May Legislative Update

8 May
  • Sen. Gary Romine (R, 3rd district, Farmington) has been under heavy criticism for his role sponsoring SB43, a bill to change the legal standard in discrimination lawsuits from “contributing factor” to “motivating factor” (a higher bar to clear). This would prevent frivolous suits like the one filed by Arnold police chief Bob Shockey. Romine is under fire because a business he owns is being sued for discrimination. But this law would even not affect his case; since the suit is already in progress, it would proceed under the current rules. And people who are actually discriminated against can still win lawsuits under SB43, their claims just have to have some merit to them. Remember how Dianne Critchlow has threatened to sue the Fox district now that feckless prosecutors have let her off the hook? I guarantee her suit will include a baseless gender discrimination claim if it is filed under the current standard. As a business owner, Romine knows about the issues Missouri has with frivolous lawsuits, and is trying to address the problem. The House would need to approve this bill this week in order to send it to the governor.

Romine: “Rather than seeing this bill for what it is — one of the most significant economic development measures to come along in years — the media has been more interested in eliciting the opinions of trial attorneys, SB 43’s only real opposition and a group of people who generally stand to lose from any significant progress on the tort reform front.”

  • Sen. Paul Wieland (R, 22nd, Imperial) briefly held up the passage of HB 130, the bill to allow rideshare services like Uber to operate statewide. He thought, misguidedly in my opinion, that Uber drivers would drop their personal auto insurance since Uber provides coverage while you are working. He had other concerns as well. But three weeks later, Wieland’s concerns were satisfied and the bill was passed and signed into law.

“I just wanted to make sure we protect the public and we keep the number of uninsured motorists to a minimum and I believe this bill will do that,” Wieland told The Missouri Times Thursday.

  • Rep. Rob Vescovo (R, 112th, Arnold) was the House sponsor of SB 182, which eliminates project labor agreements in public construction projects. This bill, which has passed both houses, ends requirements that non-union contractors pay union wages and stops local governments from giving preferential treatment to union contractors. This bill will reduce the cost to taxpayers of public projects. Reps. Vescovo, Shaul, and John McCaherty (R, 97th, High Ridge) voted yes; Reps. Elaine Gannon (R, 115th, DeSoto), Becky Ruth (R, 114th, Festus), and Ben Harris (D, 118th, Hillsboro) voted no; and Roden voted present (weak).

“Some would say it’s an anti-union legislation, and I disagree,” Vescovo said after the House adjourned for the week. “I would say it’s pro-worker and it allows the other 86 percent of the workforce to bid on projects and work on projects without being signatory. That’s very important.”

  • Rep. Dan Shaul (R, 113th, Imperial) ticked off teachers, according to the Leader,  with his vote for HB634, which would allow for the expansion of charter schools in the state. Shaul also serves on the Windsor school board. Charters currently exist only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Teachers claimed Shaul has a conflict of interest, which I don’t buy. Some teachers turned their back on Shaul as he was sworn in for another term at the April 12 board meeting, which is quite juvenile. It doesn’t look like this bill will get a Senate vote. McCaherty, Roden, and Vescovo also voted yes on this bill.

“I would disagree with the assumption that my vote on HB 634 was a conflict of interest,” Shaul said. “The vote I took on 634 was to ensure that all kids throughout the state of Missouri have the same opportunity that kids (who) go to Windsor have.”

  • Along with SB43, other much-needed legal reforms have been advancing through the legislature, and our county reps have voted for them along party lines. However, Rep. Shane Roden (R, 111th, Cedar Hill) voted no on HB460, which would limit out-of-state plaintiffs who bring their cases in St. Louis in hopes of winning big verdicts. This is why you hear all those ads from lawyers about talcum powder and cancer on the radio or see them on billboards. Those plaintiffs don’t even live here.
  • Sen. Romine took to the Senate floor during debate over the budget to offer an amendment to fully fund the state’s foundation formula for education for the first time. It was a bit unusual to do this on the floor after the Appropriations Committee already put the budget bill together, and it caused a split between Senate leadership and some GOP senators as the amendment passed. Romine voted yes on this, Wieland voted no. The House also voted to fully fund the formula.
  • The issue of whether to join a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) has been roiling county government here for months, but such a plan is also advancing at the legislature, and if it passes it would make the JeffCo debate moot. The House and Senate will be going to a conference committee to iron out their differences, but with only one week left, it seems unlikely this will get done. In the House, representatives McCaherty, Roden, and Vescovo voted no on the PDMP bill, HB 90, as did Sen. Wieland.

Parents React to DeSoto Principal Resignation

3 May

Adam Grindstaff, principal of Vineland Elementary in the DeSoto school district, was forced to resign last week over “the use of district monies.” According to district parents, the issue was the unapproved purchase of a vacuum cleaner for the school; the district will not provide specifics. The district notes that Grindstaff declined his right to a public hearing before resigning.

A swell of outrage resulted from this event, leading to a petition calling for the reinstatement of Grindstaff that garnered over 1,400 signatures and a Facebook group with over 1,100 members. A school board meeting on Monday was moved to a larger location (the junior high cafeteria) to accommodate residents, who were only given a total of 30 minutes to speak to the board. Grindstaff’s attorney was not allowed to speak publicly during this meeting, on advice of the district’s attorney. It is noteworthy that DeSoto employs the same law firm, Mickes O’Toole, that the Fox district used during the reign of Dianne Critchlow. It was this firm that sent out letters threatening lawsuits against vocal critics of the district for daring to speak out while also thwarting parents who attempted to get services for their children with special needs. The law firm also helped Critchlow resist transparency as she withheld credit card statements and other requested records until her kingdom crumbled.

What Now?

At this point, Vineland parents are wondering what steps to take next. I would like to offer some thoughts:

Meeting result: The district has stated that the board voted to accept the resignation, and word is that it was unanimous. Under the Missouri Sunshine Law, the results of any votes taken in closed sessions of board meetings must be revealed within 72 hours. So by Friday DeSoto will have to reveal what votes were taken Monday night (residents may have to request this information) and the results of the roll call (how each board member voted).

School Board Elections: The next board election is April 3, 2018. Two board members, Beverly Wilson and Terry Noble, will be up for re-election (if they choose to run again). The registration period for candidates will run from mid-December to mid-January. The best scenario would be that all opposition gets together around two challengers in order to not split the vote.

Missouri law does not allow for the recall of school board members. After the Fox fiasco, Rep. Rob Vescovo from Arnold introduced a bill to create such a process specifically for that district, but it did not pass the House. Other similar bills have been introduced in the past 15 years but have also failed. Currently, recalls can only take place of elected city officials in third-class cities in Missouri (like Arnold or DeSoto).

Superintendent: DeSoto’s superintendent is Josh Isaacson, a former assistant superintendent in the district who took the top job in July of 2016. He can be removed by the school board. However, he has a contract that is probably for two or three years. If he were to be let go during the contract, he would be due for a big payout from the district unless they could show cause. It was only five years ago that DeSoto paid $208,000 to get rid of a superintendent, Critchlow crony Andy Arbeitman.

State Audit: Residents could petition the state auditor to audit the school district. This would lead to a deep-dive into the district’s finances and operations. While it would not directly impact the Grindstaff issue, every school district could use a good state audit. The recent audit of Fox documented many problems. The school district would have to pay for a petition audit, which could cost $40,000 or so. After submitting a request form to the auditor, residents would have to gather a number of signatures based on the number of votes cast in the district in the last election for governor. By my calculations, there were 12,223 such votes cast, and so 1,222 signatures (10%) would need to be gathered within one year. If everyone who signed the online petition mentioned above actually lives in the school district, there are enough signers right there.

Lawsuit: Grindstaff could pursue a lawsuit against the district. He has legal counsel. I’m not sure if the fact that he resigned instead of making them fire him makes a difference in his chances of winning or getting a settlement.

Call Representatives: Residents could contact their legislators to discuss this. However, Rep. Elaine (Freeman) Gannon is said to be related to DeSoto assistant superintendent Clint Freeman, so there would be a conflict there. Rep. Ben Harris covers part of the DeSoto area, and the state senator for DeSoto is Gary Romine.

Wastes of Time

The following moves, however, will not accomplish anything.

  • Trying to get the board to remove the superintendent. The board hired him a year ago, and they voted to support the Grindstaff resignation. Why would they remove the superintendent over this? Plus, they don’t want to have to pay a big settlement.
  • Trying to remove board members prior to the election. There’s no way to do it, as I stated above. And the vote to accept the resignation was a judgment call on their part, not a sign of misconduct. But it is one that can be punished at the ballot box.

I salute the parents of Vineland for becoming politically active in response to this decision that they strongly disagree with. Unfortunately, the next election is 11 months away. But keep communicating, get organized, learn the relevant state laws, attend board meetings, and vote, and you can make a difference. As we have seen in the Fox district, it’s not easy to win elections and affect significant change. But it is worth trying.

Raise Jefferson College Pool Fees

28 Apr

There has been a lot of consternation in the past month over the proposal by Jefferson College to close the swimming pool at its Hillsboro campus as part of a package of budget cuts in the face of reduced state funding. The opposition has been led by seniors that frequent the pool for exercise. According to the Leader, the pool costs $85,000 per year to operate.

The only choices I have seen bandied about in the numerous articles and letters in the Leader are to close the pool or keep it open just as it is now. But nobody seems to mention an obvious possibility: raise admission prices. The pool currently charges $2 for a one-day pass for members of the community, and only $1 per day for seniors. Meanwhile, it costs $6 to access the indoor pool in Arnold ($5 for seniors), and $5 in Crystal City (adult swim time is $3 for seniors).

The College pool also offers kids swimming lessons for $105/10 sessions and adult water exercise courses (popular with the seniors) at $99/30 sessions. The latter comes out to $3.30 per session, compared to $4.17 per session for adult classes in Arnold.

I don’t know how much money the pool currently brings in from user fees, or how much additional income prices hikes could generate, but it seems like there is some room for fee increases. This would close some of that $85,000 gap, which in government terms isn’t a lot of money. If people are serious about saving the Jefferson College pool, price hikes should definitely be on the table.

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.

County Exec Waller Wants Greener Pastures

17 Apr

According to the Leader, “The Festus City Council voted 5-3 at Wednesday’s (April 12) meeting to hire Gregory Camp, currently city administrator of Desloge, as the new Festus city administrator.”

According to individuals with knowledge of the hiring process, current Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller (Republican) applied for this position, and was one of the six candidates who received an interview. But he did not prevail in the end. It should be noted that the Festus city admin job will pay Camp $90,000 per year, whereas Waller currently makes about $81,000. We know that Waller wants more money from taxpayers, as evidenced by his participation in a multi-politician lawsuit against the county asking for more pay.

Waller’s second term as executive ends in 2018, but he was apparently looking for an early exit. His time as exec has been marked by conflict with the Republican-led county council, where he has adopted a more moderate, status quo approach to governing. He is currently trying to hector (his preferred leadership approach) the council into joining a prescription drug monitoring program.

Latest Lawsuit

This conflict is made evident by Waller’s recent decision to file another lawsuit, this one against the council over an ordinance it passed over his veto. The ordinance contains a rule that allows the council to replace members of some county boards that miss three meetings in a year. The original version of the bill gave the executive that power. It is the executive that appoints members to these boards while the council votes to confirm his appointments.

I’m not sure that this issue is even ripe for a lawsuit, since we aren’t in a situation where a board member has actually been removed. But it will require both sides of the lawsuit to shell out county money for outside legal representation, since the county’s full-time lawyers can’t participate in an intra-governmental court battle.

Next County Executive

It seems unlikely that Waller will run for another term as executive, though he still has a campaign committee set up for that purpose that has brought in $88,000 in the current election cycle and has $63,000 on hand.

One other Republican has taken a step to run for the seat. 97th district House Representative John McCaherty, Republican from High Ridge, who held the seat for seven years, has changed his campaign committee’s office of intent to county executive, per campaign finance records at the Missouri Ethics Commission:

mccaherty-exec

McCaherty will be subject to term limits next year, and thus unable to run again for the House. Incumbent Republican Paul Wieland will presumably run for reelection to the state Senate seat for northern JeffCo in 2018, so that option is out (though it is rumored that Waller was looking to make a play for it). McCaherty has raised $171,000, but only has $55,000 on hand.

Waller lives in Herculaneum, in House district 114, which is represented by Republican Becky Ruth. She is in her second term, and so could occupy that seat until 2022 if all goes well for her, so that option doesn’t seem open to Waller.

I guess he could always run for secretary of state.

Lawsuit Filed in Sketchy Jail Death

10 Apr

At the end of 2013 I wrote about the death of inmate Terry Edwards at the Jefferson County jail. Edwards, who was being held for driving on a suspended license, had been there for two days after being arrested by St. Louis County police. He died of a perforated ulcer.

Now, a multi-million dollar lawsuit has been filed against the county over this death. The suit contends that Edwards was in major pain from the afternoon of November 28, 2013 (Thanksgiving Day) until his death early the next morning, and that his requests for help were shrugged off by jail staff and the doctor (who was reached by phone).

According to the jail’s IJMS (Inmate Jail Management System) log, the doctor was called at 4:20 pm on the 28th due to Edwards’ “massive stomach pains,” and said to give him Milk of Magnesia. The doctor was called again at 8:58 pm because Edwards had “bad lower stomach pains and his shoulder and arm was hurting.” The doctor said to give Edwards Motrin and have him see the nurse in the morning. Edwards refused the Motrin. (Of note, ibuprofen and other NSAIDs can actually cause ulcers). Deputies’ reports say he was last seen alive at about 2:15 am. It was at about 4:20 am that Edwards was found to be unresponsive and the ambulance was called. He was pronounced dead at 4:44 am.

What The Lawsuit Says

According to the lawsuit, two other inmates stated that Edwards made additional and repeated requests for medical assistance, but jail officials declined, claiming that he was “dope sick” (he was not found to have drugs in his system). The inmates stated that they also asked, and even begged, jail officials to help him, and that he was vomiting blood. One inmate told this version of events to Fox 2:

“He had been having stomach pains, and he was leaned over holding his belly,” the inmate, who did not want to be identified, said.

He went on to say that Edwards asked jail authorities for help.

“Like six or seven times,” he said.

Here’s a contemporaneous Facebook posting:

FB_screenshot2

What Sheriff Records Say

According to one corrections officer (CO), Edwards complained of back pain at 5:45 pm on the 28th, but did not mention any pain when his meal was delivered at 7 pm or at 10:30 pm. This officer mentions no other contact with the inmate until the time he was found unresponsive after 4 am.

Another CO reported that Edwards never asked for medical treatment or mentioned any medical problems. A third CO who interacted with Edwards during the afternoon of the 28th saw him in a vomiting position but says he observed no blood coming up. He also stated with a suspicious tone that Edwards only asked for help when he could see a CO, but did not ask for help when he did not see one. (That kinda seems reasonable to me.)

The CO who apparently was last to see Edwards alive, at 2:15 am, said he complained of stomach pains and asked for something “to calm his stomach.” The CO denied this request, due to his refusal of Motrin, and told Edwards to see the nurse, who was scheduled to arrive at the jail at 9 am.

Discrepancy?

There are apparent differences between what one inmate told the COs and what he told the plaintiff’s attorneys. This is in a CO report:

cox2

This is in the lawsuit:

cox1

The latter statement has additional details; one might wonder why these details were not shared with the COs. But maybe Cox did not feel comfortable placing blame on the COs while he was still in custody. Of note, it does not appear that the COs took statements from any of the neighboring inmates, including one who claimed in the lawsuit that he had asked the COs to help Edwards.

In general, this lawsuit will have to overcome the general tendency to trust law enforcement officers over those who’ve been accused of crimes (however minor) and incarcerated, as well as the probability that there are inmates who lie about medical problems. But the fact that Edwards was fine when he entered the jail and shortly thereafter died of a treatable condition is also a hard fact to explain away.

Contractor

At the time, and I believe currently, the jail contracted with Correctional Healthcare Companies for inmate medical care. This company has been hit with a number of lawsuits for inadequate provision of care and may find itself a party to this lawsuit at some point.

Other Recent Jail Deaths

  • Bradley Kingery – heroin overdose; 2012; arrested during a traffic stop and wanted on outstanding traffic warrants.
  • Michael Abboud – cause unknown at this time; last month; being held for tampering with a motor vehicle and leaving the scene of an accident.

April 2017 Election Results

4 Apr

Headlines (results here):

  • Ron Counts re-elected as Arnold mayor by 177 votes over Phil Amato. Candidate William Denman, probably a stalking horse, gets 276 votes. Fulbright, Owens, Hood, and Cooley win council seats (all but Hood are incumbents). With these results, and with Amato off the council, the Counts-Shockey-Sweeney cabal is only strengthened.
  • All three Byrnes Mill tax hikes fail (one ended in a tie, which means it failed by one vote).
  • Pevely alderman candidate Linda Hahn wins Ward 2 by one vote; Steph Haas re-elected as mayor.
  • Rock Fire’s large tax increase wins with 52% of the vote.
  • Fox school board incumbent Dawn Mullins wins while Vern Sullivan loses. Steve Holloway returns to the council after a one-year absence, while Scott Stewart also won a seat. Stewart joins Carole Yount and Sherry Poppen as part of the Jim Chellew clique on the board. Chellew was once Fox superintendent and was a mentor to a young Dianne Salsman Brown Critchlow (who indicated her support for Stewart on Facebook).
  • Jefferson County Library tax hike wins.
  • In the “every vote matters” category, along with Hahn and the BM tax, there was a tie for the second director seat at Valle Ambulance District between Steven Bergner and Nathan Myers.
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