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Kasten Council Resignation Came After AG Conflict Ruling

11 Jan

When former Jefferson County Councilman for District 5 Jim Kasten (Democrat) announced his resignation from the board on October 23, he cited ongoing conflict between the “dysfunctional” council and county executive Ken Waller. He bemoaned the “constant bickering” and expressed dismay that the council did not pass a bill to join a prescription drug monitoring program.

What he did not mention is that he received a letter from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, dated September 25, 2017, stating that due to his holding of multiple simultaneous offices, he was in violation of conflict of interest provisions, and thus would have to resign from something. This letter came as a result of a citizen complaint to the AG’s office.

Kasten submitted a resignation letter to Waller on September 29, effective December 31. He has since left the council and been replaced by Dan Darian, who was chosen by the county council to complete Kasten’s term.

Multiple Offices

Along with his time on the county council (elected in 2014), Kasten serves:

  • On the Dunklin School Board (elected in 2007)
  • As Herculaneum city administrator (hired in 2008)
  • On the Jefferson County Water Authority (appointed in 2008, part of Herky city admin duties)
  • He was on the Jefferson County Port Authority Board for eight years before being denied reappointment by the county council in December 2016. At that time, his service in multiple positions was cited as a reason to vote down his appointment. After he resigned from the council, Waller again nominated him to the Port board, but the council refused to vote on the nomination at its January 8, 2018 meeting.

The Letter

Here is the letter from the AG’s office:


It cites the “common law prohibition against holding two incompatible public offices,” then goes on to list state Supreme Court precedent and explains how offices that deal with each other, through licensing, taxing, public works, etc. could create a situation where an officeholder finds himself on both sides of an agreement.

According to common law, when an officeholder accepts another incompatible office, he automatically is considered to be resigned from one of them. Missouri uses a last-in-time analysis, and so was already considered to be de jure resigned from the county council. It just had to be made official somehow, which Kasten made happen when he submitted his resignation. The letter points out, though, that actions the council took while he was seated are still valid.

Not Wrongdoing

When Kasten was denied reappointment to the Port board, he responded to the allegations of conflict of interest by demanding that someone point out where he actively acted in a conflicted manner (as I interpret it). But he has it wrong, I think. Conflict of interest isn’t an intentional act of wrongdoing, it is just the inherent circumstance that a person’s judgment and duty could be influenced improperly. It’s like when county prosecutor Forrest Wegge belatedly said he could not take the Dianne Critchlow criminal case because he knows her. The fact that he knows her created a possibility of conflict between the law and his friendship, even if he didn’t actively try to get her off the hook.

In short, nobody says Kasten intentionally committed some wrongdoing, it’s just that he held naturally conflicting interests by holding multiple offices, and so he had to surrender one of them. But he should have admitted this when he resigned from the council.

There are a number of dual office holders in JeffCo, for example, some who sit on a city council and a school board. In the past, there have been men who served on a city council for one city while serving as city administrator for another. Given this ruling, these double-dippers may want to reconsider, though I can’t say for sure that these arrangements are unlawful. And any residents with concerns now know who to turn to with complaints. While serving in elected and appointed positions is a public service (unless you are corrupt or negligent in your duties), serving on multiple boards is not always a good thing.

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Jefferson County Government Chaos Continues

16 Nov

Despite a full agenda that included approving higher-cost insurance coverage for county employees, appointing several people to county boards, adopting a procedure to fill resigning councilman Jim Kasten’s seat (Democrat, district 5), and dealing with a controversial zoning change on Old Lemay Ferry Road, the council instead voted to adjourn its November 13 meeting early in a continuing, seemingly intractable row between the council and County Executive Ken Waller over the payment of legal bills to defend the county against two lawsuits filed by county officeholders, including Waller himself.

After public comments part of the meeting, which happens right after roll call and in this case took over half an hour (mostly focused on the insurance issue), it was time to approve the agenda of the meeting. Councilman Don Bickowski (GOP, district 1) made a motion to add to the agenda a “resolution to acknowledge the valid obligations of Jefferson County to pay for legal services.” At a special meeting on November 6, the council voted to have this item placed on the agenda for the November 13 meeting, as the county charter allows in section 3.5.10. However, Waller did not place the item on the agenda. County counselor Tony Dorsett stated at Monday night’s meeting that there were unspecified “errors” with this vote, which apparently explain Waller’s failure to add the item to the agenda.

Dorsett also stated that, because of the Sunshine law and the charter’s 72-hour rule, both regarding advanced notice to the public of meeting agenda items, Bickowski’s resolution could not be added to the agenda. Some discussion took place over whether these rules apply to resolutions as opposed to bills, and Waller, in his role as chairman of the meeting, refused to allow a vote on this motion, stating at one point that “we aren’t going anywhere.” The meeting was at a standstill.

Bickowski then motioned to adjourn, and this motion passed on a 5-2 vote, with councilwoman Renee Reuter (GOP, district 2), who had been pressing for a vote on Bickowski’s agenda item, and councilman Phil Hendrickson (GOP, district 3), voting no. Though clearly frustrated, Kasten voted yes on the motion. So the meeting ended. The above described events can be watched on video here, starting at the 43:30 mark (the back-and-forth only lasted 10 minutes).

I’m not sure how this conflict over the legal bills is going to be settled (besides Waller resigning), but the county has to pay for services it has already received, and it is undeniable that Waller has a big conflict of interest here, since he was involved in bringing these lawsuits (one is a money grab for politicians, the other was a spat over who can remove county board members). However, I do not see what was accomplished by adjourning the meeting prematurely and delaying a lot of needed actions.

Judge Reverses Council on Zoning Rejection

5 Nov

I have written before about what I see as the Jefferson County Council’s excessive willingness to deny rezoning applications filed by people trying to start new businesses, instead siding with the NIMBY interests of neighboring landowners. On this subject, we had a case last month (16JE-CC00344) in which a rejected applicant sued the county and won, with the judge ordering the council to approve the rezoning request.

It was in April 2016 that the council heard a request by Tony Pona to rezone land at Miller Road and West Outer Road in Imperial from residential to commercial in order to open a mini-storage and boat/RV storage facility. The county staff and the planning and zoning commission recommended approval of the project, but the county council rejected it (see meeting minutes here). Pona filed a lawsuit a month later.

In October, JeffCo judge Troy Cardona sided with Pona, stating that:

The reasoning for the denial was at best conjecture and refuted by the evidence presented. The denial cites to traffic concerns as one of the main reasons for denial, yet such speculation used in the denial was refuted by a traffic study that showed little to no impact on traffic. It has been held that it is incongruous to use existing traffic conditions to limit a property owner to a use which those very traffic conditions have made undesirable.

At the council’s October 23 meeting, it passed the first of three votes of approval of the storage project. This was after moving the vote to the end of the meeting, after a closed session that presumably was used to discuss this case and the judge’s order.

This case goes to show that business owners have avenues to challenge the council if it makes improper zoning denials.

Waller Lawsuit Dismissed

27 Oct

Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller (Republican) was a plaintiff in two lawsuits. One was asking for more salary for county elected officials. This suit is ongoing, but Waller took his name off of it (though he probably still stands to gain if it succeeds). The second suit was filed against the county council in a dispute about who can remove the appointed members of county boards (the council or the executive) in the wake of a recent piece of county legislation. On Tuesday, a judge granted the council’s motion to dismiss this suit.

Part of the judge’s decision was whether to enforce the settlement that was initially agreed to in the case. Apparently the two attorneys in the case made a deal, but the council did not accept the deal and thus did not vote to accept it. Waller asked the judge to make them accept it, but he ruled that a deal isn’t a deal until it is made official, so he would not enforce the settlement.

The dismissal of the case centers on ripeness. You can’t sue over a hypothetical. Nobody is actually trying to remove a board member at this time, so there is no dispute for the judge to decide on. So this case is over for now. It could be filed again if an attempt was made to remove a board member.

This seems like a fairly obvious result. However, it took seven months and tens of thousands of dollars of legal bills to get here. Thanks, Ken.

Update: Waller Response

Here is a press release Waller issued in response to the judge’s decision:

waller press release board lawsuit.jpg

Paying the Bills for the Lawsuits

There is an ongoing dispute over the payment of the legal bills for the county to defend against the lawsuits filed by the sue-happy county exec. First, Waller tried to cut the allocation for legal defense from $100,000 down to $25,000. This drew a strong rebuke from councilwoman Renee Reuter, who Waller then retaliated against by removing her from the East-West Gateway council.

There is also a question about the date that the council’s lawyers started working on the cases versus the date when the money was allocated (the council argued that the relationship with the attorney and the allocation of money were pre-existing). The council is trying to clarify the effective date of the appropriation, but Waller vetoed the change, in a clear conflict of interest (he is once again trying to cripple the defense against his lawsuits). The council tried at its Monday night meeting to override this veto, but fell one vote short, according to the JeffCo Citizens for Honest Government Facebook page. As has happened several times that I can recall, an absence from the council doomed a bill, as councilman Dan Stallman (GOP) was not there. In addition, new councilman Phil Hendrickson (GOP) abstained, as he did on a vote to add additional money to the legal defense fund. (He abstained when the vetoed bill was originally passed, but that was on the day he was sworn in to the council, so I can excuse that). So it is not clear where we go now in this dispute.

These abstentions by Hendrickson are wrong. It doesn’t matter if he wasn’t on the council when all this stuff started. He’s on there now, and he needs to take a stand. If he doesn’t want to, he should not have applied to fill the seat. In addition, council members need to be present for meetings.

Roorda to Run For County Exec

6 Oct

Before I begin, I thought I would point out that Jeff Roorda has been blocked on Wikipedia for trying to edit his own page to make himself look better.

One might have thought that after losing two elections in a row in rightward-moving Jefferson County (2014 and 2016), Jeff Roorda’s political career was over (at least as a Democrat). But Roorda, a former state representative and current business manager for the St. Louis Police Union, has decided to give it another shot, this time with a run for county executive in 2018.

Roorda is in an odd position. He has spent the last three years focused entirely on St. Louis issues, but wants to lead Jefferson County. He has also spent the last three years stoking divisions, but claims he can work with the county council in a harmonious manner. His ability to stir up controversy is rewarded with book sales and CNN appearances, but it is not useful in governing.

In the Leader this week, Roorda mentions the current “bitter fighting” that takes places between the council and the current executive, Ken Waller, who is not seeking another term (at least not in that position). He is right about that. But would Roorda be better? Waller at least put on a genial face in public (which has been enough to fool the Leader) while carrying out his skullduggery behind closed doors. But Roorda is open with his harsh remarks and aggressive behavior. I don’t see how that will bring about good relationships.

Loyal Democrat

In an interview with former House speaker Tim Jones on 97.1 FM, Roorda said that the Democratic party has gone too far with this Black Lives Matter stuff and become what he considers to be anti-police. He says that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton hurt JeffCo Democrats because of this, and that this issue is what gave Donald Trump the victory last year.

Since protecting police from any scrutiny or oversight is his main issue, I was expecting Roorda to come out and endorse Trump in the last election, but he did not. He refused to endorse Clinton in a Leader candidate questionnaire. I was even thinking that Roorda might opportunistically try to switch parties. He regularly runs as a conservative, pro-life, pro-gun candidate. I thought he might go with the JeffCo flow and try to increase his chances of victory with a switch to the GOP, but he has not done so.

Negativity

Roorda claims to be friends with his presumable GOP opponent in the race, recently-resigned state House representative John McCaherty, and says the race will be clean and issue-based. But given Roorda’s history of harsh attacks and questionable claims, I don’t think that will last.

Wild Card

Roorda is disliked by many in the city, particularly on the left, for his various controversial actions. He has said that if he wins this race he will resign from the police union. Therefore, many in the city will be pulling for him to win in order to be rid of him. But will that turn into concrete support, given in a way that won’t alienate JeffCo voters?

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.

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