covering for Counts and his cronies.

Here is the information that city administrator Bryan Richison gave the council concerning hourly rates for area city attorneys:

atty fee table1

From this, you would say, yeah, Arnold is way at the bottom of the list, and even with the $40 raise, they are still low. But you have to remember that, like a car salesman, Sweeney makes it up on volume. Here’s his formula:

low hourly rate X lots of hours billed = $$lots of cash$$

While he’s not billing the city $200,000 or more like he was a decade ago, as you will see below, he is still making plenty of money despite his low hourly rate. I did a comparison of the annual city attorney payments made by Arnold to other area cities of similar populations. This kind of data was not presented to the council. Here’s what I found:

atty fee table2

The green row shows where Arnold is now. The city’s attorney expenditures are in line with similarly-sized cities, even with Arnold’s low hourly rate, and maybe even on the low end when divided by population (Arnold is the 2nd biggest city on this list). But if we take Arnold’s 2015 and 2016 spending on attorney’s fees and increase it by 40% to estimate the impact of the pay raise (the first row, in red), we see that Arnold shoots to the top of the list when you average the two years together and divide by each city’s population (“$/person avg” column). This is what Arnold taxpayers can expect going forward. Also note that Arnold’s median income is much lower than the other cities mentioned.

Retainer Option

You can see in the next to last column that three cities on the list pay a retainer fee to their city attorneys (Creve Coeur, Webster Groves, Manchester). The retainer is a monthly set fee that covers basic city attorney duties. If work needs to be done that is outside the scope of the retainer, that work is billed at the hourly fee listed in column two. Services that generally fall under the retainer include attendance at council and board meetings, consultations with the mayor, council members, and department heads, and review of documents.

It seems like Arnold could save some money by going the retainer route, given the apparently high number of hours billed by Sweeney. But Arnold probably won’t do that if it is not advantageous for Sweeney’s bottom line.

Arnold: Where Failure is Cool

26 Jul

I saw this photo in the Leader this week:

sammons arn board

This illustrates an interesting principle in Arnold, that failure and unethical behavior does not get punished, nor does it remove you from “polite” society. See Margie Sammons there? She resigned as chief of the Rock Ambulance district under an ethical and professional cloud after allowing the district’s narcotics license to lapse for the third time and after being found to have helped with the campaigns of some board members while going to great lengths to try to have another board member removed. Yet there she is, still on the board of the Arnold Chamber of Commerce, which she joined at least seven years ago.

As a bonus, look who’s speaking at the next meeting: police chief Robert Shockey, who got his son-in-law hired on with free police academy training, sold items from his personal businesses to the city of Arnold, and filed a bogus, politically-motivated lawsuit against the city to get money. But he has faced few repercussions from all this, other than a public rebuke by some city council members.

Sammons has also stayed in good stead with the Rotary Club. Here she is being celebrated by the club upon her “retirement.”

sammons retire rotary

One could also cite the Fox school district as an example of this phenomenon, where administrators who posted foul statements online and/or abetted the Dianne Critchlow regime keep their jobs (albeit after a demotion), while pals of Critchlow get elected to the school board and nobody goes to jail.

May Legislative Update

8 May
  • Sen. Gary Romine (R, 3rd district, Farmington) has been under heavy criticism for his role sponsoring SB43, a bill to change the legal standard in discrimination lawsuits from “contributing factor” to “motivating factor” (a higher bar to clear). This would prevent frivolous suits like the one filed by Arnold police chief Bob Shockey. Romine is under fire because a business he owns is being sued for discrimination. But this law would even not affect his case; since the suit is already in progress, it would proceed under the current rules. And people who are actually discriminated against can still win lawsuits under SB43, their claims just have to have some merit to them. Remember how Dianne Critchlow has threatened to sue the Fox district now that feckless prosecutors have let her off the hook? I guarantee her suit will include a baseless gender discrimination claim if it is filed under the current standard. As a business owner, Romine knows about the issues Missouri has with frivolous lawsuits, and is trying to address the problem. The House would need to approve this bill this week in order to send it to the governor.

Romine: “Rather than seeing this bill for what it is — one of the most significant economic development measures to come along in years — the media has been more interested in eliciting the opinions of trial attorneys, SB 43’s only real opposition and a group of people who generally stand to lose from any significant progress on the tort reform front.”

  • Sen. Paul Wieland (R, 22nd, Imperial) briefly held up the passage of HB 130, the bill to allow rideshare services like Uber to operate statewide. He thought, misguidedly in my opinion, that Uber drivers would drop their personal auto insurance since Uber provides coverage while you are working. He had other concerns as well. But three weeks later, Wieland’s concerns were satisfied and the bill was passed and signed into law.

“I just wanted to make sure we protect the public and we keep the number of uninsured motorists to a minimum and I believe this bill will do that,” Wieland told The Missouri Times Thursday.

  • Rep. Rob Vescovo (R, 112th, Arnold) was the House sponsor of SB 182, which eliminates project labor agreements in public construction projects. This bill, which has passed both houses, ends requirements that non-union contractors pay union wages and stops local governments from giving preferential treatment to union contractors. This bill will reduce the cost to taxpayers of public projects. Reps. Vescovo, Shaul, and John McCaherty (R, 97th, High Ridge) voted yes; Reps. Elaine Gannon (R, 115th, DeSoto), Becky Ruth (R, 114th, Festus), and Ben Harris (D, 118th, Hillsboro) voted no; and Roden voted present (weak).

“Some would say it’s an anti-union legislation, and I disagree,” Vescovo said after the House adjourned for the week. “I would say it’s pro-worker and it allows the other 86 percent of the workforce to bid on projects and work on projects without being signatory. That’s very important.”

  • Rep. Dan Shaul (R, 113th, Imperial) ticked off teachers, according to the Leader,  with his vote for HB634, which would allow for the expansion of charter schools in the state. Shaul also serves on the Windsor school board. Charters currently exist only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Teachers claimed Shaul has a conflict of interest, which I don’t buy. Some teachers turned their back on Shaul as he was sworn in for another term at the April 12 board meeting, which is quite juvenile. It doesn’t look like this bill will get a Senate vote. McCaherty, Roden, and Vescovo also voted yes on this bill.

“I would disagree with the assumption that my vote on HB 634 was a conflict of interest,” Shaul said. “The vote I took on 634 was to ensure that all kids throughout the state of Missouri have the same opportunity that kids (who) go to Windsor have.”

  • Along with SB43, other much-needed legal reforms have been advancing through the legislature, and our county reps have voted for them along party lines. However, Rep. Shane Roden (R, 111th, Cedar Hill) voted no on HB460, which would limit out-of-state plaintiffs who bring their cases in St. Louis in hopes of winning big verdicts. This is why you hear all those ads from lawyers about talcum powder and cancer on the radio or see them on billboards. Those plaintiffs don’t even live here.
  • Sen. Romine took to the Senate floor during debate over the budget to offer an amendment to fully fund the state’s foundation formula for education for the first time. It was a bit unusual to do this on the floor after the Appropriations Committee already put the budget bill together, and it caused a split between Senate leadership and some GOP senators as the amendment passed. Romine voted yes on this, Wieland voted no. The House also voted to fully fund the formula.
  • The issue of whether to join a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) has been roiling county government here for months, but such a plan is also advancing at the legislature, and if it passes it would make the JeffCo debate moot. The House and Senate will be going to a conference committee to iron out their differences, but with only one week left, it seems unlikely this will get done. In the House, representatives McCaherty, Roden, and Vescovo voted no on the PDMP bill, HB 90, as did Sen. Wieland.

April 2017 Election Results

4 Apr

Headlines (results here):

  • Ron Counts re-elected as Arnold mayor by 177 votes over Phil Amato. Candidate William Denman, probably a stalking horse, gets 276 votes. Fulbright, Owens, Hood, and Cooley win council seats (all but Hood are incumbents). With these results, and with Amato off the council, the Counts-Shockey-Sweeney cabal is only strengthened.
  • All three Byrnes Mill tax hikes fail (one ended in a tie, which means it failed by one vote).
  • Pevely alderman candidate Linda Hahn wins Ward 2 by one vote; Steph Haas re-elected as mayor.
  • Rock Fire’s large tax increase wins with 52% of the vote.
  • Fox school board incumbent Dawn Mullins wins while Vern Sullivan loses. Steve Holloway returns to the council after a one-year absence, while Scott Stewart also won a seat. Stewart joins Carole Yount and Sherry Poppen as part of the Jim Chellew clique on the board. Chellew was once Fox superintendent and was a mentor to a young Dianne Salsman Brown Critchlow (who indicated her support for Stewart on Facebook).
  • Jefferson County Library tax hike wins.
  • In the “every vote matters” category, along with Hahn and the BM tax, there was a tie for the second director seat at Valle Ambulance District between Steven Bergner and Nathan Myers.
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