"It used to be a pleasure to run this city," laments the 77-year-old Ledbetter. This thin, white-haired ex-plumber ruled this little corner of Hades as a village trustee, police commissioner, health officer and judge before he was elected mayor more than a decade ago. "I still enjoy the job, serving the people. But it's aggravating when you've got to argue and fight for everything you do for the people."
These days, Ledbetter is trying to stave off an April 6 Election Day offensive by his archnemesis and political polar opposite, Anita Mason. The 34-year-old Mason is a loud, opinionated single mom who lost to Ledbetter by just twelve votes in the mayor's race four years ago. Since then Mason, a city-council member who works at her father's sign company, and Ledbetter, a decorated World War II veteran, have been hurling insults at each other with a ferocity that would make John Kerry and George W. Bush take cover.
Unlike most small towns, where the electoral hot buttons might be trash service and street paving, the mayor's race in this hardscrabble northwest St. Louis County community is laced with harsh accusations of lying, cheating and stealing. And that's just for starters. This month residents received an anonymous letter accusing the mayor of sexual harassment and then another anonymous letter that claims Mason's campaign manager is a child molester. (Both candidates deny mailing the letters.)
"I've never lived in a town where they send out all these letters slandering each other," says John Baker, a Breckenridge Hills homeowner. Like Baker, most of the town's 4,800 residents live in small, wood-framed houses and want the city's potholed streets and broken sidewalks repaired. "I would rather them fix the city than see them argue," Baker adds.
That's about as likely as Neiman Marcus opening a store in the town.
In 2001 Ledbetter elevated his war with Mason to a new level by leading the charge to block a new business license for Mason's company. He claims the sign shop has cheated Breckenridge Hills out of years of tax revenue. According to a recent ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals, the city can deny the permit because a state audit found Mason's company failed to pay nearly $1,600 in sales taxes.
"You can't tell me that other people who were audited didn't have to pay anything," says Mason. She claims Ledbetter has spent between $70,000 and $100,000 in city funds in an unsuccessful bid to impeach her as well as trying to close her family's business. "You're not allowed to run for office against Mr. Ledbetter," she adds. "It's a sacred rule."
In January council members voted to settle the case between the city and Mason Sign Company by issuing the business a license over Ledbetter's objections. The mayor immediately vetoed the settlement and then told Paul Martin, the city attorney who authored it, to stay away from city hall. (Martin declined to comment for this story.)
"The [Masons] should have been paying sales taxes," Ledbetter contends. "That's why the businesspeople here wanted me to run. They feel everybody should be legal, should have a license and should abide by the ordinances."
Council member Judy Gassmann defends Ledbetter. "We're not renewing [Mason's] license until everything is up to code and she's legal," Gassmann says, adding that the sign company also expanded to an adjacent building without first getting the proper city approval.
Anita Mason's brother, Mike, works at the sign company and says he and six other employees could be out of a job if the business license is not granted and the company is forced to relocate. "We're out campaigning for our jobs," he says of his efforts to help his sister win the mayor's seat.
Since she was elected to city council a decade ago at age 23, Mason has loudly criticized the way Ledbetter manages the city. "When I first started, he put me in charge of the insurance, and so I went out and got all these bids. I was told that this one man who's done the city's insurance since the turn of time was going to get the bid. It didn't matter who the cheapest bidder was," she explains. "[Ledbetter] just doesn't want to do things right."
She questions why the mayor gets a $50-per-month gasoline allowance to serve the constituents of a town that takes up all of one square mile. And she says the mayor manipulates council members by appointing his favorites to serve as city department heads -- and paying them $200 extra each month.
Mason isn't the only one who finds fault with the way Mayor Ledbetter runs the show. James Hills, a New York native who was elected to the council three years ago, criticizes the mayor because he won't allow council members to see contracts before they vote on them.
"It's hard to make an informed vote on something you can't see," Hills says, adding that contracts are read aloud at council meetings.
When Hills asked for copies of city contracts, he says the mayor first refused him and then blacked out the names of the contractors and the amounts they were paid. After he appealed to the state attorney general, Hills says, Ledbetter finally relented -- but not before charging him $50 for copying fees.
"There's certain things that's not for the public," Ledbetter insists, pounding his hand on his desk. "That's the trouble with a lot of people -- they think they can get anything they want. They can't. I know the law."
Last summer the dispute between Ledbetter and Hills devolved into a brawl on the floor of the city council chambers after the mayor smacked the councilman on the head with a gavel. "We had ladies up there, and [Hills] started calling everybody MF this and that," Ledbetter recounts. "James Hills pushed my shoulder and I turned around and he did get tapped a little bit in the head with the gavel. But the county refused to issue a warrant for that."
Adds Ledbetter: "If I would have wanted to hit Jim Hills, I could have broke his neck in 30 seconds."
Ledbetter is equally indignant about charges that he sexually harassed two female city employees. The allegations came to light this month, after a letter notifying city council members of the filing of a formal complaint made its way into the mailboxes of everyone in town. The city council recently voted to hire a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations.
"I'd go in there in the mornings and tap them on the back," Ledbetter explains of his contact with female employees. "I'd take candy in there and give them candy -- I keep it for the little kids who come in."
Ledbetter says he doesn't believe the allegations will hurt his chances for re-election. At Grandma's, a diner across the street from city hall, the soap opera Days of Our Lives is on the television and cigarette smoke fills the air. An elderly woman counts her money before paying the bill. She ferociously defends the mayor. "I don't care what people say," she snaps. "I like him."
Mason says she's planning to spend the remaining days before the election going door-to-door, telling people why Breckenridge Hills needs new blood.
"It will probably get nastier, knowing the two of them," Hills predicts. "Anita has no qualms about pulling out all the stops and dragging his name through the dirt, and he'll do the same."