The Wright Stuff

Mayor Adrian Wright knows what's right for Pine Lawn. If folks don't like it, that's just tough.

Pine Lawn Mayor Adrian Wright is rocking in his chair. This is no leisurely, grandfather-on-the-front-porch type of rocking. No, Wright's agitated and he's going back and forth, back and forth, as though someone has put a lighted match to the seat of his pants.

"Ah, now you're getting my dandruff up," Wright huffs. "I'm doing the best I can with what I got. There ain't nothing illegal going on here. We are trying to do good things for this community." He leaps from his chair and whips out a series of artist's renderings for various development projects -- a motel, a shopping center, a health clinic. "I talk to all these people trying to come in here and do some development," he says. "You don't think I get tired of going to meeting after meeting, trying to do all this? I am sick and tired of being criticized for all the stuff we don't do. It gets frustrating."

No one ever said politics was easy -- especially not in Pine Lawn, where politicians are legendary for not just slinging mud but rolling around and wrestling in it. Nevertheless, the mayor's response comes as a surprise. Wright -- a tall, lean man known for striding through town in a white cowboy hat -- has been riding out scandal after scandal since becoming mayor in 1993. One would have expected a much thicker skin on a politician who was bombarded with press coverage after Ald. Rose Griffin accused him of calling her a "stupid-ass motherfucker" before trying to hit her with a door and who just last month had 100 of his citizens marching outside City Hall, demanding his ouster.

Danny Hellman
Rose Griffin: "People were tampering with the write-in ballots. I saw them doing it, but nobody from the election board ever came."
Jennifer Silverberg
Rose Griffin: "People were tampering with the write-in ballots. I saw them doing it, but nobody from the election board ever came."

What is getting Wright's "dandruff" up is the mention of investigations -- two in the past seven years by the state auditor's office and a demand by some of his political enemies that St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch launch a criminal investigation. The investigations, Wright says, are a bumper crop of sour grapes planted by his political opponents: "It is just a disgrumbled [sic] group of citizens who can't get elected."

He is particularly irked by the state audits, which were sought by residents. "All they have to do is petition every three years to get this done," Wright says. "I'm sure they plan on doing it again, and we will be getting a visit from the auditor's office in three more years." Moreover, Wright says, the auditors found nothing more than minor discrepancies.

That's not how state Auditor Claire McCaskill sees things. In the most recent audit, completed in 2000, McCaskill says, her staff found "a laundry list of all the things you are not supposed to do when running a government." Pine Lawn, with a population of just over 4,200, showed just how poorly a city could be managed. "It is rare to find a community with that many findings in so many areas, from violations of the Sunshine Law to budget problems to poor bidding practices," McCaskill tells the Riverfront Times. Pine Lawn's most recent infractions included failing to collect $656,000 in trash fees, failing to publish a semiannual statement in five years and buying equipment and awarding contracts without getting three bids as mandated by state statute. Auditors also criticized the mayor and the city's eight-member Board of Aldermen for going into closed session illegally.

More disturbing, says McCaskill, is that of the 35 violations identified in last year's audit, 25 were similar to ones discovered in 1994. Of the recommendations made by the state in 1994, only 10 had been implemented by the city six years later. The $21,848 cost of both audits was paid out of the coffers of a city with an annual budget of just $1.9 million and a commercial tax base largely comprising barbershops and barbecue joints.

Wright contends that the audits are meaningless, and he may be right. The auditor's office has no enforcement arm and relies on local governments to fix their own problems.

"Even though the audit revealed complete dysfunction and mismanagement of the city government," McCaskill says, "the lot of the auditor's office is that we shine a bright light on the problem."

But if the state was shining a bright light, Wright is thumbing his nose in the spotlight. Case in point: the auditor's suggestion that the city stop purchasing funeral flowers using taxpayers' money. "So what if it is taxpayers' money?" Wright says with a shrug. "If someone suggests we buy florals for a particular family and the rest of the board agrees, what am I going to do, say no? Then I would really be out there on the street. I would get voted out."

If running the city means bending a few rules along the way, so be it. Wright, who only votes to break a tie on the board, didn't even try to hide the fact that the board held a special meeting last month to appropriate $500 for a Halloween party. "That is a violation, according to the auditor," Wright says. "They feel we shouldn't spend city money for these kinds of things, but we do, and as long as the Board of Aldermen approve, we will keep doing it."

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