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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the politician pay lawsuit, in which several current and former elected officials (including Waller, who has since withdrawn from the suit), sued the taxpayers to get more money for themselves.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 GOP Responds to Party-Switchers

24 May

As the political tide in Jefferson County has switched from blue to red over the past eight years, local candidates are starting to take notice. Candidates that would have (and in some cases, previously have) filed as Democrats are now assuming the Republican mantle. This includes several sitting judges who were elected as Democrats but are running for re-election in 2018 as members of the GOP.

In one case, the local party organ, the Jefferson County Republican Central Committee (JCRCC) has decided to take a stand. Gary Stout, who ran in the Democrat primary for county executive four years ago (and received only 21% of the vote) is running for the same office on the GOP side this year. So earlier this month the committee decided to send a letter to the county clerk:

The second page of the document is a statement by the part requesting the state party and the legislature to take steps to allow the party to control who runs under its banner.

The second page is necessary because the party really has no leg to stand on in asking for Stout to be removed from the ballot. Under Missouri law, a candidate just has to show up during the filing period, say which office he/she wants to run for and for which party, and pay $50. A candidate does not need to prove that he/she is a loyal or longtime member of the party. Furthermore, voters can vote in whatever primary they want to; Missouri has open primaries.

It is no surprise that the party wants to control who gets to run for office. Going back to the early days of party politics in this country, the party bosses wanted to select who they thought was the correct candidate, based on loyalty, pliability, or other criteria. But in the past 100 years, the pesky voters have taken over the right to choose what candidates win the party nomination, and sometimes they don’t choose the person that the party bosses want them to choose.

The solution here is simple. During the campaign, the party bigwigs can make it widely known that they don’t think Stout is a real Republican. Make your case to the voters, let them decide. Stout probably doesn’t have much of a chance anyway, running against Dennis Gannon, husband of state representative Elaine Gannon. So why go after Stout and not former Democrats like Judge Ed Page or county prosecutor candidate Mark Bishop, both of whom have much greater chances of winning the primary? I’m really not sure what the point of this letter is.

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.

Most JeffCo Reps Vote Against Prevailing Wage Repeal

15 Mar

One of the major union-related issues the Missouri Legislature has looked at in recent years is prevailing wage laws, which regulate and inflate what construction workers are paid for work on public construction projects. The state House passed a bill Tuesday to repeal these laws. The bill now moves to the House. According to the Post-Dispatch:

Supporters of the repeal say getting rid of the labor rule would save taxpayer dollars and make it less complicated to get government projects underway. Opponents say the law would essentially take money out of workers’ pockets.

According to MissouriNet:

A sticking point with many Republicans which represent rural districts is that contractors don’t report their wages paid, and worker pay is then skewed toward urban areas where the cost of living and wages are much higher.

The bill passed the House with 89 votes, as 20 Republicans voted no. That includes four Jefferson County GOP representatives: Elaine Gannon, Becky Ruth, Shane Roden, and Dan Shaul. Democrats Ben Harris and Mike Revis also voted no. The only JeffCo rep to support the bill was Majority Leader Rob Vescovo.

This is another example of how, even as the GOP has taken over the county, local politicians still generally side with unions, although not unanimously as they once did.

Dem Win in Special Election – What Does It Really Mean

20 Feb

Two weeks ago, a special election was held in Missouri House district 97, which covers parts of Arnold and Fenton, including a small slice of St. Louis County. The election was necessary because Rep. John McCaherty (GOP), who was in his 4th and final term in that seat (due to term limits), resigned to focus on his run for county executive, which he has since decided to back out of.

In the special election, Democrat Mike Revis defeated Republican David Linton in an upset. Revis brought in 51.5% of the vote and won with a 108-vote margin.

Of course, this got Democrats excited, even on the national level, sure that this means a blue wave is coming in November. Some examples:

I think the Trump comparison is not that relevant. Trump was running against Hillary Clinton. If Clinton had run as the candidate in district 97, she would have lost big there once again. Instead, the local Democratic party nominated a moderate candidate who touts his NRA membership. And using the presidential election results to suggest that the 97th district is “deeply red” is erroneous. Keep in mind that McCaherty was a firm no on right-to-work legislation, reflecting the views of the district.

And Trump was not running either. Instead, the county GOP committee, a sclerotic, pro-establishment bunch that is primarily interested in getting themselves re-elected to the committee and that probably thought Jeb Bush would win the 2016 GOP nomination, chose a candidate who was blamed by at least one person for losing the seat:

Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, blamed the Jefferson County loss on a weak candidate.

“I’ve won a lot of Democratic races for Republicans,” Engler said. “In order to do that, you have to outwork your opponent, not kind of work your opponent.”

Some blamed Governor Greitens and his current scandal for the loss:

It should also be noted that 14,000 people voted in this race in 2016, when McCaherty had no Democrat opponent, versus the 3,500 that voted in the special election. While the labor union troops that were reportedly out in full force in this campaign can make a big difference in a low-turnout race, I think their efforts will be insufficient come November 2018.

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.

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.”

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