All Politics Is Racial: The tiny north-county hamlet of Vinita Park puts a new spin on the old adage

All Politics Is Racial: The tiny north-county hamlet of Vinita Park puts a new spin on the old adage
Jennifer Silverberg

All Politics Is Racial: The tiny north-county hamlet of Vinita Park puts a new spin on the old adage

The first time JaCola Williams saw the mayor was when he drove his golf cart, the one with "City of Vinita Park" painted on the side, up her family's dead-end street. It was a steamy July day in 2010, and Williams, a pretty, slender teenager just a few days shy of her eighteenth birthday, was sitting in her pajamas on the porch with her younger sister, killing time. The girls watched curiously as the man in a suit stopped in front of their house.

"Anybody need a summer job?" he asked.

As it happened, Williams had been struggling to find work. Her mother was sick, she had a toddler of her own, and the family had moved into a relative's house on Monroe Avenue while they tried to get back on their feet. Now here was Mayor James McGee on the lawn, offering Williams a job at city hall. Within two months, she was on staff as the city's interim tax collector.

"That's how I ended up trapped into Vinita Park," Williams sums up today.

This is what the mayor says he likes to do best: help people.

"If I can do anything to help people, that's what I do," says McGee, the first African American mayor of this tiny town (population 1,880) sandwiched between University City and Overland in north St. Louis County. "You get criticized for helping a lot of people," he adds, "because they feel like you looking for something."

Since taking office, McGee has kept tables in the Vinita Park Board of Aldermen's chamber stacked with free bread, English muffins, Bagel Thins, hamburger buns. He keeps full-size bags of potato chips in his office so he can hand them out to kids as he cruises the streets in his golf cart. When he heard some children in town had to sleep on the floor because their families couldn't afford beds, he wrangled mattresses from local hotels and merchants and sent employees from the department of public works to deliver them.

At a recent board of aldermen meeting, McGee presented a certificate of commendation to an older couple who'd helped catch a burglar and another to a boy who played Buster in Normandy High School's production of The Color Purple.

"Just looking at that," McGee said, smiling down at the young man from the dais, "you thought that was a professional player. Fantastic job!" The roughly twenty residents in attendance clapped and hooted.

When it came time for the "mayor's report," however, the festive air vanished from the small, wood-paneled room.

"I've been getting a lot of threatening letters," McGee glowered. "I been getting them since 2010. But like I said before: If somebody pop at me, you're going to lose your power. You're going to get your lead right back. And I mean that."

Though it wasn't clear whom he was addressing, one thing was plain as day: Not all is well in Vinita Park. A cloud of conspiracy hangs over its civic-minded citizens. They've cleaved themselves into two factions — those who support the mayor and those who do not.

"It's a shame. You don't know who is working for who," says one long-time resident who declined to have her name published. "We didn't have this until he became mayor."

For the past three years, mutterings and misgivings about Mayor McGee were confined within the town's borders, but as he enters the homestretch of his four-year term, the trouble in Vinita Park has oozed out into the open.

The consequences of Vinita Park's fraught race relations are costing the town more than goodwill. Earlier this year city attorneys approved a settlement for hundreds of thousands of dollars to five former white police officers who claim they were fired so African Americans could fill their positions. The former chief of police and director of public works, both white, have sued, leveling similar allegations. A sixth white former officer sued earlier this month.

The mayor continues to assert that his motives have been misinterpreted and that his only intention is to improve the lives of the citizens of Vinita Park.

"They're just trying to destroy the administration, by me being the first black mayor," McGee says. "A lot of people really can't see the big picture. We have to help each other."

A bird's-eye view of Vinita Park depicts a city of industry: Warehouses brick up the west side, built by Vi-Jon (maker of Germ-X hand sanitizer), US Foods and pesticide manufacturer United Industries. Trees and dead-end streets isolate the residential district from the sounds and sights of the bustling factories. Thanks to some prescient city planner, no road traverses the residential area from east to west, leaving the rows of cute two- and three-bedroom houses in relative peace. The industrial park, meanwhile, accounts for the lion's share of the revenue that feeds the Vinita Park's $3.6 million annual budget.

"If we didn't have that, we wouldn't have anything," says Ward 1 alderman Brian Gremaud.

The city gets its name from Vinita Station, a trolley stop on the Creve Coeur Lake Electric Line. In the early 1900s, developers could purchase a plot for just $25 down. St. Rita Catholic Church was established in 1914, and its primary school opened under the watchful eyes of the Sisters of St. Joseph, quickly becoming the anchor of the community.

"You expected to die and have your funeral at St. Rita," says Phyllis Hoerchler, a parishioner since the 1960s. "I know that doesn't sound pleasant, but you did."

The city incorporated in 1941, and within the decade Missouri's residual Jim Crow housing laws and real estate practices that limited African American homeownership to certain parts of St. Louis were challenged and defeated. With a more open real estate market and a rapidly growing black middle class, north county towns like Vinita Park were attractive to young African American families looking to leave the city.

Alma Druhe, who was born in Vinita Park in the late '20s, remembers when the first black family moved in on her block in the early 1960s.

"Some of my best friends moved away because blacks were moving in," Druhe recalls. "I remember a good friend saying, 'What do you think about all the blacks moving in?' I said, 'I think I'm going to have to start dressing up. They're dressing better than I do.'"

The same story was playing out all over north county, says Terry Jones, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. "When black suburbanization starts — over a ten- to twenty-year period, municipalities were going from all white to all African American. The list of cities is a long one."

So-called white flight contributed to the shift in demographics, as did the growing numbers of whites who simply no longer wanted to move in. For Vinita Park, a major contributing factor was the closure of St. Rita's school in 1989. Without a means to attract new young families, there was no one to replace the aging generation of white homeowners.

"Many of our parishioners have died. We are a gray-haired community," says Sharon Jordan, St. Rita's secretary for the past fifteen years. "Young people don't want to live in a house with one bathroom. They want more. There are no stores, there's no shopping. They want to move west. "

The 2000 U.S. Census marked the first time that blacks outnumbered whites in Vinita Park. Today the town is 65 percent African American.

So when some voters looked at their choices for mayor in the 2010 mayoral election — Virginia Bira, a white woman in her late 70s, or James McGee, a black man promising "change" — they were looking at a direct reflection of 60 years worth of larger economic and societal forces at work in north St. Louis County.

"I think she had her moment. This is the 21st century," one long-time resident says of Bira, who was first elected mayor in 1984. "You got to change with the times. You got to be fair."

"Change" came to the Vinita Park Police Department in a wave of terminations.

Many people expected to see McGee — a former Pagedale police officer himself — clean house as soon as he took office, but for the first year things were relatively quiet. At the time, the Vinita Park Police Department had eight white, one Chinese and four black officers and was headed by a white police chief, Richard Fairman.

"[McGee] was really cool and calm to begin with: Called us in, told us everyone's keeping their jobs, he's a fair man," recalls former detective sergeant Scot Haywood.

But the April 2011 elections reconfigured the racial makeup of the six-member board of aldermen, unseating two of the town's four white office holders and replacing them with African Americans who were very supportive of the mayor. One of the incumbent aldermen, Celeste McGee, who was first elected in 2000, is the mayor's wife.

Some residents believe the McGees handpicked the newcomers to run in the tiny ward elections, where victory is often determined by just a handful of votes. They're likewise quick to point out that while the mayor's role in city government is limited — he only casts a vote in the event of a tie among the six aldermen — hiring and firing decisions are made by the board.

"He had it all in his favor, so whatever he wants now, he gets," says former Vinita Park police officer Thomas Atchison. "They cleaned house, pretty much."

The culling commenced when the board voted not to reappoint two white department heads: Police Chief Fairman and Patrick Godfrey, director of public works. In both instances, the aldermen installed African American replacements days later.

A month after that, the board terminated three non-black police officers, including Haywood, in one swing of the aldermanic ax. Two white officers, one of them Atchison, subsequently resigned. Another was fired, and two left for police departments in other municipalities.

In May 2012, five former members of the Vinita Park police filed suit against the city, alleging race discrimination and retaliation.

"Plaintiffs were systematically discharged by Defendant over a three month period, beginning in May of 2011. The evidence shows a pattern and practice of Defendant creating pre-textual reasons to terminate non-African American officers," reads the complaint, which St. Louis-based attorneys Kevin Dolley and Ryan Mielcarek filed on the officers' behalf.

By contrast, the plaintiffs alleged, African American officers were spared discipline for things like shopping at department stores, failing to respond to radio calls, sleeping or watching pornography on squad-room computers while on duty.

The board fired Lt. Richard Aites after he initiated a background check on Gregory Moore, McGee's pick for police chief — a former colleague and friend from the Pagedale Police Department.

"A pre-employment background investigation was never conducted on Chief Moore. Pre-employment investigations are required by policy of Vinita Park," the lawsuit reads. "Aites was terminated for following the stated policies and procedures of Vinita Park."

Following several disagreements with McGee and Moore, Detective Haywood submitted a memo to the chief addressing "various issues that led to an unsafe and hostile work environment within the Vinita Park Police Department," according to the lawsuit. Moore charged Haywood with insubordination, and the board of aldermen terminated him.

The board fired officer Will Luu for violating the city's nepotism policy. According to the lawsuit, he had disclosed the family tie in question — his brother-in-law was a fellow officer — three years earlier, and it became an issue only "after the change in Board and Department composition."

Chief Moore recommended that the board terminate officer Brian Peck for insubordination after Peck brought a recording device to a meeting with Moore and refused to turn it off, according to an internal memo. Moore deemed Peck an unproductive officer who "does not value his job." The board evidently agreed: Peck was fired.

Atchison quit after a newly arrived African American lieutenant had the St. Louis County Police Department investigate him for excessive use of force. An unrelated legal filing notes that the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney characterized the complaint as "spurious." Atchison took a job in neighboring Overland.

"They could have ruined my career," he says today.

A sixth officer, Sgt. Paul Carroll, also resigned and would later file his own suit against the City of Vinita Park. According to his complaint, Carroll quit because he believed Chief Moore was "papering his employment file with bogus reprimands in an attempt to unjustly terminate Carroll just as they had done previously with the five other non-African American officers."

In July 2012, St. Louis attorney Jonathan Berns filed suit on behalf of former chief Fairman and former public -works director Godfrey, challenging the board vote that ended their appointments. "The four African-American Aldermen voted to terminate the Plaintiffs and the two Caucasian Aldermen voted against the terminations," the suit says. "The African-Americans who replaced Plaintiffs were not as qualified as Plaintiffs."

In all, of the eight non-African American officers who were on the force when McGee took over the mayorship, none remains today.

"It was calculated, premeditated. I think the mayor had a plan," says Aites. "None of the African American officers in my department were fired. They're still with the department to this day.

"I don't know how more obvious it could be."

As attorneys at Dolley and Mielcarek's firm prepared their clients' discrimination case against the city of Vinita Park, the lawyers discovered an unlikely ally.

JaCola Williams' star had risen quickly in Vinita Park. Brought aboard on the mayor's recommendation as an interim tax collector, she soon held down a second post as deputy city clerk.

McGee makes no secret of his fondness for her.

"I treated her like she was my own daughter," the mayor says.

Williams says the affection wasn't mutual.

"It was always uncomfortable," she says. "Just...extra niceness."

On several occasions McGee had Williams accompany him to functions around the St. Louis area and out of town. Not long before a trip to Jefferson City in 2011, Williams says, McGee called to say he wanted to give a fellow mayor one of the two rooms the city clerk had booked: Would Williams be willing to share a room with McGee?

"He was like, 'It's two beds, and I would never do anything,'" Williams remembers.

There ensued a concerned call from Williams' mother. McGee's wife wound up accompanying the mayor on the trip.

Williams says the same scenario played out two more times. Each time, she says, she found someone to travel with her. Family members recall such situations reducing her to tears.

Not long after the third hotel-room fiasco, in February of 2012, Williams was arrested for driving with a suspended license. She says Chief Moore, who'd taken over the top post at the Vinita Park P.D. after Fairman was let go, brought her to city hall, where he and Mayor McGee proceeded to grill her about the sexuality of her roommate, questioning why the woman dressed in "boy clothes."

The following day, Williams alleges, McGee confronted her, asking whether she was a lesbian.

"I'm like: 'What does this have to do with me working?'" she recounts. To which, she says, the mayor replied, "'That could hurt your job. That really could hurt your job.' After that meeting ended, he got up, gave me a kiss on my head and said, 'I want you to get it together.'"

Williams documented these incidents in a June 2012 letter, copies of which found their way into the hands of Vinita Park residents and city officials. (Williams says she gave the letter to a woman she considered a confidante, who photocopied and distributed it.)

When attorney Kevin Dolley saw the letter, he was particularly interested in one line:

"Me and my mom went to city hall to talk to the mayor...recorded whole meeting...[he]said how he got all the white people out."

The recording to which the letter refers is scratchy and muffled, but McGee's voice comes through clearly. He seems agitated, though the context of the conversation is unclear.

Click here to listen to the recording of James McGee.

McGee: The former mayor didn't give a heck about our kids. How many you saw up here working up here when she was up here?

Unidentified male voice: None.

McGee: Negroes was scared to come up here, and I'm going to tell the truth. They was scared to come up here. You didn't see 'em up here. Now I got in, they think they can run over me, but bullshit. They ain't going to run over me....

Now repaired streets getting [inaudible].... You know, making sure our streets are safe, making sure the city is beautiful, but all I get is complaints. Complaints, complaints, complaints. And I'm getting pretty damn tired of it. That's why I don't have time for mess.

Unidentified male voice: I told Virginia, I say, "Virginia...."

McGee: You know Virginia didn't do shit.... How many black people that was in here contracting 'fore she got here? Not one. All white. All white police department. Then when I get rid of they ass — Well, they got rid of they self. I didn't get rid of them. "Oh, he fired all the veterans so he can have some niggers up here." I'm going to say it right: house niggers.

Dolley subpoenaed Williams, who supplied him with the recording.

This past January the city settled with Atchison, Haywood, Aites, Luu and Peck. Although the settlement is sealed and the officers signed a nondisclosure agreement, it's common knowledge around Vinita Park that the figure was near $700,000. Riverfront Times was able to see a copy of a check made out to the officers from the city's insurance carrier, in the amount of $726,000.

"I feel like I've been vindicated," says Aites.

Weeks after the settlement, the board of aldermen voted to fire JaCola Williams, citing her poor attendance record. At the hearing — which she secretly recorded — Alderman Rich Redel scolded her for telling outsiders about her time in Vinita Park's city hall.

"No one should be privy to what you know in here," he can be heard admonishing her. "I know they say loose lips sink ships, and there's a reason for that. Certain people shouldn't know certain things. That's what we're here for. We're here to protect the City of Vinita Park. Then make sure no funny business goes on."

Sometimes when James McGee is talking about his first term as mayor, it sounds as though he's describing a war. Seated behind his immense, cluttered desk in city hall, he produces a stack of mail in a large zip-lock bag.

"This is the kind of stuff you get," he says. "Threatening letters."

Asked whether the threats are directed at his reputation or his person, McGee opens another desk drawer.

"That's why I carry this," he says, pulling out a silver 9mm pistol. "They say if they see me, you know, they're going to shoot me, and stuff like that. But that doesn't bother me. I been in Vietnam."

In Vinita Park McGee had to go to war immediately after the 2010 election: He was accused of stealing it.

A large number of the ballots that gave McGee his 90-vote margin of victory (319 to 229) were cast absentee. Former alderwoman Verna Gremaud wrote a letter of complaint to the St. Louis County Board of Elections, stating that she had witnessed people who'd voted early absentee working the polls on behalf of McGee. County police opened an investigation. (A St. Louis County Police spokesman says the inquiry was closed in June 2010 with no finding of wrongdoing and that the case file is sealed to the public.)

"They even picketed me. That ain't nothing new," McGee says, pulling out a sheaf of photos of white protesters carrying "Mayor Unfair" signs. "Just like the first black president, you got to go through a lot of stuff."

McGee cites numerous accomplishments — repairing the residential streets, constructing a municipal basketball court and a tennis court. He successfully lobbied a new FedEx facility to move to town, and his work with the nonprofit Beyond Housing has garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars in home-improvement grants for residents. He has plans to outfit Vinita Park's tiny city hall with solar panels, which he hopes will cut down on energy costs over the next two decades.

Citing the confidential settlement, McGee won't comment on the police officers' discrimination lawsuit, nor will he discuss the suits that are pending. He denies ever endeavoring to share a hotel room with Williams or questioning her about her sexuality.

"All we were telling her is what she do reflect on the city," he says. "I guess with young people, you try to sort of guide them and teach them. Give them advice. It wasn't no scolding or nothing."

McGee says he did not handpick any of the candidates who ran for aldermanic office and denies allegations that he influences how members votes — not even his own wife.

"I don't make the decision," he says. "I bring the evidence there."

None of the African-American members of the Vinita Park Board of Aldermen consented to interview requests from Riverfront Times.

Alderman Rich Redel, one of the town's two white elected officials, says he supports the mayor and the termination decisions the board has voted on. He compares the upheaval to a U.S. president assembling a new cabinet upon taking office.

"I think the mayor had an agenda," he allows. "Some people think — and I probably would agree — that maybe he's going about it too fast."

Adds Redel: "I think he's on the right direction."

McGee says efforts to discredit him are motivated by his race. After community members criticized some of his early spending decisions ($500 for the golf cart; cash to pay neighborhood youths to hand out newsletters), McGee paid back the city in an effort to quiet his critics.

"They couldn't get me on money, so what else could they go after? Women," he scoffs.

Alderman Brian Gremaud — the son of McGee's most vocal critic, Verna Gremaud — says that misuse of public funds is his "main concern" and that annual audits have turned up nothing amiss. Gremaud, who describes himself as the "lame duck" on the board, says the biggest issue remains the city's police department.

Says Gremaud: "He's almost obsessed with that department."

McGee, who retired from Pagedale's police force with the rank of lieutenant, says the fact that he has already cycled through two African American chiefs in Vinita Park proves he's no racist. (His first choice for public-works director, an African American, is also gone.)

"I treat everybody fair, I give everybody an opportunity," he says. "Matter of fact, I go over and beyond the call of duty, because I done been there. You don't want anybody else to go through it."

Although he declines to elaborate on the termination of Chief Moore, he shares with Riverfront Times a memo he wrote to Moore accusing him of favoritism.

McGee recently made a case to the board for terminating Vinita Park's acting chief of police, Laird Bowers. The board placed Bowers on probation instead. Soon afterward, Bowers filed paperwork with the Missouri State Highway Patrol alleging that McGee asked him to erase an arrest report for vandalism as a favor to a resident. Bowers believes McGee should be prosecuted for obstruction of justice.

One by one, McGee shows Riverfront Times internal memos detailing how Bowers has failed to live up to his expectations. One says restrooms in the parks should have been locked by officers but were not; another time he faults Bowers for failing to write tickets for residents leaving their trash cans out. McGee laughs incredulously at a request for time off that Bowers filled out and approved for himself.

"Still, I'm the villain," the mayor mutters.

McGee says he has interviewed a couple of potential replacements for Bowers. One of the candidates for the job, he tells Riverfront Times, is white.

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