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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the politician pay lawsuit, in which several current and former elected officials (including Waller, who has since withdrawn from the suit), sued the taxpayers to get more money for themselves.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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JeffCo Reps Mostly Quiet on Greitens

26 Apr

Updated to add Revis statement.

With Governor Eric Greitens facing three felony charges and a jarring House investigative report, a number of politicians have called on him to resign, including state Attorney General and US Senate candidate Josh Hawley. But less than half of Jefferson County’s legislators have done so. Here is a list:

  • Rep. Becky Ruth, GOP, 114th district, Festus – called for his resignation on April 12 in a Facebook post.
  • That same day, Sen. Gary Romine, GOP, 3rd district, Farmington, and two other Missouri senators signed a letter to President Trump asking him to tell Greitens to resign. Romine, who has had an acrimonious relationship with the governor since Greitens took office, called on the governor to consider resigning in February.
  • Also on April 12, JeffCo’s newest representative, Mike Revis, Democrat, 97th district, Fenton, called for Greitens’ resignation. He is also one of 20 cosponsors (19 of them Democrats) of a bill to allow the House committee investigating the governor to introduce articles of impeachment against Greitens “upon a finding of good cause.”
  • On April 17, Rep. Rob Vescovo, 112th district, Arnold, the GOP majority leader, issued a statement with the rest of the House GOP leadership asking the governor to step down.
  • Reps. Elaine Gannon, Shane Roden, and Dan Shaul and Sen. Paul Weiland (all Republicans) have made no calls for resignation at this time. They are likely awaiting Greitens’ trial next month and/or the completion of the House investigation before commenting.
  • Rep. Ben Harris (the other JeffCo Democrat) does not appear to have made a statement on Greitens, but his office could not confirm that. Harris has not cosponsored the aforementioned impeachment bill.

DeSoto Officer Sues City over Firing

1 Apr

Mike McMunn, who was named DeSoto interim police chief on November 3 of last year after previous chief Rick Draper resigned (but was probably forced out), and then was fired on February 7, only to rejoin the force two weeks later as a sergeant, has filed a lawsuit (read it here) against the city over his firing. He also alleges that his rehiring agreement was violated and that part of this treatment was for political reasons.

Here is a timeline of events:

      • 10-23-17 – Police chief Rick Draper resigned (probably under threat of termination, I am hearing)
      • 11-3-17 – McMunn named interim chief
      • 1-29-18 – DeSoto police engage in high-speed chase over a stolen donation jar that leads to a bad crash in Washington County (McMunn was not doing the chasing)
      • 2-5-18 – Draper comes back to the department as a detective
      • 2-7-18 – McMunn fired, and while the city won’t say why, the chase and crash appears to be the official reason. McMunn says the city manager, Ann Baker, and the city attorney, Mark Bishop, fired him, even though his contract says only the city council can do that.
      • 2-19-18 – New police chief Joe Edwards’ first day
      • 2-21-18 – McMunn returns to work at the same rate of pay he received as acting chief
      • 3-23-18 – McMunn files lawsuit

McMunn states that after he was fired, he requested some documents from the city (personnel records and policies and such). One could surmise that these were wanted in preparation for a lawsuit. McMunn states that after this request was made the city started talks with him about bringing him back on the force at his old rank of sergeant but at his chief level of pay. The deal also said McMunn need not sign a waiver of litigation (basically agreeing not to sue).

However, he states that as soon as he came back to work, new chief Edwards, City Manager Baker, mayor Larry Sanders, and city attorney Bishop all, one at a time, pressured him to sign a waiver, which he declined to do. His next paycheck then showed a rate of pay $2.51 per hour lower than what was agreed upon. McMunn is suing to have his pay restored and the termination expunged from his record.

Claims of Political Motive

The lawsuit alleges that some of this treatment is politically motivated. Bishop has filed as a candidate in the August GOP primary for county prosecuting attorney. McMunn states that he is a vocal candidate of another candidate, presumably Bishop’s GOP opponent, Trish Stefanski. McMunn alleges that it is for this reason that Bishop had it out for him. (I notice that former chief Draper is also a Stefanski supporter.)

While I don’t doubt that McMunn was mistreated by the city and its ethically-dubious leadership, I have some skepticism about this part of the suit. This is in large part because McMunn’s attorney is Allison Sweeney, daughter and law partner of Robert Sweeney, who I have written much about and who has built a local municipal law empire while frequently interfering in politics. Perhaps the Sweeneys saw the chance to append a political shot onto this otherwise credible suit.

Related to this, here is a Leader ad from 2016:

judge-ad2

Note on the last line that the Sweeneys and Stefanski teamed up here to promote the Democratic judicial ticket. While I do not allege that there is any collusion here with the candidate, we see that all three agree on the type of candidates that should be elected to judicial system positions in JeffCo. So it makes you wonder.

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.

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.

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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