The Little City That Couldn't

Buried in bureaucratic incompetence and scandal, Pine Lawn might be headed for a pine box.

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.

As the populace heads to the westward suburbs, Pine Lawn's infrastructure is crumbling. But that doesn't stop the city's politicians from fighting over the scraps.
Jennifer Silverberg
As the populace heads to the westward suburbs, Pine Lawn's infrastructure is crumbling. But that doesn't stop the city's politicians from fighting over the scraps.
Impeached alderman Johnny O'Kain fears for the life of his hometown.
Jennifer Silverberg
Impeached alderman Johnny O'Kain fears for the life of his hometown.

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.

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