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Byrnes Mill City Admin Moves On

11 Jul

The Byrnes Mill city administrator, Larry Perney, was hired by Manchester as their city administrator and took over that job back in April, reports the Post-Dispatch.

Manchester must be one of those places where they don’t have Google. Surely, if they had known what a mess Byrnes Mill is, they wouldn’t have hired someone from Byrnes Mill to run their city, right? Right? Perney was named in a lawsuit against the city in 2014:

A former police chief says he lost his job because he reported “fixed” traffic tickets and falsified court documents to a prosecutor and elected officials, and alleges he was ordered to enforce ticket quotas.

The suit was settled for a relatively small amount of money in 2015. The Post-Dispatch noted that:

Byrnes Mill, a northwestern Jefferson County town of about 2,800 along Highway 30, has long held a reputation as a speed trap with tough enforcement of traffic laws.

Byrnes Mill cried hard against SB 5 two years ago, which limited the amount of money cities could reap from traffic tickets. This law forced Byrnes Mill to cut back on ticketing and lower its traffic fines. The city has had lots of trouble with its police department in recent years, with chiefs being fired and officers going to jail. Mike Smith, the chief who filed the aforementioned lawsuit, is under federal indictment for stealing in the line of duty.

New Administrator

Byrnes Mill, recently rejected by voters in its attempt to enact three tax hikes, has decided to give its city clerk, Debbie LaVenture, the additional duties of the city administrator. While I can applaud the idea of cutting the payroll of a city government, I wonder about Byrnes Mill not wanting to bring in outside eyes. I look at the recent theft case at the Grandview school district, which by many accounts resulted from giving too much unchecked power to one person. The BM city council does not appear to be all that interested in oversight, judging from events of the past few years, just like the Grandview and Fox school boards were not paying attention leading up to their scandals. Continue to keep an eye on Byrnes Mill, especially at election time, because they will probably try again to raise taxes.

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Pevely-Style Actions Shot Down by Area Judges

26 Apr

Two recent court rulings should prompt Pevely to change some practices that would now appear to be unlawful. The practices are charging money for redaction of material for open records requests and limiting what can be said in the public comment portion of board meetings.

Sunshine Law Overcharging

First, in January, a St. Louis County judge said that the county prosecutor could not charge fees to a Sunshine Law requestor for the time it took to segregate open (releasable) records from closed records. The government body has to do this free of charge (they can still charge for finding and copying documents).

Pevely is in the habit, when receiving certain records requests, of demanding a payment of $125 dollars up front so the city attorney, Sean Westhoff of Duggan & Westhoff in Imperial, can separate open from closed records. In one instance, this review was merely of minutes of closed sessions of board of aldermen meetings to “redact the personally identifiable personnel information.” That requires an attorney?! In another instance, Pevely claimed that attorney fees were needed to provide a copy of a lawsuit settlement and the results of closed session roll call votes. Again, no attorney is needed for this; all of this material is clearly a public record under Missouri law. Is the city trying to thwart the Sunshine Law, or merely taking bad advice from another bad JeffCo municipal lawyer?

Pevely’s actions are quite similar to what happened in the St. Louis County lawsuit. The decision there only impacts that county though. But if someone were to sue Pevely over this, they might have a good case. But government entities often rely on the fact that most people have neither the money or inclination to pursue such a lawsuit. Pevely should stop charging exorbitant legal fees for Sunshine requests.

Public Comment Censoring

In University City, a resident spoke during public comment to call for the censure of the mayor. The mayor flipped out, had the police remove the man, and banned him from future meetings. A federal judge responded:

In her order on Tuesday, District Judge Audrey Fleissig also ordered the city to pay Roberts’ lawyer fees and costs totaling $3,060, according to the consent decree.

Fleissig also ordered that the city “cease making a public statement at city council meetings that personal attacks on councilmembers will be ruled out of order” and “cease making a public statement at city council meetings that councilmembers’ motives may not be called into question.”

Also:

The decision also calls for the city to “develop, implement, and enforce a written policy prohibiting content-based restrictions on speech during the public comment period at city council meetings.”

In Pevely, the city demands that only topics on the meeting agenda can be mentioned in public comments. But how are residents supposed to air their concerns about issues that the city has not deemed important enough to put on the agenda? The public comment section is a way for residents to publicly raise concerns that all city officials may not be aware of (sometimes certain officials like to withhold information). This policy is just a way to censor comment. The city does allow you to request to be added to the meeting agenda, but this requires action days in advance of the meeting, creating hurdles to being heard.

The Fox School District also has a very restrictive comment policy. Not only do they limit the public to speaking on agenda items, they don’t allow the mention of specific employees (so you can’t say “the superintendent gave her son a scholarship” after your emails to the board go unanswered) and they ban non-residents from commenting. In addition, they demand a “specific outline” in advance of what you want to say. They can use this to decide to shunt you off into a closed session, ensuring that other residents can’t hear what you have to say.

In light of Judge Fleissig’s ruling, both of these entities need to reconsider their draconian public comment policies. I hear that a change may be coming in Pevely, which would be a good thing.

Sweeney Screws Up Again

27 Mar

Oh man, the laughs were loud and side-splitting in my household when I belatedly saw this little tidbit. It turns out that the Saline Valley Fire Protection District, which got a tax hike passed in August of 2016, has to go before the voters again for a redo. Why?

Because their attorney, Bob Sweeney, f’ed up the ballot language!!!

According to the Leader, who limited this story to its West Side edition in February, the State Auditor’s office ruled that the tax initiative from 2016 only applied to that year. Here is the 2016 language:

Shall the board of directors of the Saline Valley Fire Protection District of Jefferson County, Missouri be authorized to levy an additional operating tax of not more than twenty-five cents ($0.25) on the one hundred dollars ($100.00) assessed valuation to provide funds for the support of the District, with the levy increase to be effective for taxes imposed in 2016?

That last sentence does seem a bit awkward. We see tax increases on the ballot left and right in these parts, especially on the upcoming April 4 ballot, and the other entities don’t have this problem. Couldn’t Sweeney just have copy and pasted some language? Why did he put the year in there like that?

Here’s a delicious excerpt from the Leader article:

saline sweeney

Rebuke! So now Saline has to spend $5,474 to hold another election. That money should come out of the district’s payments to Sweeney, but the board probably won’t make such a common sense move. That amount is surprisingly low to me, considering that Sweeney’s decision to illegally kick a candidate off the ballot in the North Jefferson Ambulance District cost that entity $20,000 in extra election costs.

This is more evidence of my repeated assertion that Sweeney, who serves as attorney for a multitude of local entities, including the cities of Arnold and Byrnes Mill, is, in addition to being ethically bankrupt, just not a very good lawyer. Since municipal law is almost all he does, you would think he could handle something simple like this. Now if only these entities would realize he’s a bad lawyer and get rid of him…

More Arnold Mayor Drama

One person who seems to have belatedly realized that Sweeney is no good is Arnold city councilman and mayoral candidate Phil Amato, who correctly stated in January that Sweeney and police chief Robert Shockey are the ones running the city. Amato is the latest in a line of Arnold council members, including Ken Moss, Cricky Lang, and Sandra Kownacki, to apparently come around to the realization that things are rotten in Arnold. I suspect, though, that part of Amato’s epiphany is politically motivated.

Now, the Leader reports that Amato has filed a complaint against Sweeney with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel (OCDC) of the state Supreme Court (I understand this is not the first complaint against Sweeney filed there). Amato says Sweeney violated attorney-client privilege as it relates to the election deal that Amato offered Counts. I don’t know if this particular complaint is legitimate, but if you have to get Al Capone for tax evasion, or get OJ for robbery, that’s good enough for me.

The Leader also reports that the bogus Missouri Election Commission (MEC) claim Counts filed against Amato for the election deal offer was dismissed by MEC for being out of its jurisdiction. Sadly, there is only one week left in this contentious Arnold mayor election campaign. With events like this, I wish it would drag on for months.

Arnold Considering Lower Land Requirement for Chickens

18 Feb

Thanks in part to local residents who organized via Facebook, the city of Arnold is considering relaxing its current rules on lot size needed for keeping chickens in the city limits, but at the same time tightening other rules. Currently, an Arnoldian must have one acre of land to have chickens, and the city will come do an inspection, but there are no coop regulations.

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via Pixabay.com

 

The city staff presented a “rough preliminary draft” of a new chicken ordinance at the February 8 work session (video here, chicken discussion starts at the 37 minute mark). Community development director Mary Holden basically said she was throwing this proposal out there to start the discussion and get input from the council, so I won’t blame her too much for the egregious parts of it, although it should be noted that most of the proposals are on the restrictive side compared to other cities in the area.

I don’t have a copy of the full proposal, but the highlights include:

  • minimum of 1/2 acre required
  • 4 bird limit
  • written permission from neighbors required
  • setbacks – 15′ from the property line, 50′ from buildings
  • coop rules – at the meeting they said the rules were similar to what Ellisville and Brentwood have – this would be at least 3-4 square feet per bird in the coop and at least 10 square feet per bird in the outdoor enclosure

The requirement to get permission from the neighbors is clearly an overreach, and one councilman (it is hard to tell who is speaking in the videos) made this point. What other activities on one’s own property require permission from the neighbors? Ellisville has a notification requirement, Glendale requires permission, and Webster Groves lets neighbors comment on the application, but most do not require this. (List of local chicken ordinances here).

Land requirements vary in the area, from 7,500 square feet up to 3-5 acres. I think there’s no reason someone with a regular single-family residential lot should not be able to keep chickens. Some places, like the City of St. Louis have that rule, and for others, 7,500 square feet approximates to the low end of the range of normal-sized lots.

The number of birds that local cities allow ranges from about 4-8, so again the Arnold proposal is on the restrictive side. It is hardly worth it to keep chickens if you only have 4, considering you get 5-6 eggs per week per hen. That’s hardly enough for breakfast for two people. Arnold should allow at least 6 birds, I’d say.

For setbacks, 10 feet from the property line seems to be the most common requirement locally, so Arnold’s proposal is again on the restrictive side.

Arnold council members are going to give their input to city staff, who will come up with another draft proposal. If you live in Arnold and are interested in this issue, now is the time to call your councilman.

Pevely Lost $3,000 in Gun Money

18 Nov

At the September 19, 2016 board of aldermen meeting, Pevely mayor Steph Haas announced (at the 8:55 mark of the video) that, when the city’s police department bought new guns (Glocks) in 2014, instead of trading back the old guns (Sig Sauers – sounds like a downgrade to me), these were sold to city police officers. The cops were able to pay $235 to purchase their used duty Sig Sauer weapons and take personal ownership of them.

However, the process was handled quite poorly (whether intentionally or through incompetence) by former Pevely police officer Kevin Sullivan, who now works for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. The money, much of it in cash, went missing. Sullivan claims he gave it to former city clerk Bill Hanks, but Sullivan did not get a receipt or any proof that this handover took place.

In July 2015 (three months after Haas was elected), attorney Tom Duggan, on behalf of the city, wrote to Jefferson County prosecutor Forrest Wegge (the guy who is utterly failing to prosecute Dianne Critchlow) and asked him to request that the Missouri Highway Patrol (MHP) investigate the case. Wegge did so, and the MHP conducted an investigation. Here’s the request letter:

In total, the city bought 27 Sigs, and had 26 Glocks to sell or trade in. The trade-in value of the 26 Glocks was $6,170. In Duggan’s letter, he claims that the money missing included $2,615 in cash and $2,820 in checks (three guns were not yet paid for), which adds up to the $5,435 Sullivan says he collected. It is not clear to me what happened with the apparently unsold guns.

The MHP investigation, which ended in October 2015, was a dead end, as the investigator claimed to be unable to determine who was responsible, Sullivan or Hanks (although no bank or other records were pulled as part of the investigation). In her announcement, Haas said that $2,174 in checks had been reissued by officers (the original checks that Sullivan collected were never deposited or cashed) to the city. This amount is $646 short of the original amount of checks collected. Haas also said that two guns were turned in to the city (this would account for $470 of that $646, if the turned-in guns were originally paid for by check). However, the cash payments were being written off, because nobody knows where the money ended up. So the city is out over $3,000. Haas stated that Wegge was declining to prosecute anyone related to this case (that is starting to sound familiar).

If you ask me, this is all on officer Sullivan. He did a poor job of keeping track of who paid him, he collected a bunch of cash, and, if he actually did give the money to Hanks (who would not have been the correct person to give the money to anyway), he did not get any type of receipt. The question is, did Sullivan pocket the money himself, or was there a scheme in which he refunded the money to the officers so they could all get free guns? Both of these possibilities were posed to Sullivan in his interview with MHP and he denied them both. Here’s the final MHP report:

Hasty Departures

Both Sullivan and Hanks left the city abruptly right before the Duggan letter was sent, according to Leader reports at the time. Sullivan went “on vacation” June 16, 2015 and started his new job at the Sheriff’s Office on July 6, in another example of police forces passing on their questionable employees to other agencies. Hanks resigned from the city on June 9. Around this time, many closed sessions of the board of aldermen were being held, but nobody was commenting on what was taking place.

At the time, Hanks said he left for personal reasons, but in his MHP interview he said it was a forced resignation. He said Duggan and city administrator Dickie Brown accused him of copying personnel records for personal use, and he quit in order to “stay out of the politics.” It sounds like the city, instead of trying to find and punish the thief and get the money back, preferred to just wash its hands of the matter by forcing both suspects out of their jobs.

In the report, Hanks admits he engaged in a “high school prank that went wrong” when he was 18 and ended up with a theft charge. In his interview, Sullivan volunteered, unprompted, that Hanks “could not walk through the police station unescorted” because of the theft charge. He also volunteered, unprompted, that Hanks was forced to resign from the city. It sounds to me like Sullivan thought he found himself a patsy. He could pocket the money and blame it on the guy who had been charged with theft.

Hanks volunteered in his interview that he heard Sullivan was forced to resign because he covered up an assault by one officer on another officer. Between that, the gun mess, and Pevely’s revenue-oriented traffic ticketing, it sounds like recently-retired police chief Ron Weeks was not running a very tight ship as he bade his time until he became eligible for a LAGERS pension after the city joined the program.

Misuse of Information

What Haas failed to mention at the board meeting was that there was another infraction that MHP investigated. This was an August 2014 release of non-public police information onto Facebook, as mentioned on page 2 of the Duggan letter. The information concerned the son of Dave Bewig, the impeached former alderman and foe of Mayor Haas.

Office Kyle Weiss was fingered as the culprit during the investigation, and he admitted his guilt to MHP. As you can see in the MHP report above, this is a class A misdemeanor. However, no charges have been filed by Wegge against Weiss.

It should be noted that Weiss received a Missouri Medal of Valor in December 2014 after exchanging gunfire with and killing a wanted fugitive who had previously wounded two police officers in October 2013. But it does not appear that he acted with valor when he misused official information.

JeffCo August Primary Results

2 Aug

The vote results are in for our county. They came in fairly early this time, compared to recent years, with updates throughout the night instead of a big dump at the end of the night. Candidates in bold below are ones I endorsed.

For the statewide GOP races, our results mirrored what is happening statewide (so far), with Greitens for governor, Parson for lt. governor, Hawley for AG, and Ashcroft for SoS prevailing. Greitens has right about 35% of the 4-way vote both in JeffCo and statewide. On the Democrat side, Jake Zimmerman has a 3,000 vote lead at 50.7% in the AG race as I write this, but he won JeffCo by 2,200 votes at 60%. Judy Baker leads the treasurer race with about 62% here and statewide.

Locally, Bob Boyer pulled out a close win in the GOP assessor race. He was trailing early, as the votes from the southern part of the county came in first, but when the northern vote was tabulated, he won 36-34-29 over Mary Dunnegan and Cary Blum.

Paula Wagner cruised in the GOP treasurer race, 47-28-23 over Mark Paul and Ken Horton.

Charles Groeteke, known for losing two nailbiter races, defeated George Engelbach in a county council race that also seemed to come down to north vs south vote, by a 56-44 margin (almost 400 votes). He will face Jeff Roorda in November.

Incumbent Shane Roden prevailed in a five-way primary for House district 111 with 44% of the vote. Gary Bonacker came in 2nd with 28%.

Dan Stallman beat Kevin Weaver in council district 6 by 66 votes out of 3,600 cast in the closest race of the night.

Dave Marshak rolled to the GOP sheriff nomination, getting half the vote in a 3-way field. Ron Arnhart got 33% while Sean Cooper registered only 16%. Marshak will take on Steve Meinberg in November.

On the Democrat side, for House district 113, Karen Settlemoir-Berg beat perennial primary candidate Mike Evans by 59-41. She will take on Dan Shaul in November.

The three incumbent US Congressmen who represent our county did not fare all that well within our borders. Ann Wagner got only 77% and Blaine Luetkemeyer got 67% vs. minor challengers, and Jason Smith lost the county to Todd Mahn of Festus (but cruised district-wide). Likewise, Senator Roy Blunt got only 68% of the county GOP vote.

The one competitive judicial primary was won by Katherine Hardy Senkel, with a 34.3-33.9-31.8 victory over Tony Dorsett and Trisha Stefanski. Hardy Senkel beat Dorsett by only 83 votes.

The car sales tax issue Prop V won everywhere, while school tax votes lost in Dunklin and won in Sunrise. A Saline Fire tax vote was successful.

And finally, Chief Wana Dubie got 11% of the JeffCo vote for US Senator (Jason Kander won here with  69%).

Wipke Comments on Can Plant Deal

12 Oct

In my previous post on the city of Arnold’s deal with Anheuser-Busch on the expansion of the Arnold can plant, I mentioned Fox C-6 superintendent Jim Wipke’s reserved stance on the issue at the October 1 city council meeting. In the current issue of the Leader, Wipke made more specific remarks, so I thought I would highlight them here. This is what he said:

All I can do is look at the impact of going with a 100 percent abatement on a $150 million project. If you didn’t go with that, you may or may not have gotten the expansion, but I can tell you from a superintendent’s perspective that it would have been really, really nice for our students and taxpayers if we could have come to an agreement that wouldn’t have been a 100 percent tax abatement. I’m a superintendent with 11,500 kids to take care of, and I would have liked to have at least gotten some additional revenue out of it. A $150 million project doesn’t fall out of the sky every day, and I sure wish something better could have been done.

Once again, Wipke was very diplomatic in his statement. The fact is, “something…could have been done.” Arnold residents could have elected better leaders who would not have given away the farm. Here’s what Arnold city administrator Bryan Richison said about the negotiations:

But, Richison said, when a city negotiates a deal, like the one Arnold made with A-B InBev, it is competing with other cities and has to make the best deal it can to ensure it gets the project.

In this case, Arnold city officials felt they needed to offer a 100 percent abatement to ensure the expansion in Arnold, he said.

“The hard thing about these negotiations is there’s a lot of key information we don’t have. When they’re sitting down with us and saying, ‘Make us your best offer,’ if we say, ‘We’re only going to give you 50 percent,” we don’t know if that’s good enough.”

It’s always nice when you can make deals with other people’s money. Not just taxpayer dollars, in this case, but taxpayer dollars that belong to other governmental entities.

Who was Arnold competing with here? Only the other cities that have A-B can plants, no doubt. This was an expansion project, not new plant construction. There are can plants in Jacksonville, FL, Mira Loma, CA, Newburgh, NY and Windsor, CO. We know that Jacksonville is already undergoing expansion (with no tax abatement for schools), so that leaves three other competitors. California and New York are not known as friendly business environments. City councilmen at the October 1 meeting mentioned that there is a Florida law that limits the amount of tax abatement that can be handed out. Do CA, NY, or CO have similar laws? Was any analysis done of Arnold’s competitors, or did Arnold just jump straight to an offer of 100% abatement? Remember that Rock Fire attorney Frank Vatterott said it was “highly unusual” to have a deal with no pilot payments (“payments in lieu of taxes”) for fire districts. It is hard to believe that Arnold really had to push in all its chips in order to get this plant expansion.

What is also amazing is that the school district, fire district, and other were not notified of this deal until late September, nine months after the deal was struck and only days before it was ratified by the council. Here’s what Richison said about that:

Richison said he was surprised that officials with other taxing entities didn’t know about the deal before then because last December the city announced plans to sell the industrial revenue bonds, which included the tax abatement, when a groundbreaking was held to mark the start of construction on the can plant expansion.

Dozens of people attended that event, and news stories were published about the expansion and the financing and tax abatements.

So in effect, he’s saying “we thought you guys would see it in the paper!” What a total lack of respect and consideration.

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