Municipal Election Notes, 2019 Edition

8 Apr

A few observations on last week’s voting:

School Bonds: While there were many school propositions on the ballot, Fox and Grandview had the only bond issues (as opposed to straight tax levy hikes). These proposals required approval by 4/7 of the voters, or 57.14 percent, as per state law. While Grandview barely cleared this threshold, Fox did not, and so its Prop S failed, although it did get over 50%. I am not sure that many realized that the 4/7 requirement was in place – there was some early excitement among Fox fans (and sadness among Prop S opponents) when the vote totals initially came in.

In some cases, a 2/3 vote is required for bond issues. According to MuniBondAdvisor:

A four-sevenths majority is required for general-obligation bond issues submitted at regular elections in April, in August primaries (in even numbered years) and in November general elections (in even numbered years). At all other elections, a two-thirds majority is required.

I guess the idea is to encourage government entities to hold these votes during higher-turnout voting dates, although with only 17% turnout in JeffCo, April elections don’t get much interest from voters.

In any event, expect Fox to come back with another bond proposal. They will lower the dollar value (this one was worth $70 million) and perhaps add some other tweaks in an attempt to make the proposal more palatable. They will say that the fact that a majority of Fox voters were for Prop S gives them the moral authority to try again.

911 tax: The vote to retain a 1/4-cent sales tax for JeffCo 911 passed big, with 70% of the vote, despite vocal opposition by state senator Paul Wieland, a Republican. The Southern Missouri Conservative Fund also sent a mailer opposing the tax. This political action committee got all its money this cycle ($7,000) from…Wieland’s campaign account. The mailer also weighed in on the race for JeffCo Health Board, with the main interest of denying re-election to John Scullin, who is also chairman of the 911 dispatch board. This effort was successful.

I am not totally sure everyone understood that 911 does not provide ambulances and fire trucks, but merely does the dispatching (which is important, of course).

The big question of this campaign was: is this a tax increase or not? The 911 people said no. A 1/4-cent sales tax for 911 was passed in 2009 with a 10-year sunset provision, meaning that it was going to go away unless the 911 proposition passed at this election. So your taxes would have gone down had nothing happened or had the vote failed (911 has another 1/4-cent sales tax besides this one). Therefore I believe that this is, in fact, a tax increase.

Byrnes Mill: I have long begged for some competition for the inept group that runs Byrnes Mill, but beyond a close race for mayor in 2017, there has not been much of it. This year, however, saw challengers for mayor and two board of aldermen seats.

However, the mayor’s race was not much of a contrast. You had the incumbent, Rob Kiczenski, who has been in BM government long enough that he should have known the city PD was a raging dumpster fire (as we saw last fall), taking on Gary Dougherty, who as police chief presided over said dumpster fire. Kiczenski won the race with 62% of the vote.

The two contested board races were not close, either, as both incumbents (who were also willfully ignorant about the state of the PD) cruised to re-election.

Hillsboro Mayor: Buddy Russell remarkably won a write-in campaign with 71% in a three-way race for Hillsboro mayor. One of the people he defeated was former mayor Dennis Bradley, who in his previous stint was accused of assaulting a sheriff’s deputy, after which he resigned. During the campaign he was accused of stealing an opponent’s sign. Russell will have to oversee the rebuilding of the city police after it was found earlier this year to be in poor, poor shape, and the previous mayor, Joe Phillips, weakly resigned when he got criticized over even considering turning policing over to the county sheriff.

Fox C-6 School Board: As usual, the Dianne Critchlow supported/associated (and also teachers’ union endorsed) candidates won, Judy Smith and Carole Yount.

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Notes on My Better Together JeffCo Proposal, Which Has Nothing To Do With STL

23 Mar

A few days ago I published a proposal, created by me for purposes of debate and discussion, to combine various JeffCo government entities and services to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and improve the pool of elected leaders. This proposal was in the model of, but unrelated to, the Better Together STL movement. However, it became clear from the comments on Facebook (on my page and the pages of those who shared my article) that some people didn’t read beyond the headline and Facebook blurb. Most of the commenters spoke for or against the Better Together STL proposal itself, or seemed to think I was trying to include JeffCo in that proposal. But that is not the case. If you were one of those people, and you have made it this far, I encourage you to read and comment on my proposal.

That being said, here are some notes on my proposal.

  • While the STL proposal is headed for the 2020 ballot, my proposal is merely something I dreamed up. It has little chance of being enacted. I only hoped to spur debate and perhaps plant some seeds of change. I will note that my post was shared on Facebook by two county councilmen, so maybe there is a small chance some of my ideas could come into effect someday. The STL plan has advanced this far in part because it has wealthy benefactor Rex Sinquefield to provide funding to promote it; perhaps some rich donor would like to fund my JeffCo plan?
  • The STL plan is modeled on changes made in places like Louisville or Indianapolis where a large city was merged with its surrounding county and/or municipalities. All the haters of the BTSTL proposal don’t like the idea of STL City “taking over” the county and its revenue. My proposal is different in that there is no big city that is the focus. I am looking at merging small local entities with similar-sized neighbors. The only large entity that would come from this is a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office that takes over policing in several small JeffCo cities.
  • The best ways, I think, for the average person to push Better Together JeffCo towards reality is, first, to vote against all tax increases. Tax hikes serve as a lifeline for small towns, small school districts, and other small entities, allowing them to continue to exist as is. By denying them revenue increases, they will be forced to be creative and look at alternatives like consolidation. I think Byrnes Mill could be the first domino to fall if residents there can hold the line against tax hikes. They have rejected tax hikes four times in the past two years, but unfortunately let one slip through last April. The next election is April 2, and there will be many tax increases on the ballot.
    • Second, make it known to your board representatives, council members, and state legislators that you want to see consolidations. Whenever mergers are proposed, the people with the most skin in the game, current employees and their spouses, show up to loudly argue against the idea, in order to save their jobs. Residents on the taxpayer side of the issue need to show up as well. Legislators may have to make some tweaks to state laws to enable some district mergers.

Better Together JeffCo Proposal

17 Mar

The STL region is all atwitter about the Better Together proposal, which suggests a merger of the city of St. Louis and unincorporated St. Louis County, as well as consolidating some of the functions of the municipalities of the county. The plan is to vote on this statewide in 2020 in order to make changes to the state constitution to enable the new governing structure. Overall, I am in favor of this proposal because there is indeed too much duplication of functions in the area, along with uneven quality of service, and significant savings could be found by streamlining – if they actually go through with getting rid of unnecessary employees and offices. This would also reduce the instances of cities competing with each other with tax breaks to get Walmarts and other businesses to come to their specific areas.

The duplication is most visible is the existence of so many small, corrupt and/or incompetent municipal police departments within STL County. In addition, the city of St. Louis is a basket case and governance there can only be improved through this proposal.

How About Here?

Along the same lines, I would like to lay out a proposal for Better Together JeffCo. I believe there are a number of functions in this county that could be merged to save money and stem the constant tax increases that we have been seeing. A lot of people crow about “local control,” but in small jurisdictions that too often leads to a lack of candidates for election to boards, which leads to uncontested elections, which leads to unaccountable politicians, which often leads to abuses, bad decisions, unethical actions, and even criminal wrongdoing.

The wave of revelations of incompetence and wrongdoing in local police departments in DeSoto, Hillsboro, Byrnes Mill, and Pevely provide further evidence that my proposal is needed. Despite all of the shocking deficiencies that have been uncovered, each city has refused to shut down its police department. This doesn’t just affect finances, it affects the administration of justice, as innocent people get assaulted by unqualified police officers, incompetent chiefs chase away good cops, and guilty people go free due to shoddy evidence storage. As you can imagine, police issues are a big part of my proposal, which is as follows:

Elements of the Plan

-Merge all 911 dispatch into one entity. The majority of the county is on the same system, but Crystal City, Pevely, Festus, and DeSoto do their own police dispatching and Festus does its own fire dispatch. According to the state tax table, CC and DeSoto pay the 1/2-cent 911 sales tax, even though they have their own dispatchers. Festus and Pevely residents would start paying the tax, but the cities would save money by cutting their own dispatch services.

-Merge Pevely and Herculaneum. While Pevely is a constant source of drama and dischord, Herculaneum is a relative bastion of calm. I hardly ever write about events there, because there is not much to report. At the same time, Herculaneum looked into turning its policing over to the county sheriff last year due to its desperate financial situation (but foolishly declined). Herky is using Pevely’s jail and was using Pevely for dispatch before switching to the county 911 system. It is hard to see how Herky, with the loss of Doe Run, can afford to sustain its police. By merging the cities, they can pool resources, and the additional population will dilute the Pevely craziness, so you may end up with one functional, solvent city with reduced drama. These two cities already share a school district.

-Merge Festus and Crystal City. Come on now, we know that this split is ridiculous. I mean, the Walmart is shared by the two cities, and half the time you don’t know which of the two cities you are in. This would prevent things like Crystal City having its own separate water system instead of joining in with Festus and Herculaneum. In 2013 there was a discussion of merging the two cities fire departments into a fire district, but it went nowhere. This proposal could also include merging the school districts.

-Merge fire and ambulance districts. There are currently 7 ambulance and 18 fire districts (including municipal ones) in the county.

Maps from Jefferson County Data Book

Most of the time, from what I have seen, when there is an ambulance somewhere, you will also see a fire truck. Or you will see trucks from multiple districts at the same incident. In addition, there are places like Highway M where you have a Rock ambulance district building within a mile of one Antonia firehouse and within two miles of another one. If these entities would share facilities, we would not need to build so many of them. This would also allow for fewer administrators and officers. We are seeing requests for fire and ambulance tax increases nearly every election. Mergers would save money and reduce the need for tax hikes. The boundaries don’t line up perfectly, but I think you could have each ambulance district absorb the fire districts within it.

-Get rid of municipal police departments except for Arnold, Festus/CC, and Pevely/Herky (assuming the latter two pairs are merged as per above). The other cities would turn their policing over to the county sheriff. The small departments in the county have shown us that they don’t have the ethics, standards, training, or finances to survive on their own. Turning their duties over to the county will bring about economies of scale, eliminating unnecessary chiefs, streamlining training, fleet management, equipment, and distribution of officers around the county. The other cities would pay the sheriff’s office for service, but would likely pay less than what it would take to get their departments up to snuff.

Here is a paragraph on policing from the Better Together executive summary (page 7) that provides an idea of the costs of duplicative services:

POLICING – Today, there are 55 separate police departments covering St. Louis City and County. $468 million was spent on policing the area in 2015, or $355.20 per capita. Costs in cities such as Indianapolis, IN ($242.02 per capita) and Louisville, KY ($257.06 per capita) depict substantial savings in areas with one unified police department. Beyond the cost is the inconsistent quality of service. 75% of the departments in our region lack accreditation.

-Dissolve Byrnes Mill. This idea needs to happen on its own merits, since the city is a mess with a long line of problems with its police department. It is also questionable whether the city has sufficient revenue to stay solvent now that its ability to fund itself with traffic tickets has been curbed.

-Merge the libraries. In addition to the JeffCo library with its three branches (Arnold, Windsor, Northwest), there are libraries in Festus, DeSoto, Herculaneum, and Crystal City. The Herky library is open for very limited hours. The Festus and CC libraries are only two miles apart. DeSoto is looking to almost double the property tax for its library at the April 2 election. Hillsboro has been

Let’s bring all of these libraries under the county library system. That way they could share books, materials, and resources. We could close the Crystal City or Festus location and make the other ones branch libraries, all open to anyone in the county. Residents of Hillsboro have been trying on-and-off for almost 20 years to get their own branch. With this proposal, they would at least have access to libraries in nearby cities. This proposal would require getting rid of the library taxes in the cities that have them, but then extending the county library property tax to the entire county. A branch would probably be needed somewhere between Hillsboro and Cedar Hill to make it fair to residents in that part of the county.

Let me know what you think of this proposal, or if there are other functions that should be included in the merger.

Waller’s Sunshine Scheme Falls Flat, but Cost Big Bucks

3 Mar

The Attorney General’s Sunshine Law lawsuit against Jefferson County councilwoman Renee Reuter, a stunt that appears to have been engineered by former county executive Ken Waller, has ended with a dismissal, meaning that Reuter has not been found to have done wrong. But Waller cost county taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars over (another) attack on his political enemies.

The suit began a year ago and alleged that Reuter told county council administrative assistant Pat Schlette to delete some emails containing legal invoices in violation of the Sunshine law. The legal invoices were for work to defend the council against frivolous lawsuits filed by, or joined by, Ken Waller, including the infamous politician pay raise lawsuit.

But the simple fact is that the documents were not destroyed and they were delivered to the requestor. How can you sue someone for a Sunshine violation under these circumstances? Even if the emails were removed from one person’s computer, anyone who uses email at work knows that deleting an email from your computer does not destroy it forever – it gets backed up in the system. Reuter did not want people going in and getting the legal bills off of the admin’s computer.

Initial Instigator

Documents reveal that the party that filed the initial sunshine request in July 2017 was an attorney from the Thurman Law Firm. A different attorney from this law firm, Derrick Good, is Waller’s #1 crony and is representing the politicians who brought the politician pay case. So this request was probably an attempt to acquire information to gain an advantage in that lawsuit, in conjunction with Waller’s strategy to prevent the council from spending money to defend against Waller’s lawsuits so he could win by default. It appears that this request might have been the inception of Waller’s ploy to claim that he didn’t have to pay the bills because the law firm started work before the council passed the necessary ordinances. The city had to get its own attorney because the county counselor at the time, Tony Dorsett, whose job it was to represent the entire county, was a stooge of Waller and was antagonistic to the council.

There was a question over whether the county had to release the detailed legal bills, or whether they were closed records. But in November 2017, the bills were released to Thurman Law Firm and others who later requested them (Erin Kasten and a Leader reporter).

Then, on December 15, 2017, Waller wrote a letter to JeffCo prosecutor Forrest Wegge in which he requested an investigation and prosecution of Reuter for destruction of public records. Waller admitted in the January 3 Leader that he also contacted the AG but that his request was denied. It is not clear if Waller contacted the AG separately, or if Wegge passed Waller’s letter up to him. Waller says he had nothing to do with the subsequent sunshine lawsuit by the AG, but the Sunshine lawsuit was filed just one month after Waller wrote to Wegge. So it seems highly likely that the letter from Waller led directly to the lawsuit.

Who Should Pay

An article in the February 28 Leader says that is is not clear who will pay Reuter’s legal bills, which are over $92,000 for this case. However, the council has shown that it wants to pay them with tax money. The council voted on December 28 to approve a resolution to direct the county to pay. New county executive Dennis Gannon says he has not taken a stand on the issue. Since the lawsuit was bogus and was instigated by Waller, I see no reason that Reuter should have to pay out of her own pocket to defend herself. We can’t allow people like Waller to go after the finances of their enemies.

Should the executive and council decide to pay the bills, watch to see if Waller tries to block it. As county clerk, he has a role in the county’s bill-paying process, so I can see him trying to interfere.

The ideal situation would be for Waller to pay for Reuter’s legal fees from his campaign finance account, from which Waller spent $144,000 in 2018 to win the election for county clerk. Right now he only has about $9,000 on hand, but I’m sure that account will be replenished quickly.

How They Voted – PDMP

10 Feb

The Missouri House perfected a bill last week establishing a statewide prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP), meant to combat the opioid problem. We are repeatedly told that Missouri is the only state that does not have one, although St. Louis County operates a regional version that Jefferson County is a part of. The bill needs another vote to clear the House. A similar bill in the Senate failed to get out of committee.

Here is how JeffCo’s state reps voted on the bill:

97th district – Mary Elizabeth Coleman, GOP, Arnold – yes

115th – Elaine Gannon, GOP, DeSoto – yes

118th – Mike McGirl, GOP, Potosi – no

111th – Shane Roden, GOP, Cedar Hill – no

114th – Becky Ruth, GOP, Festus – yes

113rd – Dan Shaul, GOP, Imperial – yes

112th – Rob Vescovo, GOP, Arnold – no

A Tale of Two Cities’ Responses

21 Jan

Both Byrnes Mill and Hillsboro have had to face issues of police misconduct in recent months. The responses of their respective political leadership could not have been more different. Let’s compare.

-In both cases, officers privately approached city leadership to report the misconduct. In Byrnes Mill, the leaders ignored the officers. In Hillsboro, the mayor reacted right away.

-Hillsboro requested that the competent, trusted, impartial JeffCo Sheriff conduct an investigation. Byrnes Mill requested that the not-impartial, not trusted Arnold police department, which has a history of attacking accusers and denying allegations, do an investigation, but only after the officers took their concerns public.

-The Hillsboro report was released within a few days by the sheriff. The Arnold investigation took weeks, and Byrnes Mill only released a short summary. They say they are going to ask a county judge what information they can release from the full report, which really makes no sense and appears to be a delay tactic. Byrnes Mill has apparently still gotten no order from a judge, over three months later.

-The Hillsboro report included a thorough review of the problems within the PD. The Byrnes Mill report was narrowly focused on the allegations in the no-confidence letter. Can you imagine what the sheriff would find if he investigated Byrnes Mill?

-Also within a few days, the Hillsboro chief resigned and an officer was fired. In Byrnes Mill, the officer who was the subject of the no-confidence vote, Roger Ide, was eventually separated from the department, and the police chief was shunted over to a cushy PR job. Four of the eight officers who signed the no-confidence letter have also left the department, one way or another. Byrnes Mill then secretly installed a buddy of the Arnold police chief as its new chief.

-Hillsboro allowed an officer from the sheriff’s department to serve as its temporary chief, and is at least open to the idea of turning policing over to the sheriff for good, although the weak resignation of the Hillsboro mayor probably kills the chances of that happening. Byrnes Mill reportedly had a few Arnold officers help out, and you will have to pry the BMPD out of the cold, dead hands of city leadership, despite a series of embarrassing failures over the past decade.

Hillsboro is Latest County Police Department in Disarray

17 Jan

You may recall that back in July 2018 the county sheriff revealed in a report that the DeSoto police department was wholly incompetent, with insufficient training, leadership, policies, and equipment. Well, we have just learned that Hillsboro is in the same predicament.

The sheriff was called on to investigate the Hillsboro PD last week for the initial purpose of looking into theft. It turns out that there was allegedly some falsifying of time sheets leading to unearned pay. Hillsboro police chief Steve Hutt resigned and another officer was fired, but this was only the tip of the iceberg.

The sheriff’s department found a variety of shocking failures in Hillsboro. The report can be read here. The findings include:

  • One officer was not trained on his weapon, and failed qualification for it, but was still allowed to work.
  • Officers were given two weeks of on the job training before being allowed to work solo, versus the standard of 12 weeks in most departments.
  • Hillsboro lacked policies for basic police functions.
  • Officers lacked any documented training on equipment or policies.
  • Pornography was found in at headquarters and in police cars.

Handling of evidence was another huge problem. Evidence was sitting around, unsecured and unlabeled, including sex crimes evidence, and thus unable to be used in prosecution. Other evidence, including heroin, was missing. There was mold in the evidence fridge. Additionally, felony and crash reports were not completed, again making prosecution and insurance claims impossible.

Because of all this, on Friday the 11th, when the biggest snowstorm in five years was bearing down on our region, the JeffCo Sheriff had to take time to train Hillsboro officers on policies (use of force, discharge of weapons, pursuits) and weapons, and do firearm qualifications testing, while repairing and maintaining Hillsboro’s decrepit firearms.

In addition, Hillsboro was doing the bare minimum of background checks on police officers before hiring them. It sounds like they basically just checked CaseNet for convictions. They had no idea what past violations or personal issues these applicants had.

So, Hillsboro residents, think of all this before you panic about losing your police department, or lament for the officers who could lose their jobs. Your city is in a dangerous place. Officers or residents could be hurt or killed, crimes could fail to be solved and prosecuted, and your city could be hit with massive lawsuits if an untrained officer with no policy guidance shoots and kills a suspect or innocent bystander.

The JeffCo Sheriff’s Department will lead the Hillsboro PD for the immediate future. Hillsboro will have to decide whether to attempt to fix all these problems, or to turn policing over to the county. I tried to argue here that DeSoto should have taken the latter option, but no, residents there clung hard to the ideal of a local police force. Hopefully Hillsboro leaders will resist this uninformed impulse and let the better resourced, better trained, more capable county sheriff take over, and disband the Hillsboro PD. As Sheriff Dave Marshak said, “everyone in our county deserves a competent professional police force.”

 

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