Tooling around his Pine Lawn neighborhood, Johnny O'Kain marvels at a house that seems caught in a slow-motion collapse. Its roof fallen-in, weeds overwhelm the small structure.
"It's abandoned. Look at the weeds. It's crazy," says O'Kain, who was impeached three months ago and removed from his post as an alderman for the city's Third Ward. "You allocate money for certain houses to be demolished. This is one of the houses that I said needed to come down. But Sylvester Caldwell" the mayor of Pine Lawn "knows he doesn't have support in Ward Three, so this is how he treats Ward Three."
As in many of the small towns that ring St. Louis, this north-county municipality's city hall doubles as the stage for an ongoing drama. In the case of Pine Lawn, the plot turns can prove professionally lethal, as when the Board of Aldermen voted three months ago to impeach O'Kain. A number of Pine Lawn politicos say the administration of Mayor Sylvester Caldwell has brought the town to a new low.
"You take the whole makeup of the board: They can't tell you the difference between an ordinance and a resolution and yet they're here governing the city," says Adrian Wright, who served as mayor from 1993 until 2005, when he lost the election to Caldwell. "We've got an alderman who sits up there and is totally illiterate he can't read or write. It's deplorable."
One of a half-dozen down-at-the-heels communities that straddle Natural Bridge Road, Pine Lawn saw its population surge in the 1950s, after City of St. Louis voters passed a bond issue to demolish Mill Creek Valley, an African-American enclave that stretched from Vandeventer Boulevard to the Mississippi River between Olive Street and the railroad tracks. Dubbed the "negro removal project" by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the demolition displaced roughly 20,000 of the city's black residents. Along with inner-ring suburbs like Wellston and University City, Pine Lawn absorbed the exodus, developing into a solidly middle-class African-American community.
As long as property taxes kept pace with spending, the town's part-time mayor and Board of Aldermen could balance the budget with a checkbook ledger. But as the infrastructure and World War II-era housing stock began to age, the populace began to migrate to greener pastures, and Pine Lawn slowly slid into disrepair. Today the city's annual budget tops out at just over $2 million, almost half of which funds the police force. Faced with a shrinking tax base, Pine Lawn politicians now fight over the scraps as they struggle to balance the budget and field full-time police, housing and streets departments.
The city's tribulations have landed on the desk of St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, whose office is looking into allegations of voter fraud stemming from the elections of April 2005. Investigators from Missouri State Auditor Claire McCaskill's office recently wrapped up the fact-finding portion of a financial audit. McCaskill's last audit of Pine Lawn, six years ago, found that the city was owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in uncollected trash fees, had routinely awarded no-bid contracts to private companies and had not published a semiannual financial statement in five years.
Officials from both agencies declined to comment on the ongoing investigations. But interviews with current and former Pine Lawn officials and municipal employees, along with financial, court and administrative documents obtained by the Riverfront Times, reveal that the city's financial woes appear not to have improved and may represent only a fraction of a systemic problem. Among the particulars:
The police department has hired an officer whose state Peace Officer License remains on indefinite probation stemming from a 1985 rape charge. That same officer was placed on administrative leave after being involved in a shooting late last month; the incident is under investigation by the St. Louis County Police Department.
Another newly hired officer is alleged to have subsequently committed physical assault on a security guard at a St. Louis drugstore.
Insurance policies for city employees have lapsed owing to nonpayment by city officials, even as workers continued to have the premiums deducted from their paychecks.
Meanwhile, Pine Lawn's top full-time city official, who had no prior experience in municipal government, resigned his post last month.
"There are so many things that are going on that are wrong," says ousted alderman Johnny O'Kain. "With all the things that they're doing, there's not going to be a Pine Lawn in five years."
It has been years since the 4,200 citizens of Pine Lawn enjoyed fiscal municipal health. Adrian Wright's twelve-year run as mayor saw two state audits, one in 1994, the second in 2000.
The latter investigation concluded with a strongly worded rebuke of the city's handling of its finances. State Auditor Claire McCaskill found that the city was due more than $650,000 in uncollected trash fees from residents, that officials were routinely awarding service contracts without calling for competitive bids and that a semiannual financial report hadn't been produced in five years.
Noting that Pine Lawn officials had failed to implement 25 of the 35 recommendations auditors had made in 1994, McCaskill admonished officials for not approving city budgets in a timely manner, for blowing $23,000 on a failed construction project and for violating the state's so-called Sunshine Law by going into private session during meetings that should have been open to the public.
Not mentioned were the antics of Mayor Wright, who was known to walk the streets of Pine Lawn in a white cowboy hat and is alleged to have called then-Alderman Rose Griffin a "stupid-ass motherfucker." Toward the end of his tenure, Wright made headlines when he exchanged ten $100 bills for a rare $1,000 note the police department had confiscated and was holding as evidence. (Wright eventually returned the bill.)
After defeating Wright by a vote of 343 to 215 in April 2005, Mayor Sylvester Caldwell's first order of business was to shake up the city's police department.
"The first thing they did was get rid of my drug-sniffing dog. This was the best drug-sniffing dog in the country," says Donald Hardy, Pine Lawn's former police chief. He's referring to Bathon, winner of the United States Police Canine Association's 2004 Detector Case of the Year award. "You got to think about all them dogs on the border, and this dog sniffed out more drugs than any dog," says Hardy. "They fired the dog first."
Hardy's pink slip wasn't far behind: By the end of April he'd been let go, having served the city since 1999. "I didn't have a conversation with the man. He just fired me," Hardy, now chief of police in neighboring Kinloch, says of the mayor. "He gave me a letter and I was through."
In Hardy's place, Caldwell appointed Steven Haynes. According to Haynes' application, before assuming the top post in Pine Lawn he'd spent eleven years heading security for the Normandy School District.
Under Haynes, the Pine Lawn PD underwent significant turnover: Haynes estimates that "twelve or thirteen" officers left a staff that averages a roster of eighteen.
Some he fired; others, like former assistant chief David Muser, resigned. "I quit the first day [Haynes] came into office. I was there about an hour and a half," says Muser, a 25-year veteran of police work. "If you're in the business a while, you get a gut feeling."
In June of last year, police captain Chico Bridges tendered his resignation. "Me and a couple other people didn't see eye to eye on things," Bridges says today, though he declines to cite specifics. "I'm a straight-laced cop. There were certain things that didn't suit me, so I chose to leave."
Haynes filled the captain's slot with Rickey Collins. A veteran cop, Collins wasn't new to Pine Lawn. In fact, he'd served on the force until 2001, when the Missouri Department of Public Safety placed his Peace Officer License on probation.
"We let him go as a police officer," confirms Adrian Wright, who as mayor presided over Collins' dismissal.
The Department of Public Safety had put Collins on probation for his alleged 1985 bathroom rape of a co-worker while he was employed as a security guard at a Schnucks supermarket in the north-county suburb of Beverly Hills. At Collins' administrative hearing in 2001, he argued that he'd had an ongoing consensual relationship with his accuser and denied that the bathroom incident occurred. His attorney contended that because the alleged incident occurred more than fifteen years prior, it was too remote in time for Collins to be disciplined.
The accuser, referred to in administrative filings by the initials "MS," eventually admitted that she'd had a consensual affair with Collins. But the Administrative Hearing Commission found that her initial denial "[did] not fatally damage MS's credibility" and that the previous relationship "[did] not show her consent on a later occasion."
Concluded the commission: "[T]he mere passage of time does not affect our finding that Collins sexually abused MS and that he is therefore guilty of gross misconduct indicating an inability to function as a peace officer."
Collins' Peace Officer Certificate was placed on indefinite probation a fact Chief Haynes says he was fully aware of when he made the hire. "Most of my policemen who come here have a little taint in their past most of them have had some problems," says the chief. "[Collins] works real hard for me, and if he hadn't turned himself around and done a good job he would not be a captain today."
Adds Mayor Caldwell: "If [Collins] was guilty of those charges, Public Safety wouldn't allow him to be certified. He's a great asset to the community. He's taking guns and drugs off our streets, shutting down drug houses. The people who are the bad elements, sure, they're going to say he's bad. But that's because our town is safer at night because he's back in town."
Though his certification remains on probation, Collins says the incident is behind him. "I have worked hard to return here," he says. "The incident happened more than twenty years ago, and the victim was found to have perjured herself."
Late last month Collins made local headlines for his involvement in the June 23 shooting of Detwan McDonald, who was injured after a police pursuit that began when he allegedly evaded a DUI checkpoint. The St. Louis County Police Department is investigating the incident.
Collins says his gun went off accidentally.
"He was ramming cars, and I was trying to save a family [in] a car," says Collins, who says he was on foot at the time. "When he came toward me as I backed away with my gun drawn, I tripped over a boulder and my gun discharged. We turned the investigation over to the county right away, and there's evidence that I couldn't have shot him, because his driver['s side] window wasn't shot out."
Tracy Panus, media relations officer for the St. Louis County Police Department, declines to discuss Collins' involvement in the incident. "The investigation's still open and active," says Panus. "We can't really comment." She says McDonald was shot in the arm after his car jumped a curb, and that he was subsequently treated and released from an area hospital.
Chief Haynes placed Collins on administrative leave pending city and county investigations.
In September of last year, another of Haynes' early hires, Sergeant William Monroe, was charged with assaulting a security guard at a St. Louis Walgreens. According to a complaint brought by the Department of Public Safety, the incident occurred when Monroe, while off duty, parked in a space at the drugstore that was reserved for on-duty officers.
"When told by security officer Kenneth Scott that he could not park at that spot, [Monroe] pulled a firearm from his holster, pointed it at Mr. Scott and stated, 'Don't ever touch me. I'll kill you,'" the complaint reads. "[Monroe] then punched Mr. Scott in the jaw."
Haynes says Monroe was disciplined internally. "He was suspended for three days without pay," says the chief, noting that adjudication by the state's hearing commission is still pending. "He was arrested but not convicted."
Says Monroe: "I'm a police officer, not just in the city of Pine Lawn, but in the state of Missouri. This investigation will show that this security guard was threatening, unprofessional. I feared for my personal safety. I fully anticipate clearance."
Monroe is also quick to rise to the defense of his boss. "There has been a complete turnaround under Chief Haynes," he says. "The number of citizen complaints, the number of police brutality cases have plummeted since Haynes took over a year ago."
Current and former Pine Lawn city employees say their insurance coverage lapsed last year without their knowledge.
"They stopped our dental insurance back in November," recalls former Pine Lawn police officer Everett James. "We weren't told until February or March, but they continued taking money out of our checks."
Workers say their health insurance disappeared as well. "They didn't know they didn't have it until one of their family members had to go to the hospital," says Kinloch Police Chief Donald Hardy, who has taken on several of his former Pine Lawn officers. "When they took the bill to city hall to get it paid, they found out their insurance had been lapsed since November. The officers didn't know they didn't have it. They thought they were still covered."
Pay stubs provided by one former officer show that during the five-month period from November 2005 through February of this year, $11.63 was deducted from each paycheck to cover "INS."
On March 14 Chief Haynes addressed a letter to Mayor Caldwell and Karl Taylor, Pine Lawn's city administrator. "Recently this Chief of Police was in receipt of information concerning the notification of the cancellation of our dental insurance for the members of the Pine Lawn Police Department," reads the letter, copies of which were provided to the Riverfront Times by former city employees. "Daily there are questions from police personnel who are concerned about benefits supposedly in place and as of now, we are not sure in how to answer the same with truth."
In a letter dated September 14, 2005 six months before Haynes became aware that his officers were uninsured the city's insurance provider, BlueCross BlueShield, warned Pine Lawn officials that the city's account was in arrears.
"[W]e have not received the premium payment for your company's employee health benefits plan," the letter states. "If your payment is more than 30 days late, we will cancel your group's coverage."
Additionally, an October 17, 2005 letter from the city's insurance broker, UPAC, states that Pine Lawn's workers-compensation insurance policy with the St. Paul Travelers Companies had been terminated for "non payment of premium." A "notice for request for reinstatement" from the Kanas-based broker asserts that the Travelers account was canceled October 5, then reinstated two weeks later. "UPAC cancelled the policy below (Travelers) on 10/05/2005 because of default by the insured," reads the notice. "On 10/18/2005 UPAC received payments to bring the account current. Insured would appreciate reinstatement of the policy."
City records indicate that Pine Lawn paid $33,000 to reinstate coverage.
Former Pine Lawn alderman Johnny O'Kain says the on-again/off-again maneuver violated municipal law. "This is an illegal policy," O'Kain alleges. "It was tabled and it was never brought back before the Board of Aldermen. "[Karl] Taylor was supposed to bring that before the board, and we're supposed to approve it. That never happened. Here's a $33,000 wire transfer to reinstate the policy. This was transferred without board approval. They paid $33,000 on an illegal contract."
"The insurance has never lapsed," counters Taylor, who contends that the bill was actually $16,000. "With St. Paul Travelers, we ended up having to pay $16,503 for nine months. That's extremely high, but we had no choice but to pay that in order to stay within the guidelines of the law, as well as protecting the city."
Taylor confirms that Pine Lawn is no longer covered by BlueCross BlueShield, but not, he says, because of a delinquent health-insurance account. "We were able to get a better rate with another company," he says.
Dental coverage lapsed, adds Taylor, because there weren't enough employees enrolled to keep it going. "According to city ordinance, there was supposed to be 75 percent participation," says the city administrator. "There was not enough participation, so I couldn't cut a check for the dental."
Copies of invoices supplied to the Riverfront Times by former Pine Lawn employees indicate that other city accounts were recently in arrears, and that some had been turned over to collection agencies.
Many were small sums, such as a St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District account that was past due in the amount of $361.69. But some amounts were substantial. An invoice dated October 1, 2005 from Waste Management of St. Louis shows that Pine Lawn owed more than $45,000.
Former mayor Adrian Wright says he's baffled by the accounting difficulties. "When I left, there was something close to $1 million in reserve," says Wright. "Even now I'm getting calls from US Bank that are saying the city's delinquent, it hasn't made payment on their MasterCard bill since last October. I'm no longer associated with the city. They should've taken my name off the card. Apparently they didn't."
Counters Karl Taylor: "You have to understand, these are deficits that we are dealing with from the old administration. They've not been paid for the simple reason that there are charges that we don't understand. We walked into this."
More troubling, says ousted alderman Johnny O'Kain, is a copy of a financial transaction dated April 19, 2005, in which a city official transferred $40,000 from the city's "court forfeiture" account to "payroll" account. Says O'Kain: "That is definitely illegal."
"That's theirs. That was under Adrian Wright's administration," Karl Taylor responds.
Contrary to Taylor's assertion, city documents indicate that Sylvester Caldwell took office on April 15, 2005 four days before the funds were transferred.
One day after speaking with Riverfront Times, Karl Taylor resigned his post as Pine Lawn's top-ranking city official.
"He wasn't up to my standards," Caldwell says when reached for comment. "He's my best friend, but it's business. He needed to be more sharper with policies and procedures. This was his first [municipal administrative] gig."
Since he took office in April 2005, Sylvester Caldwell says, he has turned over Pine Lawn's entire municipal work force.
"The whole administration," says Caldwell. "From the courts department, housing, public works everybody was getting rich off the city. Even people I brought in, if they're not up to my standards I'm letting them go. I can admit if I picked a bad apple."
The city's eight-member Board of Aldermen also saw a radical shift after Caldwell assumed the reins.
Under Pine Lawn's system of government, the mayor, whose part-time position comes with a $600-per-month stipend, is empowered to appoint city officials. His appointments are subject to approval by a majority of the Board of Aldermen, an elected body whose members (two representing each of Pine Lawn's four wards) receive $500 per month for filling the part-time positions. The Board of Aldermen is responsible for voting on resolutions and ordinances; in the event of a deadlock, the mayor casts the deciding ballot.
"When Caldwell became mayor, his [aldermanic] seat was vacant, making the board balance three to four, with Caldwell in the minority," says Charlotte Graham, who served as Pine Lawn's city clerk until the board fired her last October.
Caldwell needed one more ally in order to bring the Board of Aldermen into four/four balance. But how could he seat an ally when his opponents outnumbered his side four to three?
Minutes from the Board of Aldermen's fractious meeting of June 13, 2005 the first at which Caldwell presided indicate that the mayor nominated Nicole Jones to serve out the term in the seat he'd vacated. The three aldermen aligned with Caldwell voted in favor of Jones' appointment; the other four voted against.
Caldwell wasn't ready to concede defeat. Instead he drew a bead on Ward Three Alderman Johnson White, a political foe who'd lost the April election only to prevail in St. Louis County Court after filing an electoral challenge. (White successfully argued that his opponent, Cheris Metts, was ineligible to serve because she had a delinquent trash bill.)
Caldwell asked White to vacate his seat on the board. White demurred. After a period of discussion, there was a motion to vote once more on Nicole Jones' appointment.
The three aldermen aligned with Caldwell again voted to confirm. The other four, including White and Johnny O'Kain, walked out of the meeting, whereupon Jones' appointment was approved by the three remaining aldermen and she was sworn in.
According to city statutes, the Board of Aldermen may only conduct business when a quorum (five members) is present. "They continued to vote," O'Kain marvels. "Which is illegal."
With Jones on the board, Mayor Caldwell called a special session boycotted by his four foes at which he announced that Johnson White's seat was vacant and successfully nominated Myra Perkins to fill it.
O'Kain and his cohorts filed a complaint in St. Louis County Court seeking Jones' ouster. She stepped down.
Perkins continues to serve.
Caldwell declines to discuss the aldermanic musical chairs.
In April, with a solid majority in place, the Board of Aldermen voted to impeach Johnny O'Kain on charges that he was elected in 2000 while in violation of Pine Lawn's residency requirement, that he'd missed seven meetings and that he'd unjustifiably attempted to impeach Sylvester Caldwell while Caldwell was an alderman.
"It's an an act of retaliation, they're trying to silence me," O'Kain contends. "They know that I'm cooperating with the auditor's office, and they want me gone."
Like St. Louis County's other 90 municipalities, Pine Lawn relies heavily on county sales taxes to fund city government. But while wealthier suburbs substantially sweeten their own municipal pots with property taxes, Pine Lawn's increasingly run-down real estate contributes little to city coffers.
In terms of population, the city ranks near the middle of the 70 St. Louis County municipalities with populations under 10,000.
"A lot of the cities in that size category contract with county police," notes Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League. "You really need a population of at least 5,000 to field a full-time police department."
Fischesser adds that Pine Lawn's problems are symptomatic of the larger difficulties that confront cities of its size. "These are municipal corporations. They have hundreds of thousands of dollars but they have no professional employees to make sure that they produce at a certain capacity," he says. "It's a serious issue in the county. The cities that have professional employees generally do better than the cities that do not. They can't compete for grants, they don't have master plans and as all these challenges mount up, those small cities are going to fall apart at the seams."
Hiring professional employees city administrators, chiefs of police, etc. costs money. As Pine Lawn's top full-time bureaucrat, Karl Taylor was earning $22,880.
"That's not a professional salary. It should be twice that," Fischesser asserts. "They may have well-intentioned employees, but they're not going to know how to put together a long-range plan, and they're not going to know how to put together grants."
Mike Jones, executive assistant to St. Louis County Executive Charles Dooley, sees another problem: Pine Lawn and its municipal cousins are slowly withering. "St. Louis County can be seen as a tale of two cities: You have newer, western suburban areas that are showing a lot of growth and have a lot of financial strength. And then you have older inner-ring suburban cities," says Jones. "The housing stock could be in excellent condition, but by current market standards the kitchen's not big enough, or maybe there aren't enough closets. So when people think about purchasing a house, these days they'll think about a level of amenities that's not available in these older communities."
For now, Sylvester Caldwell enjoys a five-to-three majority on Pine Lawn's Board of Aldermen.
The mayor insists Pine Lawn is on the right track and that his detractors suffer from "sour grapes."
As proof he points to the demolition of a derelict auto shop. Rat-infested and home to vagrants, the abandoned building had been the subject of a two-year campaign on KTVI-TV (Channel 2) reporter Elliott Davis' "You Paid for It" news segment.
"It was an eyesore for twenty years, and Wright's administration fought me on bringing this building down," Caldwell says. "But we hired a building commissioner who had the know-how, and within one year we brought that building down. They said it couldn't be done. They tried to block it. They did nothing, so they want to block me and get me to do nothing."
Likewise, Caldwell asserts, any financial difficulties plaguing the city are a municipal hangover from Adrian Wright's twelve-year mayorship.
"I questioned Wright's spending when I was just an alderman," Caldwell says. "Before Adrian left office, he had a meeting with the employees telling them not to cooperate with me. They didn't want to sit down and have a transition with us. We're cleaning up, but we've only been here for a year."