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Former state representative Elbert Walton, husband of state rep Juanita Head Walton, organized Unity PAC in 1996 to get more African-American candidates elected to office in north St. Louis county. He wants his allies in high office and low and aims at everything from state senator to fire district board member or local committee person. (In fact, his wife is a Democratic committeewoman.)

His goal of achieving more diversity among elected officials might be laudable if it weren’t for some of the perks his people have been lavishing on him.  The Post-Dispatch published two articles about Walton in the last month having to do with his work as a lawyer for the Normandy Fire District.  Both pieces were solid investigative reports. Kudos to the P-D.

The articles paint a picture of a lawyer (Walton), hired by two members of the three member fire district board in Normandy, who is charging the district unusually large sums. The two board members who hired him are Board president Joe Washington and newcomer Robert Edwards, who was elected with the backing of Walton’s Unity PAC. (These two are trying to oust the other board member, Bob Lee.)

Walton is charging the fire district more than five times as much money as the district’s previous lawyer ever charged. From the beginning of April until the end of October, his bills totaled $76,671. The previous lawyer, Mary Creamer, charged an average of $12,000 a year, with 2002 as the most expensive year at $23,000.  So far, Walton is on track to earn about $120,000 for a year’s work. “A Post-Dispatch survey regarding the pay of nine attorneys who represent 22 area fire districts found the highest annual pay about $45,000….”

Walton bills the district at $200 an hour and receives generous benefits:

In Walton’s contract, written by him, he is allowed an annual retainer of $18,000 and perks such as “life insurance, accident, sickness, health, disability, annuity, length of service, pension, retirement and other employee-type fringe benefits.”

Walton justifies his bills by explaining that the district needed a lot of reorganizing and that he expects to continue billing at about the same rate.

Walton said what he’s been paid “has nothing to do with whatever other fire districts are doing.” He emphasized that Normandy is a district “with a lot of issues.”

 

One of those issues is the friction between the board and Normandy residents, and one of the minor  reasons for that friction is that residents aren’t allowed to ask the board questions directly but are required instead to fill out “patron participation forms” that are given to Walton.  

That practice accounts for some of his billing, since he charges the board to answer the written questions–that’s if he answers them.  If he deems their questions insufficiently polite, he refuses:

“Your discourtesies and disrespectful approach to the board warrants no response to your form, comments and inquiries,” Walton wrote to Mike Britt of Pasadena Hills after a board meeting at which Britt referred to Joe Washington as “Joey.” Walton’s letter informed Britt that any questions or comments he had would not be acknowledged until he submitted a “written apology” to the board.

But the more important sources of friction in the district are Walton’s pay and the constant use of closed sessions called by Washington and Edwards. In fact, four residents have filed a lawsuit against the board for violations of the Sunshine Law. Furthermore, a group of residents is organizing an effort to recall board members Joe Washington and Robert Edwards, the two who regularly vote to go into closed session.

Closed sessions, of course, are not illegal, but the Sunshine Law lists 15 subjects that may be discussed in closed session and requires that boards announce the specific reason for a closed session. Washington and Edwards, always over Bob Lee’s objections, call the closed sessions without explaining the reasons.

The Attorney General’s office has been looking into the residents’ complaints and discussing the problem with the board. Nixon’s spokesman, Scott Hulste, points out that Walton “doesn’t agree with the state agency’s analysis of the law.”

It may strike you that Walton is skating close to the edge of legality, not to mention ethics, for the sake of his own profit.  If so, you’ll be interested to learn, from future postings, that the brouhaha in Normandy is not Walton’s first brush with questionable behavior.

He is working to become a power player on the black political scene in north St. Louis county. He might need to find more subtle ways to profit, though, if he wants African-Americans in that part of town to continue backing his candidates.

Pictured above:  Left, Joe Washington; Right, Robert Edwards; Standing, Elbert Walton.  Photos courtesy of the Post-Dispatch.