For all his bad publicity and critical audits from years gone by, folks inside City Hall still like Larry Williams. He's a popular man. That's true even in the case of one alderman who replies through a laugh when he's asked about the treasurer, "Oh, you mean lyin' Larry?"
The nickname is harsh, but it mostly conveys what everyone knows -- that when you ask Williams a question, be prepared to listen to a long, rambling answer. And often the few kernels of wheat offered are buried in a bushel of chaff. Perhaps that's a result of the patter he's developed through his 33 years as a real-estate broker, or his time selling insurance. Perhaps it's just his affable personality. Either way, his smooth talk and easygoing style have made him a behind-the-scenes mediator. One political consultant calls him "the Meyer Lansky of North St. Louis politics."
"Just had a call this week," Williams said recently. "Someone calls me and says, 'Hey, would you go to so-and-so and tell so-and-so that I want to let bygones be bygones? I don't want to keep the feud going.'"
Williams thinks people turn to him because, simply, he gets along with people and is "not in the business of bashing people. I appreciate them having confidence in me." Then he adds one more reason people come to him to settle things: "That comes from a long history of you being truthful, being honest with them and not lying to them."
Williams is big on stressing his honesty. He plays it up, perhaps unwittingly, when he responds to queries. In a recent two-hour interview, he used various phrases and mannerisms to assure the listener he was indeed telling the truth. Dropped in midsentence, the phrases included: "I got to be truthful with you"; "We're not blowing smoke"; "I'm being totally honest, before the Father" (said with both hands raised heavenward); "I'm being truthful, if I was going to be shot"; and "I swear on the Bible" (spoken, of course, with right hand raised).
So when he's asked how it is he's won five elections in the last 18 years despite recurrent bad publicity, it's not surprising that he answers thusly:
"You don't lie to people. You don't lie to people. Let me tell you something -- you look back at my (election) numbers: I pull just about in South St. Louis what I pull in North St. Louis. I swear on the Bible I will not go to South St. Louis and make a speech that I don't make in North St. Louis. I won't make a speech in North St. Louis that I won't make in South St. Louis. And," Williams says, as he takes off his tinted lenses to make eye contact, "when I look you in the eye and tell you something, you can count on it. I don't go around lying to people, and I don't like people lying to me.
"I won't play trickery with you. If somebody tricks me, I don't badmouth you; I just don't have anything to do with you again. Just like some journalists I don't talk to, because their stories turn out funky. They add stuff to it that we didn't talk about; they editorialize; they put slants on it that do not reflect the conversation. I don't get mad; I don't call anybody a bunch of names; I just don't fool with them again. I feel that my input isn't going to make any difference anyway, so why you talking to me? If you got your ideas and your mind's made up, why talk to me?"
Man About Downtown
There's plenty of reason for developers to talk to Williams if they want something to happen downtown. In any central business district, even a troubled one like St. Louis', parking is a critical component of any new project. There are developers who will take on office, retail or residential projects downtown if the city can guarantee them adequate parking. As treasurer, Williams oversees the city's parking division and can seek revenue bonds that are paid back from the money brought in from parking meters, garages and lots.
This ability, which has turned the parking division into a "profit center" inside local government, has produced a new-and-improved Larry C. Williams who today is known more as an urban equivalent of the cavalry in old Western movies -- showing up at the last minute to save the day. This emerging image may be why few people are willing to express much concern -- at least on the record -- about Williams' appearing to be the most active public official in City Hall.
Williams' building boom began with the Kiel Center Garage, which helped make that project viable. Just in the last two years, the treasurer's office has been involved in a string of crucial projects downtown -- the developer does the project, Williams does the parking. The projects include:
* The Marquette Building, 314 N. Broadway. In 1997, Williams' office bought the building and its annex for $725,000, then turned around and sold the Marquette last year to New York City developers Tahl-Propp Equities for $925,000. Then Williams floated bonds worth $8 million to demolish the annex and build a 15-story garage joined with the Marquette, where the new owners plan 140 upscale apartments.
* The Court Square Building at 11th and Walnut streets. As Mayor Clarence Harmon and Sam Glazer, the Cleveland millionaire who owns Court Square, argued over who promised what to whom about parking for Glazer's restaurant, the plan to build a new city jail at the site stalled. Harmon asked former Mayor Vince Schoemehl to negotiate another proposal, and Williams broke the impasse by offering to spend $10 million to build a garage. The solution avoided a legal fight, saved the historic Court Square Building and finally allowed work to begin on a new city jail.
* The Chase Park Plaza project at Kingshighway and Lindell Boulevard. With the $70 million renovation of the Chase Hotel in the Central West End nearing completion, there was concern about inadequate parking for the new development and adjacent Maryland Plaza. Enter Williams again, planning a 460-space garage attached to a new public library at Lindell and Euclid Avenue.
* Gateway Mall. After the city caved in to the corporate interests and allowed them to tear down three historic buildings and give us the bland "mall" at the heart of downtown, it also got the developer (Pride Redevelopment Corp.) millions in state tax credits. Now, the state wants the city -- as promised -- to build parking for state employees at the Wainwright Building nearby. There are early mumblings that Williams will either build underground parking at the Gateway Mall or put parking at the Arcade Building site.
* The new convention-center hotel, which is still in the backroom-haggling phase, also relies on Williams' office's constructing a 1,000-space garage near the hotel and convention center.
And there's more. Williams says three megadeals are brewing downtown. He says three separate out-of-state investors are talking about buying three separate blocks -- not buildings, but whole city blocks. The assumption is that the treasurer's office would be involved in providing parking if these deals are closed.
It's been the convergence of a few realities that has thrust Williams centerstage: a 1990 state law giving his office authority to buy buildings and build garages; the city's increasing need to compete with St. Louis County by providing parking next door for developers' projects; the leadership turmoil and resulting inertia at the St. Louis Development Corp. (SLDC), the city's economic-development agency; and Williams' own relatively scandal-free existence of recent years.
The flurry of activity for Williams in the last few years is in sharp contrast to most of his 18 years in office, when he's been a stealth treasurer with a low profile.
This mixed history is reflected in the way he's viewed and in the way City Hall types talk about Williams. People usually go "off the record" to speak critically about a public official, but in Williams' case, many of those interviewed did not want their positive, pro-Williams comments attributed to them. As one alderman put it: "Publicly, no one wants to commend him too much for the job he's done because you don't know what he's doing today or what he'll be doing tomorrow."
This reticence may be spurred by Williams' past, but it also speaks to his ascending power. He could still stub his toe, or he could become even a bigger player. Either way, it's best not to say too much.
The Years of Living Dangerously
For Williams the treasurer, it was not an auspicious beginning. Even the headline in the April 23, 1981, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that announced his appointment as city treasurer tainted the news: "Man Fired by Bi-State Named City Treasurer." His firing, according to the article and a hearing in the Missouri Senate, had to do with charges of nepotism, frequent absenteeism and use of the Bi-State Transit Authority for personal gain.
Williams weathered that Bi-State storm to be picked by then-Mayor Vince Schoemehl as treasurer, replacing Paul Berra, who had been elected comptroller. The position as treasurer, though low-profile in the public sense, had been held by powerful behind-the-scenes politicians -- both Berra and his predecessor as treasurer, John J. Dwyer, were chairmen of the Democratic Central Committee. The treasurer is one of the city's "county offices" -- that is, independent of the mayor and elected citywide. The treasurer's office handles the city's investments and oversees parking revenues and fines.
When he was appointed, Williams was seen as an ally of U.S. Rep. William L. Clay, so his selection was thought to ensure Clay's backing of Schoemehl for mayor. The headline at the time in the now-defunct but then merely conservative St. Louis Globe-Democrat suggested the appointment's intent by bluntly stating: "Mayor Picks Black to Be City Treasurer."
At that time Williams was a 49-year-old Democratic committeeman in the 18th Ward who had never held elected office. Five elections and 18 years later, Williams has never been seriously challenged in a citywide election despite several unflattering audits, a reputation for bounced checks and apparently apocryphal tales of "phantom employees" in his office. Williams has survived, even thrived.
Even Ald. Fred Wessels (D-13th) doesn't have much of a discouraging word to say about Williams. Wessels is one of the aldermen who seemed to put a bull's-eye on the city treasurer's back through the late '80s and early '90s. Wessels isn't shy about his opinions. After former Comptroller Virvus Jones was convicted of tax fraud and sent to federal prison, Wessels called Jones "pond scum."
Wessels now describes Williams as a "likeable-type person." Wessels is the alderman who sponsored the bill in the late '80s that cut the treasurer's cash account to $5,000 from $100,000. He pushed another bill, which failed, that would have removed the parking division from under Williams' authority. Though he is not critical of the treasurer's recent foray into development, Wessels is a bit worried.
"I'm concerned about it," he says. "I have no knowledge that there's any problems with any of those deals, with any of those development projects. It's just a little scary to think that someone who bounced dozens of checks on a cash account he controlled is now buying and selling buildings for hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Having said that, Wessels admits that the concern is not that widespread; a bill sponsored by Aldermanic President Francis Slay allows an additional $15 million in bonds to be issued by the treasurer's office. In a weird political twist, several years ago Wessels served briefly as chairman of the aldermanic Streets, Traffic and Refuse Committee and therefore was an ex officio member of the five-person Parking Commission that has power over Williams' proposals. The experience may have mellowed Wessels' view of the treasurer's office, but it hasn't cured him of his skepticism.
"In the last few years what has been done in that office seems to have been good and positive, but based on the total track record, I just hope it continues to hold out," Wessels says. "I'm just a little leery of what the future might hold."
The deal that turned much of the treasurer office' image around, or at least forced the bad memories to fade a bit, was the Marquette deal. When the sale was announced last year, Williams staged a ceremony, which he preserved on videotape as part of a presentation about the treasurer's office. During the proceedings, Mayor Clarence Harmon, Aldermanic President Slay and Comptroller Darlene Green praised Williams. Then Williams called his original benefactor, Schoemehl, up to the microphone to say a few words. In impromptu remarks, the three-term mayor described his protege as "visionary" and recalled their early plans to use parking revenues to trigger, if not whole development projects, at least new garages and parking lots.
"When we talked about doing this back in the '80s," Schoemehl said, "I never really dreamed you'd get as far as you've gotten today."
Vince was not alone.
That Was Then, This Is Now
In many ways, for Williams, time began in 1990.
That's the way he prefers to look at it, and it's understandable. In a public sense, not much good happened to Williams in the 1980s. Sure, he was plucked from obscurity in 1981 to be named city treasurer by Schoemehl, but there was that critical state audit in 1988 that found $53,002 in bounced personal checks from the city treasurer's cash account, $12,264 written by Williams himself.
Williams says the checks either didn't bounce or were made good on when put through to the bank a second time. But State Auditor Margaret Kelly's office concluded that after the account was settled, there was a total shortage of $20,964 in the cash account, with $6,795 of that deficit coming from bad checks that were not paid off.
Then, in 1989, St. Louis Circuit Attorney George Peach -- before he got into his own trouble -- investigated, then castigated Williams, though he stopped short of seeking an indictment. The flamboyant Peach called Williams' bounced checks and missing funds examples of a "Mickey Mouse accounting system that ... defies description and detection."
Within a year Peach had been caught soliciting a female prostitute, after which he resigned from office and pleaded guilty to patronizing prostitution. But that, as they say, is another story.
Harry Charles, an accountant and attorney now in private practice, was part of Peach's investigation into the treasurer's office. That Williams cooperated fully with Peach and the grand jury was in the treasurer's favor and, ultimately, Charles says, "You can't indict someone for bad records."
Williams' books were so badly kept that it was hard to tell what was going on. Back in '89, Peach hinted that "the incomprehensible, slipshod treatment of the cash on hand was so bad that one might argue it was kept in such a manner to avoid the detection of missing money."
Whether or not the bad accounting was intentional, the missing money couldn't be followed into anyone's pocket, so there were no indictments. Peach made the call that Williams couldn't be proved guilty -- which, depending on your perspective, either means he was innocent or that he was spared by insufficient, puzzling evidence.
At the time, the cashier's window on the second floor of City Hall was a convenience provided by the treasurer's office, an early version of an in-house ATM. The problem was, the checks written at the window weren't always covered by the cash in the check-writer's account. The treasurer's cash account was supposed to have $100,000 on hand, but after the state audit revealed the $20,964 shortage, the Board of Aldermen approved Wessels' bill reducing the amount of cash on hand Williams could have to $5,000.
Mention these gruesome details to Williams now and you get a dismissive wave of the hand: The checks never really bounced, they went through on the second attempt; the audit was motivated by a Republican auditor running for re-election; there was some kind of confusion with some out-of-town credit union. Whatever; what matters to Williams is now.
The late '90s are light-years away from the previous decade for Williams.
Compared to his earlier public image, what Williams has pulled off lately is astonishing. Thanks to his capability to use parking revenues to finance projects, and on the basis of his ability to recognize a good deal and act on it, Williams has turned some heads in and around City Hall. As someone close to the city, state and federal inquiries into Williams' office put it: "He's really doing a good job. I'm flabbergasted."
Another official involved in one of the inquiries described Williams as "a remarkable guy. He talks a great line, but now he's actually doing a lot. So he's putting his money where his mouth is. Give the guy a lot of credit; he deserves it. He's about the only one doing anything around here right now."
Other observers agree a lot of the praise Williams has received has more to do with what other city officials haven't done.
"He fell into a vacuum," says one political insider, claiming that both Mayor Clarence Harmon and the SLDC appear to be missing in action. "In city government now, you don't get a feeling of any great events taking place. It's as if City Hall has been drained of any political sense."
If there's one attribute Williams has, it's that political sense -- a keen sense to be elected five times despite bad press and negative publicity. His use of patronage jobs has often been credited for his ease of re-election and his unusual ability to draw votes well on both sides of Chouteau Avenue, but that's a power that has dwindled through the years along with the number of patronage jobs. Today, only 146 such jobs are in the treasurer's office -- hardly enough to sway an election, though often those jobs are spread strategically and placed with influential ward politicians.
Then there are those who say that being re-elected to one of the city's "county" offices isn't that much of a challenge. The pay isn't stupendous -- for treasurer it's $70,000 a year -- and they're often perceived as unglamorous, weak posts.
"It takes a certain talent not to get re-elected as a county official," says one politician. "It's very low-profile. You almost need some sort of scandal plus a really abusive personality that will (a) bring an opponent out and (b) aggravate enough members of the Democratic Central Committee that they will conspire to dump you. But getting defeated in a re-election effort in one of these county-level offices is not a common occurrence."
In his defense -- and it's not clear that Williams sees it as a defense -- the city's treasurer dismisses all the flak about his performance as if it's a discussion of prehistoric fossils. That was then, this is now.
"I don't look back at the past," says Williams. "Satchel Paige once said, 'Don't look back, somebody might be gaining on you.' I feel the more time I spend talking about things prior to 1990, I'm wasting time, wasting energy, wasting oxygen; I'm just eating up the oxygen for nothing. In 1990, the parking division took on a new life. It takes all of my time from 1990, when it took on a new life; it takes all my time and energy to run what we have. If I'm going to disregard what I'm doing now and start rehashing what happened prior to 1990, guess what's going to happen to this? It's all going to die. The second thing is, I don't think anybody is interested in it."
Today's headlines are proof of that, Williams thinks.
"Look at Bill Clinton -- the right-wingers ran around here trying to promote all this about Bill Clinton," Williams says, suggesting that those efforts failed. "The American public wants to know, 'What have you done for me lately?' They're not worried about what you did yesterday and the day before. That's why I don't look back beyond 1990. Don't even discuss it."
What happened in 1990 is what allows Williams to act when other public officials, or authorities, appear to be posing for an oil painting.
"For an investor, a developer, time is money," says one City Hall insider. "The fact that Larry could put the Marquette deal together and get it through all of the processes it had to be gotten through and give them the opportunity to get started as quickly as possible, that was impressive. Larry has stepped on people's toes because he has very inventive ideas. He's gotten SLDC people furious at his ability to do the parking he can do, because he went to Jeff City and he got the authority to do the bonds."
What Williams did in 1990 was beat a path to the state Capitol. That was the year Missouri Revised Statute 82.485 was passed. When he talks about what his office can do, Williams cites "Statute 82.485" as if it were a critical chapter and verse from his own Book of Genesis. It is.
As with many ideas that turned out well, responsibility for Statute 82.485 is claimed by several people. Williams says it was his idea, with a little help from then-budget director Steve Mullin. Former Mayor Vince Schoemehl says he thought of it when he was in Chicago and pulled out of a parking garage and looked at his ticket -- which made it clear the city of Chicago owned the garage. The mayor thought, if Chicago owned garages, why couldn't St. Louis do the same?
Tom Stoff, who now works for Williams as head of the parking division, was the state representative who sponsored the bill. He came to work for Williams in 1993. Says Schoemehl: "This flew below the radar. Nobody understood what we were doing. The treasurer's office wanted bonding authority; it wasn't a big deal."
The first sentence of the bill codified at the state level that the treasurer "of any city not within a county" (legislative code for "St. Louis") would be supervisor of parking meters. That created another barrier against Wessels' earlier attempt to strip Williams of control over meters and parking revenues. The most critical passage in the revised statute is the one stating that the treasurer "may issue revenue bonds and pledge parking division and other revenues and assets, including real property and future income, for the purpose of capital improvements and debt service."
That meant the treasurer's office could leverage its anticipated revenue from parking fees and fines to issue bonds that could finance new garages or pay off debts. With those kinds of options, it was just a matter of time before Williams would become a key factor in downtown development, where parking was a prime consideration.
The first major example of this interplay was the Kiel Center Garage. The deal for Kiel had stalled, with a shortfall between what the city was willing to put up for the demolition of Kiel Auditorium and addition of a garage and what the Kiel Center Partners were willing to contribute to build a new Kiel Center. More money was needed to pull off the $135 million project, which now serves as home for the St. Louis Blues, the St. Louis University Billikens men's basketball team and various entertainment events.
"Were it not for Larry Williams, the Kiel Center would not have happened," says then-Comptroller Virvus Jones. Williams stepped in and committed a $25 million bonds issuance for the garage and related expenses. "That allowed us to use money it would have cost to build the garage to fill the gap that the Kiel Partners were unwilling to come up with."
For the first three years, in part as a result of a National Hockey League strike, the Kiel Garage lost money. But since 1995, it has been in the black, last year clearing more than $300,000 in profit.
"The Kiel deal was perhaps not the best deal to bite off at the time; it was a tough deal,"says Brian Wahby, Williams' executive assistant. "It was a $25 million financing. We were a young organization with a very short track record. But by us making the investment to do the parking with the Kiel Center, the city has reaped untold financial benefit with additional earnings tax from the Blues, the entertainment tax and the concessions."
An early, pre-1990 prototype for the Kiel Garage and other projects to follow was what happened to the Ritz Theater on South Grand Avenue just south of Arsenal Street. When the Ritz became a source of neighborhood concern because of its clientele and controversial movie fare, the alderwoman at the time, Geraldine Osborn, asked Williams whether he could build a parking lot at the site if the city bought and demolished the Ritz with block-grant funds. Williams said yes, the Ritz disappeared and new off-street parking helped trigger the renovation of the building next door into the King & I Thai restaurant.
"The Grand thing was a real success," says Williams, recalling the destruction of the Ritz. "It was one of the motivators that gave me the idea to go forward. We moved in on Grand Avenue and we took down that theater. We saved the neighborhood."
Enlightened by what some well-placed parking could trigger, Williams took the leap with the garage at Kiel and followed up with a $1.6 million surface-parking lot at City Hall, which included the demolition in 1995 of the historic Children's Building at Clark Avenue and 14th Street. The 79-year-old Children's Building was sacrificed because the issuance of bonds to pay for Kiel was based on projected revenues from an enlarged City Hall lot. That commitment to the bondholders prevented the city from entertaining any other options for the Children's Building, including proposals to rehab it into a hotel.
Just a block to the east, the reverse happened and a parking garage helped save a historic building. With the fate of the Court Square Building hanging in the balance, Williams stepped in at Schoemehl's behest and proposed a parking garage for the restaurant and other tenants in the 97-year-old Court Square Building. Thanks to the intervention, the Court Square Building was spared demolition and the jail could be built in virtually the same location.
With Statute 82.485 tucked under his arm, Williams was free to be a player, an actor in the development game. "Larry now has become the development maven," says Jones. "No one wants to do a development without Larry, what with the obsession people have with parking."
His involvement in so many critical projects downtown is a function of both the essential need for parking and his ability to finance each endeavor on the basis of revenues it will generate. If a need for parking can be demonstrated and revenue would be generated from that parking, then the parking division of the treasurer can be a partner in the development.
Still, with so many deals on the table and with so much concrete a-pouring, some prospective partners might think Williams' office is swamped. That's not necessarily so, according to Williams.
"We've had people come to us and say, 'Gee whiz, you've got four or five projects here; there must be some limit to what you can do.' Well, there may be a limit here," Williams says, raising his right arm and pointing to an imaginary bar graph to his right. "But there isn't necessarily a limit over here," he says, pointing up and to his left. And then he adds the crucial phrase: "Based on state law."
The check on this wheeling and dealing is that whatever bond issuance Williams' office promotes must be approved by the Board of Aldermen and signed by the mayor. Statute 82.485 also spells out the formula on how much of the parking revenues are funneled back into the city's general fund. Of the net balance, 40 percent goes into the city's general revenue. Within those safeguards, proposals are pitched to Williams and the five-member parking commission. Decisions are made pronto.
"Within two to three weeks, you've got an answer. There's no bureaucracy. It's not two to three years," says Williams. "It shocks people that you can move this fast in this particular structure the way this thing is set up under state law. You can move fast and give people an answer. And they don't go away mad if you say, 'Mr. X, we don't believe this project is feasible; we don't believe it would pay for itself.' They say, 'Fine, thank you very much.' And you know what we say? 'If you come up with another you think will work, come back and see us.'
"You got to get 'em quick. You have to do your economic and feasibility studies. You got to do them quick, and you have to give people answers.
"Last of all, don't lie to people."
"Buy the Building"
The deal that most typifies the brave new world of Larry C. Williams is the purchase, sale and renovation of the Marquette Building. To hear Williams and executive assistant Wahby tell the tale, it all began with a 6:30 a.m. phone call by Williams to Wahby on the morning of Sunday, June 29, 1997.
"Larry said, 'You see the paper yet?' I said no and went down and picked up the Post. 'What do you think?' he said. 'Look at Jerry Berger's column.' He said, 'The Marquette building's for sale; we need to buy it.' I said, 'OK, yeah, sure.'"
Williams wasn't kidding. He knew the 86-year-old building was at a good location on Broadway between Locust and Olive streets and that others had looked at it but hadn't pursued a deal because of inadequate parking. Wahby analyzed what could be done.
"I told him it's a 50-50 chance, a roll of the dice," Wahby recalls. "I thought he'd be looked at as a complete yahoo or people would say, 'Larry stepped up and got something done. It's a good thing.' He looked at me square in the face and said, 'If the city of St. Louis is not willing to invest in its own downtown, who the hell else will? Buy the building.' And that was it. And we did it."
Within 48 hours a lawyer in Sacramento called to say there was a New York group interested. Williams describes the 10-story annex to the Marquette as being in bad shape, with serious water damage, so the proposal was to tear it down and build a garage and keep the YMCA in the Marquette, which would be converted into 140 rental units with rents ranging from $600-$3,500 a month.
The purchase of the Marquette Building and its annex for $725,000 and the turnaround sale of just the Marquette Building for $925,000 eight months later to a New York City developer qualified as the lead item on several 10 p.m. newscasts. In all the hoopla about bringing people to live downtown, Williams' office seemingly had pulled off a major accomplishment.
Williams describes the Marquette deal as "the shot heard round the city," saying, "It brought people running."
If the deal has brought favorable attention to the treasurer's office, that attention has come at a time when the structure of city government is under analysis. The Walker Report, devised by an eight-person committee including three former mayors, has recommended that the four county offices -- treasurer, collector of revenue, license collector and recorder of deeds -- be made offices appointed by the mayor ("Solving St. Louis," RFT, July 1, 1998).
The intent of the shift is to increase efficiency and accountability. Political ability to be re-elected would not be a requirement to be treasurer. A bill that would set this process in motion -- the first step being to allow city voters to decide changes in the 1914 charter -- has been submitted in Jefferson City. Not surprisingly, Williams is not happy about this.
"We hear that county offices should be eliminated, (that) the mayor needs all these powers," Williams says. "It's my contention -- and a lot of other people who I know in this city -- that the mayor doesn't need any more authority to do what needs to be done in this town to jump-start it, to get it going, to bring people back to town. What we need in this town is communications.
"When the public elects all of us as elected officials -- be he the mayor, the comptroller, the president of the board -- they expect us to come down here as their elected officials and sit as a group of people and discuss what's best for the community. Those meetings very seldom ever take place, in a collective sense, among all the elected officials. That, to me, is a crime."
Williams says it's obvious that the mayor "is the leader," but that doesn't mean he has to appoint someone to be able to work with him. "We should be working together. We shouldn't be here seeing each other once every two months, once every three months, or passing each other in the hallways. That's not the way you run a railroad."
When Harmon took office, Williams says, a proposal was made for the county officials and the mayor to meet at least once every 90 days, with each office appointing a staff person to maintain contact with the mayor's office on a daily or weekly basis. "We made the proposal," says Williams. "I can't address what happened, but the offer was made by the county elected officials."
The Trouble with Mr. Jones
In the past that Williams prefers to ignore, not all of the bumps in the road cropped up in the late '80s. In 1995, an audit performed by then-Comptroller Virvus Jones' office found that the treasurer's office had left $11.5 million of city deposits uninsured and paid excessive vacation and sick leaves to employees. But what drew more attention was the involvement of two key treasurer's office employees in Jones' own problem -- the federal case against the comptroller involving tax fraud and issues related to the "stalking horse" candidacy of Penny Alcott in the 1993 comptroller's election.
Steve Baker, an assistant city treasurer under Williams, pleaded guilty to mail fraud in connection with Alcott's candidacy. Jones defeated Ald. Jim Shrewsbury (D-16th), 44,670 votes to 42,661 votes. Alcott received 3,268 votes. Part of the investigation of Jones was related to the allegation that Alcott was talked into the race to split the South St. Louis vote, thereby helping Jones. During the trial, Alcott testified that Williams' executive assistant, Brian Wahby, gave her the $725 filing fee she used to file for comptroller and later gave her money for expenses, including clothes and health insurance.
Baker admitted during testimony that he had falsified campaign-disclosure reports, hiding a transfer of funds from Jones' campaign to Alcott. He also testified that Alcott "was never intended to be a viable candidate" and that Alcott "was intended to take votes away from Jim Shrewsbury."
Though Baker pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to a $4,000 fine and two years' probation, Williams kept him on the payroll despite heavy media and political criticism. Baker was also one of the employees that the '95 audit singled out for having 820 hours of vacation accrued, as well as 983 hours of sick leave.
One person who thought Williams treated Baker correctly was Virvus Jones.
"It was a question of whether Mr. Baker was doing his job in the treasurer's office," says Jones. "Obviously I'm somebody who has a lot of sympathy for ex-felons. I don't think their lives ought to be ruined. And what are we talking about here? We're talking about some bullshit called a stalking horse. We're not talking major corruption in city government or Steve Baker walking out of City Hall with a suitcase full of money. That's how Larry saw it -- as more of a political rather than criminal investigation, or anything that Baker did in his capacity as deputy treasurer. Larry did what any fair person would have done."
Williams the Conqueror
Whatever past transgressions, real or imagined, Williams may have committed, it looks as if little will happen downtown without Larry C. Williams playing a role. He has the revenue base; he has the tools; he has the ability to act. And not just the ability; he's got the willingness to act. His executive assistant, Wahby, believes that's the degree of difference that sets Williams apart.
"Look at the record," Wahby says. "That's all. Look at what we're doing. Is he being too independent? I don't know. Is he doing something, is he adding value to city government? I think so. Is he adding value to the citizens? I think so."
One thing Williams has done is create, in large part with the use of computerized parking meters, a positive cash flow in parking revenues. There was a time during his term, back before 1991, that the parking division actually lost money. More money was spent on collecting money and maintaining the equipment than was brought in. Last year the parking division was $1.9 million in the black. By formula, $780,000 of that amount is plowed back into the city's general revenues and the remaining 60 percent of the net surplus is reinvested in the parking division.
Representatives of parking authorities in such places as Poland, South Korea, Hong Kong have visited Williams' operation to see how parking can be made profitable and how its revenues can be used to trigger other development. For all his early failings, Williams has the world coming to him for advice.
Down the road for Williams, and for downtown, more action awaits. If the President Casino moves north of the Martin Luther King Bridge, the treasurer's office may be involved in a new garage on the north edge of Laclede's Landing, near the casino. There's the question of the Arcade Building, which Williams doubts can be restored. There's the convention hotel and, well, there's more.
"We're not advertising anyplace. People are finding out about us. People are calling us," says Williams. "Right now we have at least three groups from outside the city of St. Louis who want to buy entire blocks of downtown St. Louis -- that's from corner to corner to corner to corner. We're only in the talking stages and they've pledged me to secret about identifying them."
And it's obvious why they're talking to Larry C. Williams.
"They need parking. But they want to buy entire blocks. We're not talking about a building now. We're talking about three groups; they're not all from the same state, they're from different states around this country, three viable groups with deep pockets who would love to buy an entire block. They need parking."
And if that's the topic, they know whom to call.