Cool Valley sits among the dozens of towns wedged around St. Louis Lambert International Airport and the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.
With only 1,127 residents, Cool Valley is one of those little burgs that's hardly ever in the news unless something very bad happens.
But a year ago, Jayson Stewart, its charismatic young mayor, proposed an idea that put Cool Valley on the national map, while conferring on Stewart the unofficial title of America's most famous small-town mayor.
Consequently, all the traits that had enabled Stewart, 32, to win the mayorship of Cool Valley in a landslide in 2020 — his youth, his brains, his business background, his confidence, and above all, his bold vision for a better future — got their national close-up, boosting the sense that Stewart was on a trajectory toward greater things, the Missouri governor's mansion, perhaps, or even a U.S. Senate seat.
The reason: Stewart unveiled a plan to give each of the residents of his financially struggling north St. Louis County town $1,000 worth of bitcoin, the best-known cryptocurrency.
As soon as Stewart announced his plan, local TV stations predictably picked up the story. But the real love came from the magazines and podcasts that cover the cryptocurrency industry.
They ran with the story, breathlessly lionizing Stewart while posing few critical questions about who would fund this venture and how — or even if it makes sense to give away cryptocurrency to the residents of a town where nearly one in five people lives below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census figures.
Stewart, who has billed himself as an entrepreneur and environmentalist, showered bitcoin with praise in a late September 2021 interview with Bitcoin Magazine.
"Bitcoin is fundamentally American," Stewart told the magazine. "It is the most American thing. Our government is built on freedom and personal liberty, and rights and self-sovereignty, and all of the things that bitcoin really is. I think it's a natural marriage that bitcoin in America will thrive."
Cryptocurrency is a digital currency. Transactions in bitcoin are verified, and records are maintained by a decentralized system that uses cryptography and a ledger called a blockchain, rather than by a centralized authority.
Because cryptocurrency is so new, the market for it is highly volatile. After surging to $60,000 in October 2021, the price of a single bitcoin fell rapidly in the months since. The bitcoin price as of early October 2022 is around $20,000.
Cryptocurrency is also controversial in the realms of tech and finance. Billionaire entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and St. Louis' own Jack Dorsey have expressed strong beliefs that cryptocurrency is the future, and they can't sing its praises loud enough.
But many economists are skeptical. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has even slammed cryptocurrency as useless, extravagantly wasteful of resources and little more than a Ponzi scheme.
In any event, Stewart's moment had arrived —- or so it seemed.
In late October 2021, a group of Harvard University Law School students invited Stewart to discuss his bitcoin plan and how it relates to a universal basic income.
"Just spoke at Harvard Law!" Stewart posted on his Facebook page afterward. "Those kids are awesome."
Flash forward nearly 12 months. The scene: the cramped conference room where the Cool Valley City Council is holding its late September meeting.
All that bright futuristic talk about bitcoin? It's long since died down, replaced by a chorus of complaints from frustrated council members and a handful of voters who accuse Stewart of neglecting his mayoral duties.
Indeed, Stewart's bitcoin idea seems about as realistic, and relevant, to the people in this room as plans to spend Christmas on Mars.
Complaints that Stewart missed or suddenly rescheduled multiple council meetings in recent months are by now old hat.
Ditto for a litany of other complaints that have to do with the basic nuts and bolts of everyday small-town governance: showing up at City Hall for work, fixing potholes, mowing the gras on city-owned property and patching City Hall's leaking roof.
The new wrinkle tonight is the revelation that the city received $230,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds — and no one seems to know what happened to the money. Was it spent? If so, on what?
It is a bit of news that is especially rankling to city activists who have been complaining for months that the city, which only has two full-time employees, desperately needs to hire a code enforcement officer to deal with ramshackle vacant buildings and a public works director to oversee the repair of crumbling streets.
What's more, under its agreement with the Normandy Police Department, which covers the city, Cool Valley is several years behind in fulfilling a contractual agreement to spend $40,000 or so for a new police car.
But the city council can't fill these positions or buy the police car because it isn't receiving basic financial records regarding the amount of money in its coffers.
For concerned citizen Joan Ferguson, one of the mayor's most persistent critics, the mystery regarding the COVID relief funds is clearly the last straw.
"If this money was given to you in 2021, where did it go?" Ferguson asked during the meeting. "Since we can't get a budget from our board, we can ask for our state auditor to audit all the books for Cool Valley, and then maybe then we can have an accurate accounting of our money."
Stewart seemed unfazed.
Although he's the skipper of the ship, Stewart responded in the breezily detached manner of a retail clerk telling a customer about some unfathomably weird store policy over which he lacks any control whatsoever.
"So there is paperwork in the office," Stewart said, looking toward City Clerk Cheryl Wallace, who had, unbeknownst to most in the room, been pulling double-duty as city treasurer.
"We have a crazy filing system," Stewart continued. "That paperwork does exist. I'm sure it'll take her some time to dig it up."
Stewart blamed the confusion on problems with the previous city clerk and the several-months gap when the city lacked a clerk until Wallace came on board in February. Sometimes Wallace isn't able to find where the previous city clerk placed something, Stewart said.
Ferguson, in a voice freighted with exasperation, indicated that she doesn't buy what Stewart is trying to sell her or the council.
"How long are we going to continue to blame where we can't find and don't have on people who are past employees?" she asked.
"I'm just saying, if she can't find it," Stewart said, "it's going to take a while."
Unlike some other north St. Louis County towns riven by political turmoil, Cool Valley's power structure is entirely Black. None of its political tensions stem from the disconnect between a whites-dominated city council dealing with an increasingly Black electorate, as was the case in nearby Ferguson in 2014 during the civic unrest triggered by the police killing of Michael Brown.
But tensions are evident in other ways. Stewart is a good 10 years younger than anyone else seated on Cool Valley's council. And a powerful personal animus cackles almost like static electricity any time he interacts with Floyd Blackwell, the current council president and former mayor. In 2020, Stewart — a political novice — beat Blackwell by almost 40 points in the race to replace then-incumbent Mayor Viola Murphy, who passed away in 2021.
During the September 28 meeting, Ferguson was adamant about finding out what happened to those COVID relief funds.
"We just want to know where the money was spent because we're not seeing it in our community," she said. She paused, then gave the mayor a steely look. "So where did the $230,000 go?" she asked.
"I believe most of it went to the police contract," Stewart said.
"What you say is one thing," Ferguson said. "But we'd like to see it."
A spokesperson for Nicole Galloway, the Missouri state auditor, confirms her office is reviewing complaints to Galloway's whistleblower hotline regarding Cool Valley.
Jermaine Matthew, 42, a city council member and one of Stewart's chief critics, remains hopeful that something good will come out of Galloway's review.
But Matthew isn't holding his breath. For the past several months, Matthew has been behind a frustrating effort to force Stewart to return a city-owned 2004 Dodge Charger that's supposed to be driven strictly for official business, according to city ordinance.
Stewart, however, has been using the car as his personal vehicle, Matthew says. Wallace, the city clerk, has only released a few records pertaining to gas expenses for the car, but has refused Matthew's requests to see records regarding maintenance and repair costs.
During the September 28 council meeting, Matthew pushed through an ordinance directing Wallace to send a letter to Normandy police authorizing the department to take back the Charger by force if necessary.
The fact that the council must take these steps doesn't make sense to Matthew because Stewart has advertised himself as a successful businessman. The mayor even bragged at the September meeting that he and his girlfriend have eaten at fancy Central West End restaurants, enjoying meals at $500 a pop.
"So why does he need that car?" Matthew asks.
For his part, the mayor refuses to answer.
"I don't want to talk about it," he says. "I don't like to talk about my finances, or just money."
When the topic was brought up in past council meetings, Stewart has said he needs the car 24/7 in his capacity as the city's chief law enforcement officer and also to support him during occasions when he feels the need "to gather inspiration," Matthew said.
After the September 28 meeting, Stewart pledged to make sure Wallace allows RFT to look at city financial records, but Stewart continued to refuse to talk about his own personal finances.
"It's not in my nature to talk about personal finances," he wrote in a direct message on Twitter on September 28. "No offense, it's jut never felt polite for me to discuss. I've been very blessed, and I keep my expenses low so I can serve my team as mayor and continue donating my salary."
Stewart also turned down a writer's request for a list of supporters to interview.
"Sorry for not getting you a list of people," Stewart wrote in a DM late on the evening of September 28.. "It just doesnt' feel right selling the privacy of people i [sic] care about in hopes of a good story. I know it's created more work for you. I just don't want to put people I love in that situation."
Using the Missouri Sunshine Act, the RFT requested a host of records from Cool Valley, including statements from all of its bank accounts. In reply, earlier this week, Wallace released copies of bank statements from a single account, the city's operating fund. She did not provide records for the account set up to track federal funds.
The U.S. Bank statement for September showed an ending balance of $50,296, but it does not show where the $230,000 in COVID funds ended up or how they were spent.
The RFT also asked for all invoices submitted to the city from January 2022 and all invoices and requests for reimbursements submitted by Stewart. None of the invoices provided in response show expenses connected to Stewart or the city-owned vehicle he drives.
As for Matthew, he questioned why Wallace would release city bank statements in response to a newspaper request, but not to him, a city council member who has also requested the records.
Wallace declined to comment.
"I think it's quite strange," Matthew says. "There's a lot of questions, that's why I wanted to take a look at them."
All the confusion and turmoil stemming from Stewart's tenure as mayor has put Cool Valley in a real bind, Matthew says.
"For a community this small, to be in a situation like this," Matthew says, "where you don't know what direction the community is going, one way or another, is very strange."
What further compounds the oddity of the moment for Matthew is the fact that he eagerly supported Stewart back in 2020 when Stewart ran for mayor.
"The problem in this community is that for so long [voters] have been disappointed," Matthew says. "They've stopped coming to the meetings because they've heard the same story over and over and over again."
Stewart seemed like a fresh start, Matthew recalls.
"We thought and hoped that by him being younger and more energetic, more involved with what's going on ... that he'd have a true personal stake in what happens in the community," he says. "And he could truly turn some things around."
That's a lot of pressure on a part-time mayor in a town with limited resources and a litany of issues. Still, Matthew is concerned Stewart doesn't have the best interests of the town at heart.
"He is very arrogant," Matthew says of Stewart. "He does not care about the fact that what he is doing to the city is hurting the city. He cares nothing about the city. It just reflects someone who has no genuine interest in the community."
Matthew readily acknowledges that Stewart is highly intelligent but says intelligence is not the issue.
"As far as I'm concerned he's a double-talker," he says of Stewart. "And his attitude is that he's the smartest one in the room. Nobody else knows what they're talking about. He does. He's about puffing himself up. Taking credit for all kinds of things."
City council member Don Johnson sees Stewart's tenure in an entirely different light.
"I know you're doing a good job," he said to Stewart at the end of the August council meeting.
"Do you honestly think I've been good for the city?" Stewart replied.
"Yes, I do," Johnson said. "But we need to work more together, and we're not."
Stewart says he remains unmoved by criticisms.
"One thing you have to understand about me is how deeply religious I am," he says in an interview. "I try not to express that a lot or push that on anyone. I'm deeply, deeply religious. My religion is 'Love thy neighbor.'"
At the August council meeting, Matthew joined two of the other four council members to support an ordinance to consider hiring an outside lawyer at $250 per hour to lay the groundwork for a potential vote to impeach and remove Stewart.
Matthew acknowledges the city could end up spending a lot of time, political capital and tens of thousands of dollars setting the stage for impeaching Stewart, only to have the whole process fall apart.
That's what happened over the past 18 months in neighboring Normandy over allegations Mayor Mark Beckmann had mismanaged city funds. Normandy's council was poised to push through a motion to begin the impeachment process, but in August three of Beckmann's council foes either quit or were replaced by voters.
Still, despite the potential cost, the risks of impeaching Stewart would be worth it, according to Matthew.
"But we also have to look at the possibility of allowing a mayor who is not serving the community in any capacity to continue to occupy a position of authority to continue what he's doing, which is not moving the city forward in any direction," Matthew says. "Either way you go, you're losing."
When the council voted in August to seek the special counsel, Stewart dismissed the idea.
"It'll be more cost-effective to vote against me," Stewart said, referring to the 2024 election. "This'll turn into a six-figure thing."
After the meeting, Stewart called the special counsel idea "an absolute waste of money. It shows a lack of fiscal responsibility, and in my opinion, a lack of seriousness in addressing real issues."
Craig Smith, Cool Valley's city attorney, cautioned city residents about the pitfalls of the impeachment process.
"It's very involved and very expensive," Smith told them during an informal gathering after the September 28 council meeting. "'It's always cheaper to keep her.' When you look at that, how do you justify it? Because at the end of the day who's paying for it? That's coming out of the city."
To those who've known Stewart best and longest, the trait that stands out most is his love of dreaming big.
Evan Roberts, Stewart's uncle, described the mayor as "an intellectual, a free thinker and deep thinker. He analyzes everything before he does it."
Roberts, a letter carrier, describes his nephew as someone who "kind of moves in silence. He doesn't brag about what he's going to do until he does it."
Roberts has talked with Stewart about his bitcoin plan.
"I'm like, 'I have no idea what that is,'" Roberts says.
Nonetheless, he predicts his nephew will pull it off.
"Whatever he puts his mind to, he was dedicated to doing it," Roberts says. "He hates to fail. He kind of likes the accolades of accomplishments."
Tim O'Hara, who has known Stewart since they were classmates at the elite John Burroughs School, in Ladue, says Stewart's decision to run for Cool Valley mayor makes sense because, after attending the University of Miami in Florida, he wanted to "get back home. That was a big motivating factor."
In addition, Stewart was always interested in politics because he saw it as a way "to help people, more so than being in a business job or something like that," says O'Hara, a Harvard Business School graduate who works as a supply-chain executive in Chicago. "But it was something he could really see the impact of the things he was doing."
Although Stewart went into politics with his eyes open, he was still surprised to learn how politics "is definitely a contact sport," O'Hara says. "Working with people that are actively working against you can be challenging, right? He wasn't necessarily expecting that on a more local jurisdiction level."
Larry Chapman, a highly successful St. Louis developer, worked with Stewart to bring a climate-controlled hydroponic garden to the largest building in Cool Valley, a nearly 300,000-square-foot structure called the DRS Building.
Chapman lauded Stewart for the scope of his vision and his capacity to think big.
"He's young; he's motivated," Chapman says. "He's committed himself to try and find a way to make big things. If you go for big things, it takes a long time."
But an air of mystery clings to Stewart, who shares his childhood home on North Hills Lane with his longtime girlfriend, who holds the deed to it, according to St. Louis County property records.
For instance, neither Roberts nor O'Hara can say how, exactly, Stewart earns a living.
"That's a good question," O'Hara replies when asked what his childhood friend does for income.
Stewart's pay as mayor is only $300 per month, a salary he says he gives back to Cool Valley coffers.
His LinkedIn profile states that he ran a successful recording studio and then a St. Louis-based company called PL28, which aimed to clean plastic trash from the ocean. It remains unclear if PL28 had any employees or made any money.
In any event, Stewart dissolved PL28 in 2021, Missouri Secretary of State records show.
During a brief interview after the September 28 council meeting, Stewart said his full-time job is working as Cool Valley's mayor. But he refused to say how he pays for his lifestyle.
"I live like a monk," he said, even though minutes before he boasted of paying $500 for a meal in the Central West End with his girlfriend.
How does he pay his living expenses?
"I don't have very many," he replied.
The same sense of mystery extends to his plans for bringing bitcoin to Cool Valley.
On Twitter, however, Stewart can hardly suppress his love for bitcoin, which he describes in almost rapturous terms.
"Bitcoin inspires me to always dream bigger," he tweeted on November 4, 2021.
A few days before that, he'd tweeted, "Bitcoin is absolute truth."
And two weeks earlier, his praise was even more effusive, when he tweeted, "While meditating this afternoon I realized: bitcoin truly can pave the way for world peace. I believe it may even be a prerequisite."
But today Stewart refuses to disclose details of his plans for bitcoin and Cool Valley.
"I promise that as soon as I can say something about that I will talk to you more," he says.
Stewart says he's working with a partner he met on the Clubhouse app, a social network where people around the world come together to chat, listen and learn from each other in real-time.
Stewart refused to reveal details about the partner, other than saying that "he's just a wealthy businessman."
If there is a bright spot for Cool Valley, it is what is called the DRS Building at 201 Evans Lane, just off Florissant Avenue.
Up until a few years ago, a contractor named DRS Land Systems built defense systems for U.S. Army battle tanks there. At its peak, DRS employed 700 people. Then DRS moved out of the building for a larger home near Lambert Airport.
That's when Chapman, the developer, entered the picture.
Chapman, the president and CEO of Seneca CRE and Chapman Ventures, bought the DRS building, ripped out its office accouterments and converted it into a nearly 300,000-square-foot warehouse.
No tenant has been found for the building. But in the meantime, Chapman has teamed up with a company called Fresh Harvest 365 to set up a hydroponic garden housed in two climate-controlled, refrigerated cargo containers located in the building's courtyard.
Crops include a variety of herbs, leafy greens and lettuce. The garden has a two-fold aim of training local people to work in urban agriculture while providing healthy food to inner-city communities, according to Chapman.
Urban agriculture projects are coming to every city in America, where "a lot of the produce you get to eat is going to be grown locally inside buildings where it's a truly renewable and sustainable environment and deliver much better quality food than you've ever had in your life in the process," Chapman says.
Fresh Harvest 365 provides leafy greens to five St. Louis-area restaurants, with plans next year to begin selling its produce to a chain of locally owned St. Louis grocery stores, Chapman says.
He credits Stewart with opening the doors to make the project happen.
"He was in the conversation, and working with him and the city — that allowed us to make it happen," Chapman says.
Rumors are circulating in Cool Valley that Chapman plans to convert the DRS Building into a cannabis cultivation center — a rumor that's picked up steam because of a measure to legalize recreational cannabis that is on the statewide ballot in November.
The ballot measure has a very strong chance of passing: A recent Emerson College poll shows nearly half of Missouri voters support it, while 35 percent are opposed and 17 percent remain unsure.
Chapman says he hasn't considered turning the building into a cannabis center. But if someone with a Missouri cannabis license came to him with a plan to team up, he says, "We'd be open to that kind of partnership."
For his part, environmentalist Stewart touts the hydroponic garden as an integral part of Cool Valley's future. The same goes for a community garden he recently started behind his house on a small hill sloping toward the DRS Building.
During the September 28 meeting, Stewart presented about the newly launched community garden, which he helped set up with $2,000 of his personal funds. It will grow watermelons, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers. For now the garden is available only to five households.
Stewart ended his presentation by anticipating community criticism.
"You guys can hate on the things I'm working on," he said. "I really don't care."
One woman in the audience asked how the hydroponic garden benefits Cool Valley residents since all the food goes to restaurants outside the city, with none going to local grocery stores.
"Going forward, they're going to launch a subscription service," Stewart replied. "So you will be able to pay a certain amount per month, and they will send you the freshest produce they grow."
The woman pressed: What about the benefit for Cool Valley residents?
"It's the fact it's available, it makes the community a fun place to be," Stewart said. "And it gives us options for things to do."
Jermaine Matthew, the city council member, has little patience for the mayor's talk of gardens when many much more pressing problems face the city.
"The city is suffering," he says. "The city is literally dying. And this guy is worried about a garden, feeding the bees and the butterflies. I don't care about that stuff. What can we do to help our community to the point where it is thriving again?"
What is beyond debate in the city of Cool Valley is the fact that the high hopes and expectations that greeted Stewart when he took office more than two years ago are now in the rearview mirror, and getting smaller with each day.
Politics is all about relationships. And it is clear that Stewart's relationship with the council members has long since hit the rocks.
That was more than obvious during August's council meeting, when Floyd Blackwell, one of Stewart's chief council antagonists, called out to a woman attending a meeting for the first time.
"That's the mayor," Blackwell said sarcastically as he nodded toward Stewart.
"Nice to meet you," the woman said.
"He don't show up too often," Blackwell added.
Visibly irritated, Stewart swatted back.
"See," Stewart said. "That's a weird lie to tell."
"It's the truth," Blackwell said.
"Just look at the public records," the mayor replied.
"It is what it is," Blackwell said. "We can do what we can do."
From across the room, another woman, a longtime city council observer, piped up.
"Business as usual, I see," she said.
"It is what it is," Blackwell said.
"You got to do better," she said.
"I'm trying to do better," Blackwell replied.
In opening the floor to public comments later that night, Stewart alluded to the growing list of complaints coming his way from impatient city residents.
"Then you can tell me how much you hate me," he said, "and that I'm terrible."
Ferguson, who said she voted for Stewart in 2020 but now supports the burgeoning effort to remove him from office, seemed to channel the feelings of most of the people in the room when it was her turn to speak.
"I don't hate you, Jayson," she said. "I'm disappointed because I voted for you, and I thought you were going to do something different." 0x006E
Mike Fitzgerald can be reached on Twitter @MikeWearAMask.