By Sam Levin
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By Dennis Brown
Seated in the office of his modest, 1960s-era ranch home, Town & Country alderman John Hoffmann recounts how earlier this year he exposed the "drug dealer" living down the street.
"This guy moves here eighteen months ago and buys a $1.7 million house on 4.9 acres," Hoffmann begins. "He immediately tries to buy out the houses of the people living around him. When he can't do that, he starts building a wrought-iron fence around his entire property. The neighbors are irate about it. They call me asking for help. I tell them I'll see what I can do."
A former police detective with tousled gray hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache, Hoffmann followed up like any good gumshoe. He eased his lumbering, six-foot-three-inch frame into his Camry and drove over to take a firsthand look.
Standing in an adjoining back yard, Hoffmann says he was aghast to see that the fence had come at the cost of several mature trees felled to make room for the boundary. "We like to brag that we're a Tree City USA, but what good is that if we don't enforce their protection?"
Hoffmann snapped a couple photos of the fallen lumber and listened as neighbors complained how the property owner was now applying for a permit to build an electronic gate across his driveway. The neighbors claimed the barrier would infringe on their property easements by forcing vehicles turn around in their lawns if stopped by the gate. Even more alarming was the rumor circulating through the neighborhood that the offending resident — Brian Marchant-Calsyn — also planned to install a laser system atop his fence that would trigger alarms should anyone attempt to scale the structure.
Curious as to why anyone would need so much security, Hoffmann returned home and fired up the Dell desktop on which he spends many late-night hours e-mailing constituents, composing newsletters and drafting ordinances. Hoffmann entered "Brian Marchant-Calsyn" into his computer's search engine and found that the resident owns and operates several online business ventures headquartered in Town & Country.
A bit more cyber-sleuthing revealed that one of those companies — Health Career Agents Inc. — has a dozen unresolved consumer complaints filed against it with the Missouri Attorney General's Office and is the defendant in several pending civil suits in St. Louis County Circuit Court. A record check with the Bureau of Prisons and federal courts shows that Marchant-Calsyn pleaded guilty fourteen years ago to a federal charge of "possession with the intent to distribute LSD" and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Hoffmann has come to refer to Marchant-Calsyn — who declined repeated requests for comment — as the "drug dealer" in public board meetings and in newsletters.
Marchant-Calsyn's real estate attorney, John King, says he is unaware of his client's past but hardly sees how it's relevant in a zoning matter. "I don't know about that other stuff," says the Clayton lawyer. "I was hired to help him get a gate application. Everything else is immaterial."
To Hoffmann, though, the two issues are very much intertwined, especially since Marchant-Calsyn and his neighbors continue to battle it out over his application to install a gate over his driveway.
"He has shown a pattern of either illegal or bad-faith practices," claims Hoffmann. "That waves a red flag in front of me. It also makes me wonder why we are catering to him and his attorney's requests for favors and extensions."
Hoffmann's personal attacks on Marchant-Calsyn add to a growing list of actions that have the swashbuckling alderman at odds with his city hall colleagues. "Are we going to run background checks on everyone applying for a simple zoning permit?" comments a fellow alderman speaking on condition of anonymity. "To me, that's really overstepping the bounds."
As Town & Country's self-appointed watchdog, no issue is too lofty or mundane to escape Hoffmann's scrutiny — including the backyard bickering about a fence.
"With 30 years in law enforcement, I'm thinking to myself, Is he building this fence because he wants to keep bad guys out? Or is it because he wants to keep the police out?" says Hoffmann. "Either way, I say it's curious."
John Hoffmann won election to Town & Country's Board of Alderman in April, squeaking out a victory over incumbent Tim Welby by just three votes — 187 to 184. Hoffmann, 55, likes to boast that he was able to turn out the "Buick vote," Town & Country's blue-hair population who supported his campaign promises to cut the bureaucracy and shed light on city hall.
Once elected, Hoffmann wasted little time asserting himself as a maverick. His first proposed piece of legislation, introduced in May, would have allowed residents to hunt deer on their property with bow and firearms, provided they're in the presence of a law-enforcement official when they make the kill.
Hoffmann wrote the measure without input from the city's "Deer Task Force," a committee of aldermen that had been meeting for months to consider non-lethal means of controlling the deer population, including sterilization and birth control. The bill failed in all of 30 seconds when not a single alderman would second the measure.
Town & Country alderman Fred Meyland-Smith says Hoffmann's "Lone Ranger attitude" continues to frustrate his fellow legislators. "By not collaborating with other boards and commissions, he negatively impacts the quality and usefulness of his efforts," says Meyland-Smith. "This 'ready, fire, then aim' approach of his is a disservice to the citizens."
In August, Hoffmann saw another of his proposed ordinances go down in flames when he unveiled a bill entitled "Hang Up and Drive" that would make Town & Country the only municipality in the region to outlaw cell phone use while driving. A week before he formally introduced the measure, Hoffmann leaked word of the bill to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The paper ran an article about the proposed ordinance the Monday of the board meeting. By noon that same day, a half-dozen TV and radio stations had called Hoffmann for follow-up interviews.
Hoffmann says he modeled the bill after a similar ordinance in California. But that didn't satisfy his fellow aldermen who viewed the legislation as little more than "political grandstanding" as Hoffmann failed to consult them or the police — whose job it would be to enforce the law — before introducing it to the board. Like the deer-hunting ordinance, the cell phone ban died when no other alderman bothered to give it a second.
After the meeting, Meyland-Smith told the Post-Dispatch that Hoffmann had acted "unilaterally." "The hallmark of this government is one of collaboration and due diligence," Meyland-Smith told the paper. "We don't act on important matters capriciously."
More recently, Hoffmann has earned the ire of Town & Country officials for his rambling, long-winded newsletters that take pride in skewering fellow elected officials for the slightest of offenses. Hoffmann sends each newsletter individually by e-mail to a few dozen recipients. Like anything sent through the Internet, the missives have a tendency to be passed around.
"He sneaks off to the safe confines of his keyboard and harpoons people," says a fellow alderman who declined to talk on the record for fear of becoming yet another target of Hoffmann's. "It's like throwing gasoline on a fire. You challenge him on something, and he just feeds on it. He doesn't let it go."
"I learned long ago never to get in a pissing match with a skunk," opines another Town & Country insider. "You can't win."
In newsletters, some exceeding fifteen pages of single-space type, Hoffmann has referred to the mayor as a "jerk" and the actions of other council members as "dumb and dumber." He's nitpicked the legroom and fuel efficiency of the city's new Dodge Charger police cars (Hoffmann would rather they bought Toyota Priuses) and complained after his cell phone ban died that city officials are "more interested in the health and safety of deer than they are human beings."
Proud of his status as an "independent" voter, Hoffmann has recently taken aim at Mayor Jon Dalton for allowing his photo from the city website to appear on a campaign flyer endorsing Republican State Representative Jane Cunningham.
"The nice thing about city government is it is supposed to be nonpartisan!" wrote Hoffmann in a huffy August newsletter. The alderman also frequently points out in his newsletters that the mayor has been a registered lobbyist for cigarette manufacturers and performed legal work for West County EMS, the independent fire-protection district to which the city pays millions of dollars annually for its emergency services.
Dalton, an attorney with a downtown St. Louis firm, says Hoffmann's barbs are misinformed. He maintains he represents a number of state-regulated industries. His past lobbying efforts for cigarette companies, he counters, sought only to close loopholes that allow some tobacco firms to avoid paying their share of state taxes. His brief time lobbying for West County EMS, he adds, came when that fire district joined others he was working with to ensure similar political subdivision in Missouri followed certain accountability rules.
"I have worked hard over the last five years to foster a transparent and cooperative working environment at city hall for the benefit of our residents," defends Dalton. "Unfortunately, Alderman Hoffmann has been more interested in lodging petty personal assaults against not only me and other public officials, but against private citizens who have volunteered their time and talents on behalf of our city."
Other city officials believe that Hoffmann is tarnishing the image of well-heeled Town & Country, one of the wealthiest communities in Missouri, and they bitterly resent that he's chosen to air the city's dirty laundry.
Late last month, an investment banker from Town & Country was found with millions of dollars in gold and silver coins stacked in his basement, prompting an ongoing FBI investigation. In a newsletter that followed, Hoffmann took advantage of the incident to mock Town & Country's website, which refers to the city as "a prestigious community."
"Yes," Hoffmann wrote, tongue-in-cheek, "we are getting some very prestigious criminals."
Hoffmann has filled pages of his newsletter lambasting his colleagues' decision to spend $1.6 million renovating a historic farmhouse owned by the city. Hoffmann complains that the building and its new glass-and-steel addition serves no use and likens the structure's design to a "glass double-wide."
Following a council meeting in late September, Hoffmann drove by the farmhouse to check out some newly planted landscaping. "You know what kind of trees they planted next to the building? They're hawthorns," says Hoffmann. "You know what hawthorns have? Thorns! Who would plant thorn trees right next to a place that's supposed to host parties and have children? It's dangerous."
Hoffmann's strong opinions and poison pen have caused him trouble before.
A native of Webster Groves, Hoffmann says his first foray into journalism came in high school when he founded and edited an "alternative to the alternative" high school paper called News. "Our biggest story came after the principal stated that Webster High didn't have a drug problem," recalls Hoffmann. "We went around campus and bought drugs from three different dealers and then published a story about what kind of drugs you could buy in school and how much they cost."
News would be the beginning of Hoffmann's love affair with both journalism and detective work. After a stint at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, Hoffmann went on to serve as a police officer in the late 1970s in Rock Hill and Manchester before moving west to take a police job in Liberty, Missouri, a city outside of Kansas City.
In the early 1990s, Hoffmann's wife, Diana, took a job as an insurance adjustor that moved the couple to suburban Washington, D.C. There, Hoffmann found work as an assistant chief with the Chevy Chase police department and later switched careers to become the first-ever taxicab commissioner for Montgomery County, Maryland. In his free time, he says he wrote columns and articles as a freelance stringer for the Baltimore Orioles' minor-league system.
The baseball gig abruptly ended in 2005, claims Hoffmann, when he wrote a column critical of cable giant Comcast, which then owned several of the Orioles' farm teams. "I published a piece about how their children's baseball clinics were netting the company $10,000. At the same time, the company was underpaying minor-league players assigned to teach the camps," says Hoffmann. "The next week, I showed up at a game only to find that my press credentials had been denied."
More infamous than that episode was a two-part series Hoffmann wrote decades earlier for St. Louis Magazine. The articles, entitled "How Safe Are You?" appeared in the January and March 1980 issues of the magazine and provided a report card of the region's various municipal police departments.
Hoffmann, then working as a policeman in Manchester, wrote the stories under the pen name Strode Wilder. A grizzled vet still working for the Manchester police department confirms that Hoffmann's magazine piece created quite a stir at the time.
"As I recall, the St. Louis County Police Department was especially upset about the negative marks they got in the article," says the Manchester officer. "I think they even launched an investigation to expose the writer."
Hoffmann was eventually outed by his mother, who let slip to friends that her son was writing freelance pieces for the magazine. Manchester police promptly fired Hoffmann on charges of "conduct unbecoming an officer" and "general disrespect for the Manchester police department."
After he and Diana moved back to St. Louis in 2006, Hoffmann says he applied for jobs with several police departments but never heard back from any of them. "I'm blackballed," he complains. "After I wrote the St. Louis Magazine articles, a friend of mine told me that it would be twenty years before I could get a police job in this town again. Well, it's been nearly 30 years now, and people still haven't forgotten it."
The Hoffmanns' home sits on a generous, acre-plus lot in a leafy neighborhood that's seen many of its original ranch homes replaced with 6,000-square-foot mansions.
"We bought it from a real estate speculator who got into some financial problems and had to sell it cheap," explains Hoffmann. "We had wanted to live in Webster, but we couldn't find anything there we could afford. Town & Country was as far west as we were willing to live."
Hoffmann's work as alderman pays $420 per month, though the scrupulous legislator is sure to refund the city with a personal check whenever he misses a meeting. "When I was elected to office they presented me with a free polo shirt with a Town & Country emblem on it," says Hoffmann. "I cut the city a check for $35. As far as I'm aware, the board of aldermen is not a uniformed position."
Hoffmann makes ends meet working part-time as an afternoon editor for the website traffic.com. The company contracts with the Missouri Department of Transportation to provide accidents and construction updates to local news outlets. "It's pretty boring stuff," says Hoffmann. "It's not creative at all."
His employment as alderman, on the other hand, allows him to both relive his days as a law enforcer and would-be journalist. And few subjects provide him more satisfaction than his dogged pursuit of Brian Marchant-Calsyn.
In late May, Marchant-Calsyn's attorney, John King, sent a letter to an attorney who represents some of the neighbors upset with his client's fence. The two-page note stated that King's client planned to "litigate on every possible front," should the neighbors continue their attempt to revoke the fence permit.
Apprised of the letter, Hoffmann vowed in one of his June newsletters that he'd never forget King's attempt to intimidate his constituents. "Mr. King," warned Hoffmann, "will have to answer for it any time he appears before a board or commission I'm sitting on."
The alderman has made good on his promise on two separate occasions — the latest occurring at an August 25 board meeting in which Hoffmann browbeat King with excerpts from the letter. After tolerating the assault for several minutes, an enraged King had all he could take and stormed out of the boardroom. "I'm not going to stand here and let you question my integrity," King yelled. "I'll challenge my reputation against yours any day."
Weeks later, King remains bewildered by Hoffmann's theatrics. "I've appeared before dozens of boards over the years as a real estate attorney, and I've never had a similar experience with any other official," says King. "I suppose that he has the podium and the right to yell at me if he wants, but it's not a professional way of doing business."
In mid-summer Hoffmann's fixation with Marchant-Calsyn took him to city hall, where he discovered that the business owner had failed to pay local licensing fees for his office along Highway 40 in Town & County.
Outraged by what he considered a blatant attempt to circumvent city regulations and deny the city hundreds of dollars in fees, Hoffmann took his concerns to Town & Country attorney Steve Garrett. All Garrett did, maintains the alderman, was write Marchant-Calsyn a letter telling him he had so many days to pay. (Garrett declined to comment for this article, citing his independent status as a third-party employee of Town & Country.)
In July, Hoffmann asked police chief John Copeland to go to Marchant-Calsyn's office and write him up for operating a business for three years in Town & Country without a proper license. When the chief refused, Hoffmann says he took matters into his own hands and drafted a piece of legislation demanding that the police intervene. (Copeland did not return repeated calls for comment.)
Hoffmann's city resolution, No. 10-2008, would have required the police chief to "take immediate enforcement action" and cite Marchant-Calsyn for each year he's operated a business in Town & Country without a license. Like so many of Hoffmann's other proposals, the resolution died when he was the only alderman to vote in support of the measure.
"You can't write a law today and then go fine someone for breaking that law yesterday," says one alderman. "If John wants to write an ordinance that includes a penalty for companies that don't pay their business license, that's great. But it can't be enforced retroactively."
Hoffmann says he just wants to give teeth to a law that's already on the books. "Here we are in Town & Country, telling people that we won't fine them if they're operating a business without a license," he exclaims. "What's the point of having these rules if you don't enforce them?"
As Hoffmann continues to build his case against Marchant-Calsyn, he's recently learned that some of his critics have begun poking around into his own background. In recent weeks e-mails have circulated among Town & Country officials shedding light on Hoffmann's controversial tenure in jobs in Kansas City and Maryland. Last month, an attorney representing "concerned parties in Town & Country" also contacted Riverfront Times, and presented the paper with a packet of information regarding Hoffmann's past.
Hoffmann, it turns out, has been fired from two police departments — in Manchester in 1980 and again in Liberty, where he was discharged in 1986 on charges of "insubordination" and "incompetence or negligence in the performance of his duties," according to documents Hoffmann supplied RFT.
Years later, as the taxicab commissioner in Montgomery County, Hoffmann made headlines for his public feuds with both livery owners and his county bosses. A 2005 Washington Post article reported that Hoffmann had earned the nickname "Dirty Harry of Taxicab Inspectors" for his over-the-top policing procedures, in which he went undercover as a clueless tourist, set up sting operations and spied on taxi companies from airplanes. The Post reported that Hoffmann's renegade tactics prompted superiors to order him "to cease and desist in certain types of aggressive enforcement."
When he refused to back down, Hoffmann was assigned a desk job. Days later, he resigned in protest. "Mr. Hoffmann's heart was in the right place," Montgomery County spokeswoman Esther Bowring told the Post. "But he often crossed the line in the execution of his duties, putting himself and others at risk."
Hoffmann views his time as a taxicab commissioner and a Liberty police officer as badges of honor. As taxi inspector, he says he ended the political corruption and lax oversight that had plagued the cab fleet for years and threatened the safety of its passengers. "I was filing an average of 450 cases a year, plus 30 to 50 license revocations," says Hoffmann. "My boss didn't like the amount of violations I was finding, as she felt it made her look bad."
Hoffmann claims he was fired from the Liberty job because he cited a garbage company for dumping waste into the Missouri River and then refused to back down when an assistant chief asked that he not file the charge.
The police later compiled a handful of complaints to justify the dismissal, some of which alleged that Hoffmann had at times appeared "rude" and "belligerent" while assisting the public.
A labor judge soon ruled that the charges against Hoffmann were groundless, and he was reinstated to the Liberty police force with back pay. But unlike before, Hoffmann was now relegated to an office job. "The only reason anyone knows about this today is because I later filed a suit against the city," says Hoffmann.
The lawsuit, which made its way to the court of appeals, argued that his civil rights had been trampled in his firing and demotion. In June 1990, the appellate court affirmed a lower court's decision that Hoffmann's civil rights had not been violated.
Diana Hoffmann believes her husband's forthright demeanor is one of his greatest attributes. "I have never asked him to rein it in," says Diana. "It was a bit irritating there in Liberty for a while when the legal bills were reaching five figures. But right is right. I think the thing with John is, people aren't used to someone calling them out and confronting them."
Particularly amusing, says Diana, is the way city officials have responded to her husband. "They don't want to be associated with him at all, which I find interesting."
Hoffmann contends that the so-called "concerned parties of Town & Country" can bring up whatever they want about his past. "I have nothing to hide," he says.
On August 25, 2008, after months of legal wrangling, the board of aldermen finally voted on Marchant-Calsyn's request to install a driveway gate. Leading the charge to deny the permit was Hoffmann, who claimed that the gate posed a safety concern. Vehicles stopped by the gate, he argued, would have to back out of the driveway onto heavily traveled Topping Road.
For once, Hoffmann's colleagues on the board saw things his way. The permit was denied by a vote of 7 to 1.
The issue may have ended there had Marchant-Calsyn not threatened to sue the city to get his gate approved. At a work session an hour before the board's September 22 meeting, Mayor Jon Dalton asked the aldermen to reconsider the gate application so as to avoid costly litigation.
Hoffmann responded to the mayor's suggestion with a boisterous "nay" vote. Everyone else on the board agreed with Dalton. The gate will now get a new hearing at the board's October 27 meeting.
For Hoffmann, the reversal is just another reason why he's now considering a run for mayor in next spring's election. Town & Country, he says, needs a leader who will stand up for the little guy and not back away from bullies — be they elected officials or convicted felons.
"They say I'm a shit disturber," says Hoffmann. "But I like to think that when I pick a fight it's only in defense of truth, justice and the American way."
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