Less than a week after the Missouri attorney general sued a north St. Louis County fire district for banning people from public meetings, two residents were prevented from entering a fire board meeting Tuesday – one of whom was charged with assault – and a third was removed for allegedly scoffing.
For a couple of years now, the Post-Dispatch has had a vendetta going against the three men who are running the Northeast Fire District–which is to say that the paper reports on the fire district’s meetings, and such reporting yields damaging pr for the district, because those meetings are often, shall we say, spirited. The P-D crusade got started when two of the three board members hired Elbert Walton as the district’s lawyer. They’re currently paying him an annual $120,000 retainer, which is mighty interesting considering that the next highest retainer in any surrounding fire district is $24,000.
The Post editorial page, on the other hand, goes well beyond mere reporting. An op-ed piece entitled “The Northeast Rip-off and Fire Protection District” points out that the “tame fire board members” are only nominally in charge. In practice, they are Elbert Walton’s “pet rocks”. He got his two cronies elected, and they do his bidding.
The newspaper and a number of residents in the district have shed enough light on the situation that now the district is being sued. Twice. Not only is the attorney general after the three men for keeping people out of meetings in violation of the state Sunshine Law, but the state auditor is also suing them, for ignoring a subpoena for their records. However, it may well be that Walton revels in the lawsuits. Because now the fire district really needs his services. Who knows how much he’ll soak them for next year?
Koster and Montee need to be aware that Walton will be a slippery quarry to tackle. He is shrewd. He may be unethical and willing to dance around the edge of what’s legal, but he knows a thing or ten about protecting his flank. He’s made a practice of shutting people up about his high salary by not allowing them to speak at meetings. They can only speak if they get permission in advance by submitting a question in writing. If Walton finds the question in any way not to his liking, he refuses permission–and charges the district $200 an hour to write the supplicant a refusal to speak. Win/win for him, right?
His attitude toward any fire district residents who try to thwart him is, “Bring it on.” He runs a tight ship. The man who was arrested for third-degree assault, Kris Boevingloh, (the P-D article shows him being cuffed) is a local attorney who has been banned from meetings. When, insisting on his right to free speech, Boevingloh tried to move past the arresting officer to the door into the building, “‘He made contact with me,’ the officer said.” Ooh. Scary stuff. Probably brushed the cop with his elbow, and we all know the kind of damage loose elbows can do.
Then there was the man who–under a collared shirt–wore a t-shirt that objected to the bond issues the district board keeps trying unsuccessfully to pass. He wasn’t allowed in until he removed the t-shirt. And one woman, omigod, scoffed during the meeting. She denies it, but she still had to leave. I’m not sure where the line lies that will get a person thrown out of a fire district meeting. A grim set of the mouth? A raised eyebrow? Unruly hair?
But Walton is unapologetic. In fact, he’s prepared.
The board has banned three residents for one year from district property.
In a statement e-mailed Monday to the Post-Dispatch, board attorney Elbert Walton Jr. said the board intends to seek dismissal of the attorney general’s and auditor’s suits. The statement says the board, having been faced with people disrupting meetings, passed an ordinance allowing the board to ban them.
“Under the attorney general’s theory,” said the statement, which quoted Walton, “a person like Cookie Thornton could not be barred from attending meetings of the Kirkwood City Council despite threatening council members with death or bodily harm, and thus he would be free to shoot up the council under the provisions of the Missouri Sunshine Law, if (Attorney General Chris) Koster is correct.”
This disagreement could drag through the courts for who knows how many years. Meanwhile Walton keeps raking the moolah in. But if the district can’t pass the bond issue, and if Walton is bleeding it dry, how will the board be able to pay the riot police that may be required to restrain unruly residents at future meetings?