By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
"It is a symptom of a bigger problem," Fischesser says. "When cities like Pine Lawn were first established, it was OK not to have a professional government because the problems weren't as significant. But now the cities are experiencing a midlife crisis: The infrastructure is wearing out, and they have lost their middle class. They are showing their age. When that happens, an unprofessional system, no matter how hard they try, can't provide the level of municipal service required by statute or that should be expected from a common-decency point of view."
But Pine Lawn -- in theory, anyway -- had professional management in the form of city manager Pervaiz Butt.
Butt came to Pine Lawn in 1991, when former Mayor Pelton Jackson brought him in as a consultant to install computers. The consulting job quickly turned into a full-time position. Pine Lawn desperately needed a city manager but was unable to afford a large salary. No one knows exactly why, but Butt, who had a master's degree in accounting, eagerly accepted the job as city manager. "He was overqualified and significantly underpaid," Wright says. "He started out only making $24,000. When I came into office, one of the first things I did was get him a raise." Even after several raises, Butt was still paid only $31,000. He supplemented his modest income by doing other accounting work, including acting as part-time treasurer for the neighboring city of Beverly Hills.
By everyone's admission, including Wright's, Butt ran Pine Lawn.
"This [the mayor's position] is a $600-a-month part-time job," Wright says. "The city manager was a full-time position. Any mayor that preceded me worked two hours a day. I do more than they did, and I spend four at the most. For the amount of money I get, I am not going to sit here eight hours a day and take all this abuse and all these headaches. That is what Mr. Butt was for."
But Michael Horskins, a former alderman and longtime political opponent of Wright's, says Butt's control of City Hall went well beyond day-to-day management. Horskins claims Butt orchestrated everything that took place within the borders of Pine Lawn, from creating a nonprofit agency known as Pine Lawn Development Inc. to cultivating development projects to paying every bill. Many of the auditors' concerns focused on Butt's management. Butt hadn't published the semiannual finance reports that are required by law in more than five years. City budgets were always late, and, as a result, the city often overspent by $10,000 or more a year. According to city minutes, Wright noted the trend by telling the Board of Aldermen, "If we keep spending like this, we are going to end up being bankrupt."
Nevertheless, the city continued to pay bills and award contracts to anybody but the lowest bidder. Horskins says a passive Board of Aldermen seemed content to remain in the dark with regard to the state of the city's finances.
"We never got to see the actual bills," Horskins says. "All we would see is what Mr. Butt said we owed. I repeatedly asked for a breakdown of the bills, but he wouldn't give us a breakdown on anything. I didn't have enough support on the board to push it through."
Rose Griffin says pressing for a breakdown of expenses got her on Butt's bad side. "He told me if I wanted to see the receipts that I had to come to City Hall. But when I got there, he told me, 'I am not going to give you nothing. You are uneducated.'" Griffin says she was especially concerned about the amount the city was paying to put gas in police vehicles. She says she felt the amount -- an average of $2,000 a month, according to auditors and city records -- was extraordinarily high. "I live in the city, and I knew they weren't doing that much patrolling," Griffin says. "Pine Lawn isn't that big."
When Butt wouldn't give her the receipts, Griffin went to Police Chief Donald Hardy and asked for records of gasoline purchases for a single month. The police-department receipts totaled $1,406 for October 1999 -- $608 less than the $2,014 Butt submitted for payment. "Nobody knows where the rest of the money went," Griffin says. "And even today I don't think anyone at City Hall really cares. They just took whatever [Butt] said as gospel. I challenged him and became the enemy. Both he and the mayor told me, 'We are going to make sure you don't win the next election.'"
Wright says Griffin's research into gas prices is reflective of her pattern of stirring up trouble. "She has sued me and claimed I threatened her life," he says. "These people are consistent, but that doesn't make them right. They cannot run for office and win, and so there is always a problem."
State auditors, in last year's report, also noted the discrepancy between how much gasoline Pine Lawn was paying for and how much it was actually using but stopped short of saying anything illegal was going on. McCaskill's office, however, did recommend that a mileage log be kept to document appropriate use of vehicles and to support the charges. Wright and Butt, according to auditors, made no clear promise they would do it. They called the log "difficult and time-consuming to implement" but said a written policy would be established by June 30, 2001. That has yet to be done -- in part, Wright says, because Butt's fatal heart attack on Jan. 16 brought everything, including the city's finances, to a screeching halt.