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Budget “Crisis” Was a Total Nothingburger

11 Jun

County executive Ken Waller, a Republican, went to the microphone Thursday to inform the unquestioning St. Louis media that there was a budget crisis in Jefferson County and that a shutdown was imminent. In fact, there were merely two typos in some account numbers, something that was easily fixed. This is all part of a six-month fight by Waller, who is trying to stop the county council from cutting spending. Instead of accepting political defeat after a veto-proof majority of the council opposed him, Waller decided to freak everybody out with a #fakenews shutdown threat. This is another sign of the abysmal leadership Waller has provided in his 7.5 years as executive.

waller-pc

Back Story

As I wrote in January, the council passed an amended version of the 2018 budget Waller proposed. However, Waller’s ally Tony Dorsett, the county counselor who has announced he is resigning effective June 22, used some tortured analysis of the county charter to say that Waller could just ignore the council’s budget until January 1 and then implement his own budget. However, the council is also required to pass an ordinance to implement the budget. But Dorsett waved his hand and said this was not necessary.

Meanwhile, the council, as is its right, moved to amend Waller’s budget again to make its desired changes, while also passing the implementation ordinance. The main changes the council desired, totaling about $130,000 in reductions, were:

  • Cutting the county’s contribution to the Economic Development Corporation (which doesn’t do much, from what I can tell) in half,
  • Cutting the salary budget of the counselor’s office, and
  • Cutting the salary budget of the county auditor’s office.

Waller argues that the latter two cuts are retribution for those officials’ refusal to approve the payment of the county council’s legal bills in its efforts to fight the politician pay lawsuit, in which several current and former elected officials (including Waller, who has since withdrawn from the suit), sued the taxpayers to get more money for themselves. And that may be true or not, but the council has the right to take steps to stop those in county government who want to play games. The council says the cuts were not punitive and were made to reallocate the money to other purposes (county bus, legal fees, legal fees).

Quick Fix

Waller called for an emergency council meeting for June 8, the day after his press conference. He placed an item on the agenda to rescind the ordinance that the council passed over his veto, thus eliminating the council’s budget cuts. At the meeting, the council amended the item to reiterate its previous cuts, making the following corrections (by a 6-1 vote) to two account numbers:

account strings

This hardly seems like a crisis. When county auditor Richard Carter III resigned on Wednesday over this issue, he said “the account strings are all wrong.” That seems to be an epic overreaction, especially since the auditor’s office knew exactly what accounts the council meant, judging from this February memo:

strings memo auditor.jpg

Again, seems like a pretty minor thing. So when Carter told the Leader “oh, we can’t transfer money between accounts because some of the accounts do not exist,” he knew exactly what the council’s intent was.

Word is that Carter already had another job lined up when he resigned, so maybe his departure was not all about taking an ethical stand. His term was to end in January, and he was not running for re-election.

I would also not look at Dorsett’s resignation as some kind of moral move. He has been providing legal cover for Waller for years; why stop now? Waller recently tried to appoint him to the county municipal judge job, but the council refused to go along. Dorsett presumably would have been out the door in January, also, when Waller’s term (mercifully) concludes.

Why Go Nuclear?

The question is, why would Waller get everyone all spun up about a fake shutdown threat? It just makes the county government look bad. He may think it only makes the council look bad, but he has plenty of stink attached to himself. I’m seeing many comments saying “the whole idea of charter government was a mistake.” It seems like he just wants to damage candidates ahead of November’s election, even though this will only help Democrats. I can’t imagine it will help his own run for county clerk.

Unfortunately, bringing in the St. Louis media for his press conference accomplished Waller’s goal of inciting mass hysteria. The big city outlets, who do not follow JeffCo affairs, had no idea of the back story, and took Waller’s scaremongering at face value, spreading the erroneous fears throughout the region and causing unnecessary alarm to county employees who feared they would miss out on pay.

But we have seen this before. Waller sued the council last March after they passed an ordinance that gave them the power to remove people from county boards. A judge eventually threw out Waller’s suit after the county spent big bucks on legal fees. Waller also removed his frequent foe, councilwoman Renee Reuter, from the East-West Gateway board after she resisted his attempts to gut the county’s budget for legal fees to fight Waller-associated lawsuits against the county.

Waller is accustomed to getting his way, and if he doesn’t, he lashes out with no regards for the consequences. And that is why Waller set off a fake news budget crisis over two typos.

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Collector Candidate Saga Raises Suspicions

16 May

Update: Short tells her version of events here.

Lisa Brewer Short announced way back on May 28, 2017 that she intended to run for Jefferson County Collector as a Republican against longtime (8 terms!) incumbent Democrat Beth Mahn in the fall of 2018, according to her Facebook page. When it came time to file as a candidate earlier this year, Short showed up on the first day (Feb. 27). However, she had to withdraw the day after the filing period closed a month later because she states she was blindsided by a requirement for a bonding affidavit that she was not informed about until she filed. But now, a turn of events has allowed her to place her name back on the ballot for the August primary.

A requirement that is unique to candidates for collector and treasurer, officials who handle the county’s money, is that they have to present a signed affidavit from an insurance company saying that they meet the statutory bond requirement for the position, meaning their personal financial and legal history is deemed trustworthy enough that an insurance company will sell them a bond, $750,000 worth in the case of the collector.

Short states that this requirement is not listed on the county clerk’s website, where the requirements to run for office are listed. And this is true, as you can see if you follow the link. The bonding requirement is also not listed as a treasurer requirement. The page does reference the relevant state law, and the bonding requirement is mentioned there, but I don’t see why you wouldn’t list it on the clerk’s page, which gives you the impression it is all-inclusive.

This lack of notice did not give Short enough time to pay off some debt and have that show up on her credit score in order to meet the requirements before the filing deadline, so she withdrew her candidacy, leaving a rather unknown Republican, Julie Zelenda, as the only person left to take on Mahn.

However, Zelenda withdrew from the collector’s race on May 9. This left the GOP ballot devoid of collector candidates. This triggered a state law that says candidate filing must reopen for 5 days in such a situation. Short went to the clerk’s office to re-register as a candidate, having since met the requirements for bonding, but states that she had to spend the whole day making phone calls and being quite persistent to get the clerk’s office to let her register. Here is a news story, posted after filing reopened, indicating that the clerk’s office was not aware of the law about the 5 day filing period. The clerk’s office does mention the bonding requirement in this story (which was posted after Short’s battle).

Beth Mahn is one of the county politicians that is part of the lawsuit demanding that county taxpayers give them extra salary and retirement benefits (see her get confronted by Elliott Davis here). The greedy plaintiffs cite Boone County (where Columbia is) as a county with higher salaries for elected officials that Jefferson County should match. Well, if you go to the Boone County website, they inform potential candidates all about the bonding requirement for collector candidates, and even tell them what company to talk to. So maybe they earn the extra pay there.

Why would the Jefferson County Clerk’s office not be upfront about the bonding requirement? Was it a general failure of their duties, or was it because the current clerk, Randy Holman, and his predecessor, Wes Wagner, wanted to protect Mahn, their fellow Democrat and pay lawsuit plaintiff, by blocking any potential opponents? Short thinks the latter is a distinct possibility.

Comments on Lawsuit Column

12 Feb

Peggy Bess had a column in the February 1 Leader about the big legal bills being rung up by our county government in Hillsboro. I want to make three comments on the article.

First, in tallying up the costs, she doesn’t even add in the impact of the biggest lawsuit: the one concerning politician pay. Bess comes up with a total dollar amount of $83,610 for the Waller lawsuit – that he lost – over who could remove certain board members. But only about a week previously, Steve Taylor, also of the Leader, gave a total bill of over $150,000 for the two cases combined. It seems like mentioning the pay lawsuit would have only bolstered her point.

Second, the article attempts to place blame for these bills evenly between county executive Ken Waller and the county council. But the fact is, Waller is the one filing and participating in lawsuits. He filed the lawsuit Bess mentions. In the column, Bess casually dismisses the result of the lawsuit: “wow, that matters,” she sarcastically notes. But Waller lost because the issue wasn’t even ripe (ready for judicial involvement, since no board member had actually been removed). So it was a totally frivolous lawsuit, filed by Waller in a fit of pique, that is costing county taxpayers so much money. You can’t blame the council for that.

The other lawsuit, that continues to cost big bucks, is the suit by many current and former county officeholders asking for more money. Waller joined in this suit, and later left it under public and media pressure. Again, the council has no choice but to defend taxpayers, or this suit could cost the county $1 million or more in back pay. Once again, Bess should blame the plaintiffs, not the defendants.

Finally, Bess mentions that which is odd about the Missouri Attorney General’s sunshine lawsuit against councilwoman Renee Reuter, alleging that she ordered legal invoices to be destroyed. Namely:

  • The documents were not destroyed and have been provided to parties including the Leader.
  • “Under past Missouri attorneys general, Sunshine Law suits were hardly ever filed.” In one case a few years back in which Arnold violated the sunshine law by refusing to hand over city hall visitors logs, the AG threatened a lawsuit unless the records were handed over, giving Arnold a way out. But the current AG skipped this step.

On another note, not mentioned in the article, is that emails are presumably backed up on the server, and so cannot just be deleted from your desktop. And Reuter would surely know this. Also, the order to delete them allegedly came over the phone, so it comes down to a she said/she said situation. Questionable.

Colorful Prosecutor Running for Top Job

23 Jan

Jefferson County assistant prosecutor Thomas Hollingsworth, who works DWI cases, has announced he will run for prosecuting attorney as a Democrat in 2018, according to the January 11 Leader. There are already two declared Republican candidates – Mark Bishop and Trisha Stefanski.

I have a suggestion for Hollingsworth: since he prosecuted Jame Critchlow’s DWI case last year, his campaign slogan should be “I actually put a Critchlow in jail” – you know, unlike his boss, outgoing prosecutor Forrest Wegge (Democrat).

I was on a jury a couple of years ago for a case in which Hollingsworth was the prosecutor. I found him to be an effective and entertaining courtroom operator, and he won the case. You can take a look at him here, addressing the November 13 county council meeting during the public comments about increasing employee health insurance costs.

Summary of the County Budget Battle

21 Jan

A low-key budget battle has been going on in Jefferson County over the past few weeks that temporarily prevented the county from making payments. It began when the GOP-dominated council passed on December 26 an amended version of the budget proposed by Republican county executive Ken Waller.

The main difference between the two budgets appears to be whether to cut spending or dip into reserves to fund some items both sides seem to agree on – an additional 0.5% county employee pay raise, the JeffCo Express bus system Highway 30 route, and the county council’s legal fees. (You can see the council’s budget amendments starting on page 182 at this link.)

But instead of signing or vetoing the council’s budget, Waller ignored it. He did so based on his reading of this county charter provision:

7.2.8. No later than the last day of the fiscal year, the County Council by Ordinance must adopt the proposed budget as the County budget for the ensuing fiscal year. If the Council fails to adopt a budget by this date, the budget proposed by the County Executive is to be deemed approved.

His reasoning (aided by county counselor Tony Dorsett) is this, from a January 5 press release:

The Charter makes it very clear that an “Ordinance” is a bill that is both “enacted by the County Council, and signed by the County Executive….” Accordingly, the bill passed by the County Council on December 26, 2017 (Bill No. 17-1150A2, A3), and which I did not sign, was not enacted prior to the last day of the fiscal year of 2017.

I guess he thinks the council’s budget was wiped away on January 1 in favor of his own, and he doesn’t need to bother to veto it? One could argue that the charter provision that a bill not signed or vetoed becomes law after 20 days is relevant here.

Chalk this up to another poorly written item in the charter, but I think this claim involves some twisting of the language. It says the council has to adopt a budget; nothing is said about the executive in 7.2.8. From a practical perspective, this interpretation would mean that an executive could always get his own budget enacted by simply ignoring and/or vetoing the council’s budget and waiting for January 1 to roll around. Does anyone think that was the intent? This provision seems to merely provide for a backup budget in a case where the council refuses to or is unable to pass a budget by majority vote.

But to add another layer to this, look at the next paragraph in the charter:

7.2.9. To implement the adopted budget, the County Council must adopt in accordance with Missouri Law:

7.2.9.1. An appropriation Ordinance making appropriations by Department, Division or other organizational unit and authorizing a single appropriation for each program or activity;

The council passed this ordinance in the same bill as the budget, which was not signed into law. So one might think the budget for this year is not in effect.

County Checks

I have learned from county officials that Jefferson County did not issue checks the first half of this month due to this confusion over the budget. However, Waller  informed the relevant offices that deal with payments (auditor, clerk, treasurer) early this week that Dorsett’s legal opinion was that Waller’s budget is valid and that payments can proceed. New council chairman Don Bickowski (GOP, District 1) had sent an email to these offices last week stating that the lack of an appropriations ordinance meant payments could not be made, and pointing out that the county charter calls for removal of county officers who spend money that is not duly appropriated.

Questions

This state law, RSMo 50.62, seems to be relevant here:

If at the termination of any fiscal year in counties of classes one and two the appropriations necessary for the support of the government for the ensuing year have not been made, the several amounts appropriated in the last annual appropriation order for the objects and purposes therein specified, so far as they relate to operation and maintenance expenses, are deemed to be reappropriated for the several objects and purposes specified in the appropriation order

In summary, if the council doesn’t pass an appropriations ordinance, the county can continue operating at last year’s spending levels. Is this what Waller is doing?

Also, at the January 8 council meeting (agenda here), Waller proposed an amendment to his budget to allocate money for the aforementioned three items (pay raise, bus, legal fees). It passed, 7-0. It would need to be passed again at the next meeting (Monday) to go into effect. But it isn’t on the agenda. Why not?

Stay tuned.

Waller Eyes Run for County Clerk

21 Dec

Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller, dogged with continuing questions over his lawsuits against the county, faced with a recall effort, and locked in a dysfunctional relationship with the county council, announced in July that he would not run for a third term as county executive. But he kept the door open to running for something else. And now he has updated his campaign committee with the Missouri Ethics Commission, which oversees campaign finance, to state that he intends to run for county clerk in 2018.

clerk committee

Screen shot from Ken Waller campaign committee page at mec.mo.gov

Much of what Waller does is done out of personal animosity, even though he loudly denies it. For example, that time he removed council chairwoman Renee Reuter from her seat on the East-West Gateway board after she called him out for his ongoing conflict of interest in which he is preventing the county from paying the legal bills to defend against his lawsuits.

On this note, guess who is already planning to run for county clerk as a GOP candidate? A guy named Jeremy Day, who ran unsuccessfully for the job in 2014 and who just happens to be one of the leaders of the effort to recall Waller. Day has not announced publicly, but he has made it known in political circles that he is running again, and Waller knows this.

This is not to say that Day owns the nomination since he was first in. We just have to ask whether Waller wants the job because he has something to offer the residents of the county as clerk, or if he just wants 1) a paycheck, and 2) revenge.

The other office Waller had expressed interest in was circuit clerk, a job held by Republican Mike Reuter, who happens to be the husband of the aforementioned Renee Reuter, and thus another person Waller may want to take on for personal reasons.

There were also whispers that Waller wanted to challenge GOP State Senator Paul Wieland, with whom he has also had disagreements (I sense a pattern here).

It should be mentioned that county clerk is one of the few county elected offices still held by Democrats. The incumbent is Randy Holman, who was appointed by…Ken Waller, after longtime clerk Wes Wagner retired and Waller had to appoint another Democrat, per the county charter. If Waller gets the nomination, he will have to explain to voters why he is a better choice for auditor than the guy he appointed to be auditor and spoke glowingly about. Unless Waller and Holman made some sort of “step aside in 2018” deal.

Waller will be a formidable candidate for clerk, with his $65,000 campaign fund and his widespread name recognition as a veteran Republican politician in a Republican county. But he needs to tell us why he really wants the job, and whether he will be able to get along with the people that he needs to get along with to do it.

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.

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