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Council Makes Right Decision on a Rezoning

29 Jul

It was heartening to read in this week’s Leader that the Jefferson County Council reversed a previous negative vote on a rezoning proposal for a trailer sales and service facility near DeSoto on July 24, putting the project on track for approval. While the GOP-dominated council has done good things over the years, too often it has shot down proposals for the new businesses that our county needs. Instead it defers in too many cases to the overwrought, predictable concerns of neighbors who want to control other people’s property.

In this case, council members Dan Stallman and Jim Kasten (the lone Democrat) voted yes both times, while Renee Reuter changed from no to yes and Don Bickowski switched from abstain to yes. Previously absent Jim Terry voted yes also. Bob Boyer and Charles Groeteke were the no votes both times. The original 3-2 vote against became a 5-2 vote in favor.

I did not like the quote in the Leader from Reuter, who said:

It’s always difficult when you have competing groups from the public. I try to vote with what I think is the majority.

That should not be the criteria, whether a majority of neighbors approve of a proposal. These are situations where people are trying to do things with their own land. Zoning rules have a purpose, but unless a proposal presents an egregious issue, property owners should be able to proceed with their projects. In this case, the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z), which considers proposals before the council does, voted unanimously to recommend this project for approval.

The P&Z made the same unanimous vote in another recent controversial case, in which an apartment complex has been proposed for a long-vacant parcel in Imperial. Of course, the neighbors want to continue to have an empty lot next to them. Don’t we all want to control the land around us for our benefit? Groeteke invoked the classic argument against new developments:

I’m not against development. We need development in Jefferson County. But this is not the right kind of development.

Opponents of new projects always say they approved of new projects, just not in the proposed location, which happens to be near their house. This same argument was advanced to oppose converting another long-vacant building in Imperial to transitional housing for the homeless (which P&Z recently voted in favor of). They want the project to go near someone else’s house. Groeteke also invoked the often-seen “layperson knows best” argument about this property that has been for sale for 12 years.

I think it would be conducive to professional or medical offices, he said. The key is to get more revenue for the county, not just apartment buildings where people just live there.

Everyone thinks they know what project should go where, but they aren’t businesspeople or developers. Clearly the market has no interest in putting offices in this location. And I will add that the people who would have occupied these apartments would have paid plenty of local sales and personal property taxes, and the apartment owner would have paid property taxes. Plus, adding 84 apartments worth of people to the area might encourage more businesses to open.

The apartment project was rejected by the council on a 6-1 vote, with Boyer the only vote in favor. It was officially denied by the same vote at the July 24 council meeting.

As for the affirmative vote on the trailer sales proposal, county executive Ken Waller approved of it, saying correctly that the council has “talked about growth and economic development for a long time.”

Waller Withdraws from Pay Suit, Lashes out at Councilwoman

24 Jun

Only four days after a recall effort was launched against him, Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller (GOP) buckled under public pressure and withdrew from the elected official pay lawsuit as one of the large group of plaintiffs seeking a retroactive pay hike (they claim they just want clarification on the charter from a judge, but come on), becoming the second politico to do so, after outgoing assessor Terry Roesch, a Democrat. Waller’s participation in the lawsuit was the number one complaint listed in the recall petition notice.

In the current edition of the Leader, Waller admits that the recall had a “small part” to play in his decision to withdraw. He also raises an interesting question:

“I don’t know what effect my withdrawal from the suit will have on whether I would share in back pay or benefits if the judge rules that way. That didn’t play into my decision to get into the suit, and it didn’t play into my decision to get out of it.”

It may not make a difference if Waller has his name on the suit or not. If the money-seeking politicians win, in theory every countywide elected official who has served since 2010 would be eligible for a payout. On the other hand, I hear that Waller played a role in helping recruit elected officials to join this suit. I suspect this was to make a show of force to the court and to spread the predictable political backlash out amongst more people. Given the above uncertainty, Waller needs to come out and state unequivocally that he will accept no lawsuit-related payouts from taxpayers if this suit succeeds. But I doubt he will, because this suit is all about the money.

Along with ending the negative attention and trying to thwart the recall, perhaps another reason Waller dropped out is that he read this devastating motion from the county’s defense team to dismiss the lawsuit and realized his lawsuit is weak. This motion is rather savage:

Setback in Another Lawsuit

Waller’s other lawsuit against the county, which is the legal equivalent of a temper tantrum, was filed because the county council went against his desire to take for himself the right to remove (or not) people from county boards for missing too many meetings. This case was dismissed by the judge this week, since Waller sued the wrong entity and did not set forth an actionable claim. Waller was given until the end of the month to file an amended lawsuit. I suspect that if he can’t sue the council that he is unable to get along with and tries to use as a punching bag, he may not bother to go forward with the suit. Here was the motion to dismiss in this case, another barnburner:

Waller Lashes Out

Two weeks ago the Leader reported on Waller’s effort to gut the county council’s ability to defend against Waller’s lawsuits by trying to cut the funding for hiring outside attorneys. He wanted to reduce the amount set aside from $100,000 to $25,000, claiming a desire for fiscal responsibility. Of course, if Waller was really fiscally responsible he wouldn’t SUE THE COUNTY TWO TIMES. Councilwoman Renee Reuter (GOP) rightly put Waller in his place:

“The use of decision-making authority for the purpose of financial gain constitutes a conflict of interest. The penalty for violations of conflict of interest is criminal in nature,” she said, punishable first by a fine and on subsequent offenses, possible jail time. She also noted that under the county charter, “any officer or employee of Jefferson County who willfully violates the conflict of interest section should forfeit their office.”

Right on. Can you imagine if President Trump tried to cut the FBI budget right now, how media heads would explode? Or what if St. Louis County executive Steve Stenger, who has engaged in numerous efforts to reward donors, did something like this? The St. Louis media would be all over it. But since we’re just JeffCo, this won’t get much notice. But basically you have Waller trying to use his position to interfere in his own lawsuits to help himself win.

Well, Waller was apparently not too happy about being taken to task. While the Leader‘s Pat Martin likes to portray Waller as an aw-shucks country public servant, the fact is that Waller is a knife fighter. His revenge against Reuter was delivered Thursday, when he released an executive order removing her from her spot as one of Jefferson County’s representatives on the East-West Gateway council, a regionwide group that allocates federal transportation funding. I don’t know what Waller’s official rationale for this move is, but it is hard to see this as anything other than political payback. Waller whines in this week’s Leader that the recall effort against him just a personal vendetta, while at the same time engaging in actions like this. Maybe we should add a bullet point about hypocrisy to the recall petition.

JeffCo Health Department Does Stealth End Run on PDMP

4 Jun

The Leader‘s Peggy Bess had a good column last week about the lack of openness exhibited by the Fox and DeSoto school boards in response to recent controversies. I think she should add the Jefferson County Health Department (JCHD) to this list for its sneaky passage of a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) ordinance on May 25, after the county council rejected such a proposal in April.

While it is true that the Health board has discussed PDMP at its meetings since August of last year, this was in the context of pushing the county council and city councils in the county to pass it. And Health board meetings are quite opaque anyway, as the JCHD does not post agendas or minutes on its website (with the exception of four meeting minutes from late 2015-early 2016) or even list meeting dates and times or who is on the board. [I am told by board president John Scullin that the JCHD will now start posting agendas and minutes.] The most information you can find about JCHD governance is on a state of Missouri web site.

The JCHD relied on a state law that gives health departments the right to make rules “to enhance the public health” to justify its own passage of a legislative ordinance.

“For the health, safety and welfare of the county, (the Health Department) can enact ordinances. It’s not used very often, but they can do it,” said county executive Ken Waller.

However, in early May (after the county council vote) the JCHD director, Kelley Vollmar, seemed to dismiss such a strategy in a comment to the Leader:

As an independent agency, we have the authority to create our own ordinances. But traditionally, independent health departments have been very respectful of county governments and the mandate that they have representing the people. I’m not sure that this is an area where we want to strike out on our own.

But all that went out the window after a special meeting of the JCHD board on May 15 at which Ken Waller appeared. Since JCHD only gives notice about its meetings via postings on the doors to its two facilities and via emails to the Leader, few people would have known about this meeting, where PDMP was the only item discussed. It was at the JCHD board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting ten days later on May 25 that the ordinance was passed. But the county council was not aware that this vote was going to take place. Waller could have announced the upcoming vote at the May 22 county council meeting, but he kept silent on the issue, instead issuing a veiled threat that he had a press release coming out about councilman Bob Boyer (this press release was promised last week but did not happen). Waller clearly wanted the passage of PDMP to be a surprise, and as such he deprived county residents of the chance to have their say.

Speaking generally, the JCHD board should have been more transparent in this. But when the board was planning to use a rarely used provision of law to counteract the decision of the people’s elected representatives, they had an extra duty to inform the public in advance. But they did not do so, because they did not want publicity or scrutiny.

PDMP Evidence in Illinois

The arguments in JeffCo in support of PDMP were mostly along the lines of “it’s the right thing to do” and “every other state does it.” Not a lot of evidence. Here is a recent article from across the river in Illinois, which has a PDMP, that is interesting:

mad_opi

Hmm. Illinois had a jump in opioid deaths in 2015, while Missouri did not, says the CDC. That year, Missouri was 22nd in the nation in opioid overdose deaths, which is a lot lower than you would expect after hearing the “only state without a PDMP” cry. Here’s another noteworthy item from the CDC:

PDMPs are promising tools for health care providers to see patients’ prescribing histories to inform their prescribing decisions. However, a PDMP is only useful to health care providers if they check the system before prescribing. Some states have implemented polices that require providers to check a state PDMP prior to prescribing certain controlled substances and in certain circumstances, and these policies have significant potential for ensuring that the utility and promise of PDMPs are maximized.

The St. Louis-area PDMP that JeffCo is joining does not require doctors to consult the database when issuing prescriptions, which seems to me to defeat the whole purpose of the database. The PDMP bill that has passed the state House several times is also optional for doctors.

Conflicts with Charter?

There is some question whether the Missouri statute in question here, RSMo 192.300, which gives health departments power to pass ordinances, applies to a charter county like JeffCo. The charter bestows all legislative power in the county upon the council. This question would have to be tested in court, though. Given that the county is currently spending a lot of money defending against lawsuits in which Waller is a plaintiff, the council may not want to incur more legal bills. But, to quote Scullin, the JCHD board president, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” Perhaps the council can find other ways to fight back.

Kasten Port Snort Continues; Wieland Weighs In

26 Feb

As I wrote about recently, county councilman/school board member/city administrator Jim Kasten was denied reappointment to the county Port Authority board in December over concerns that serving multiple entities as he does constitutes a conflict of interest. The idea is that situations may arise where the interests of one body are not aligned with those of another. This issue came up again at the January 23 county council meeting, but more on that later.

State senator Paul Wieland introduced a bill on February 21 that directly addresses this issue – SB449. Here is the summary of the bill:

This act specifies that no member of a board of port authority commissioners shall be an employee or independent contractor of a city or county.

Kasten is the city administrator for Herculaneum, and as such this bill would prevent him from being appointed to the JeffCo Port board. Here’s what Wieland said in his weekly newsletter:

“Growing and expanding Missouri Ports are one of my highest priorities. Having had the opportunities to visit ports across our state and nation, I am convinced that limiting the conflict of interest of policies [sic] insiders and bureaucrats will allow Port Authority Boards to make decisions and react to market conditions quicker. The fastest growing and most efficient ports are ones without these conflicts,” said Senator Wieland. “I was impressed by the acumen of our county council that they too recently voted down a nomination to our Jefferson county port authority because they recognized the conflict by having a city administrator reappointed to the board.”

If SB 449 were to become law, it would remove the temptation for future county executives to attempt to appoint any career bureaucrats.

I don’t suspect this bill will go anywhere this session, but it sends a message. Not only one in support of the county council, but in rebuke of county executive Ken Waller, who nominated Kasten for reappointment and continues to support him.

Port Vote Discussed

Several individuals, including some family members, spoke in favor of Kasten being reappointed at the January 23 meeting. A few regular critics of Pevely government showed up to support the council’s decision to not reappoint, as did lawyer Stan Schnaare, who has been involved in several politically-connected legal actions in the county and ran for judge as a Republican in 2012.

Kasten himself also spoke. According to the meeting minutes, “he explained his anger at the December 27th meeting stemmed from sadness and fear, that his feelings were hurt that not one Councilmember called to confer about the appointment and he is now fearful there is no relationship with the people he serves with on the Council.” He stated his desire to stay on the port authority. However, it sounds like this question will not be reopened for consideration.

Waller also mentioned his disapproval for how the vote was handled, and presumably he means how Kasten was not informed beforehand. The council has done this type of thing a few times in the past, and while I agree with them on the principle of this issue, I also agree that council members probably shouldn’t blindside nominees when they are voting against their appointment or reappointment to a board position.

Cardona Reacts to Court Dispute Story

19 Jan

The Post-Dispatch had a column on the 11th about a JeffCo couple, the owners of Persimmon Ridge Winery, having trouble with redneck hoosier neighbors infringing on their property and denying them access to easements. I posted this article on Facebook, and it drew a couple of comments, including one from Jefferson County judge Troy Cardona, who is handling one of the court cases mentioned in the article.

cardona-land-post

That seems a bit grumpy to me, and that libel threat is completely baseless and irresponsible. Where’s the supposedly libelous statement? Besides, most of us have jobs, and can’t just come sit in a courtroom all day. This is how the P-D article described the case Cardona is presiding over:

In 2014, they had problems with another landowner, whose property abuts Sheppard Drive, the main access to Persimmon Ridge Winery. The winery has a clear legal easement on the road, but Edward Manley III, according to court records, kept messing with it. He’d put rocks on the easement, fill in a drainage ditch to make the road flood, or dig on the back side of the road to make it less stable. Suedkamp [a winery owner] took him to court and won.

But Manley did not fix the damage. In June of this year he was ordered by Cardona to pay $15,ooo and move his crap by July 1, but he has done none of this, according to the article. Here’s what Casenet says:

manley case.jpg

A garnishment was placed on Manley, but this says it was delayed because Manley is bankrupt. But then on December 29, a Satisfaction of Judgment was filed, which would suggest the money was paid. I’m not sure what’s going on here. I contacted an owner of the winery, but got no response as of yet. But this has dragged on for over two years, and this is only one of the problem neighbors the winery is dealing with. According to a Facebook post, the winery owners will be appearing at a county council meeting soon, presumably to request some kind of assistance in dealing with these issues. I hope there’s something that can be done.

Who Will Replace Boyer on the County Council?

13 Jan

Jefferson County Councilman Bob Boyer, a Republican from the Arnold-area district 3, was elected in November to be the next county assessor. While other officials elected in November are taking office now, Boyer will not do so until September 1, so that the current assessor can complete the biennial reassessment cycle that is currently underway.

According to the county charter, section 12.3.4, it is up to the council to fill a vacancy on the council. One would think that the county executive would make the appointment in such a situation, but that is not the case. He would do so if a county office, like treasurer, became vacant, but not for a council vacancy. Boyer’s term expires after the November 2018 election, so the person the council chooses to replace him would serve for about a year before having to decide whether to run for re-election (assuming this appointment will take place in late summer/early fall).

Since the council, minus Boyer, consists of 4 Republicans and 2 Democrats, we can assume that a Republican will be appointed to the seat (sorry, Phil Amato). But who might that person be? Let’s engage in some wild speculation by looking at Republicans who have recently run for Arnold-area elected office:

EJ Fleischmann – Current Ward 1 city councilman in Arnold, elected in April 2016. He is active in local GOP politics and has ties to state Representative Dan Shaul and state Senator Paul Wieland. These ties make him a serious competitor for this seat. He is young, at only 24 years of age. Odds of being appointed: 3/2

Jason Fulbright – The other Arnold Ward 1 city councilman in Arnold. He was first elected in April 2013 (unopposed). He ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for state representative against Shaul in 2014, but won the Arnold township GOP committeeman position. Last year he was elected to the water board for the Arnold area (after that board painted the water tower blue). His party connections are growing, but I don’t think he lines up as well as Fleischmann ideologically with those who will make the appointment. He is currently signed up to run for re-election to the Arnold council in April. Odds: 4/1 He has ruled out being appointed to this seat

Dan Smith – He lost to Democrat Jeff Roorda in the 2012 race for state representative in District 113. He currently serves on the county Planning and Zoning Commission. But most importantly, he served on the Fox School Board from 2008-2014, while disgraced former Fox superintendent Dianne Critchlow was stealing from the district. Here’s what I wrote when he was appointed to P&Z:

Anybody who has served on the Fox school board over the past six years is, in my mind, automatically disqualified for any elected or appointed office, because it was the board that allowed all of this to happen, through a combination of neglect, naivete, or coziness with Critchlow.

I cannot fathom that the Jefferson County Council would actually appoint this guy to join them. Given that Critchlow has yet to experience any repercussions for her actions, I think the uproar among county residents would be quite significant if Smith was entrusted with another public office. But he still has friends in GOP circles, as indicated by his appointment to P&Z. Odds: 12/1

Phil Hendrickson – He challenged Boyer in the 2014 GOP primary for county council, losing 58-42%. He serves on the Jefferson County Code Commission. Odds: 20/1

Anybody else?

Kasten Booted from Port Board

3 Jan

Jefferson County Port Authority board of directors member Jim Kasten was denied another 3-year term by the county council on December 27. The board voted 5-0 not to approve his reappointment. Kasten is also the Herculaneum city administrator and district 5 representative (Democrat) on the county council (elected in 2014), and it is these roles that were cited by one councilman to explain the no vote.

Councilman Don Bickowski (District 1, GOP) stated at the meeting (video here – see 47:25 mark) that he felt there was a conflict of interest in Kasten holding these multiple roles. He said he also has opposed port board appointments from cities, as he thinks the board should be independent of other governmental jurisdictions. Bickowski cited the case of outgoing councilman Cliff Lane (6th district, Democrat), who he says resigned from the port board when he took office as a councilman in 2010. Lane was one of the no votes on Kasten.

I can see where Bickowski is coming from. Port board members from other jurisdictions could try to steer port development to their area (like, say, Pevely instead of Herculaneum) or otherwise score points for their cities. There is no accusation that Kasten did such a thing, but conflict of interest principles are intended to prevent even the appearance or possibility of a conflict.

Kasten was only narrowly reappointed to the port board in September 2013 for his current term. He was approved by a 4-3 vote, with current council members Bob Boyer, Renee Reuter, and Bickowski voting no, as they did this time around.

Kasten Responds

When nobody responded to the “all in favor say aye” call, Kasten let out a “you’ve got to be kidding me.” He then stated that “there’s too much ideology on the council, people coming in with set beliefs that can’t be changed or altered, no matter how much evidence to the contrary.” He insisted that he had “never, never” put the council or the port board in a conflict of interest. He went on, forcefully:

I have never, one time, shown you any reason why-I’ve given you a conflict of interest. If there is, I want you to point it out right now! You don’t have any, because all you are is a bunch of ideologues, and I’m fed up with it, and I’m gonna call you out every damn time that I get a chance.

It may be true that he has never shown a conflict. But as I stated above, the issue is of the mere possibility of the existence of conflict. Here’s a definition 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.

See, it says “a risk.” In this case, it is Kasten’s position in the governing structure of three different entities. Kasten’s actions don’t have to be unduly influenced; the possibility just has to be there. It’s like when Dianne Critchlow and her minions engineered the hiring of a board member’s daughter-in-law to be food service director at the Fox district, or gave a scholarship to the child of a school board member. Whether those board members were stooges to Critchlow out of stupidity or as part of a quid pro quo doesn’t matter; the fact is that there was a possibility of undue influence, and those moves should not have been allowed. (This is not to compare Kasten to Critchlow.)

So now County Executive Ken Waller will have to find someone else to fill Kasten’s spot on the port board. There was another port board dustup in 2013 when Dan Govero and Steve Markus were denied reappointment to the board, with the council citing slow progress from the board. Kasten appeared at a subsequent council meeting to beseech the council to undo that decision, which they did not.

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