"Thanks to the nuns, we got to drink 5-percent," says Jim Blechle, son of the late Louis Blechle.
Descended from German immigrants who settled the area in the 1830s, the 63-year-old Blechle is that rare O'Fallonite who remembers when the city was so small.
O'Fallon, once a mere rail stop amid farm country, is now the largest city in St. Charles County, its population exceeding 72,000. It has become a magnet for young families and, in July 2006, was named a "Best Place to Live" by Money magazine. Much of O'Fallon's growth came in the 1990s, after the city widened Highway K, its main drag south of Interstate 70.
Old Town O'Fallon is north of I-70 and Main Street is its heart. The road passes Assumption Catholic Church, the convent, city hall and a series of low-slung storefronts. Just off Main sits a fifteen-acre shopping center O'Fallon Plaza that Blechle has owned since 1976. He says he always supported the city's expansion; the more the merrier, he thought.
"The reason Highway K got widened was because of people like myself," Blechle says. "Then they fuck us," he adds, alluding to the bruising civic battle that, even more than four years later, continues to reverberate. In fact, the political angst that lingers in O'Fallon today can be traced back to a May evening in 2003, when city leaders unveiled a $200 million downtown development plan. Under the plan, a group called Main Street Ventures would acquire 100 acres through eminent domain and plow under dozens of businesses and homes in Old Town. Main Street Ventures' concept was to build villas, apartments and boutique retail shops around a series of trails, green spaces and small lakes.
A firestorm of protest erupted. The notion of uprooting longtime business- and homeowners struck a raw nerve, even among O'Fallon's newcomers. "I've never seen this town as unified as it was then," recalls Jim Blechle's son and business partner, Steve Blechle.
The Blechles joined with threatened business owners and residents many of them senior citizens to form the Old Town Preservation Committee. They launched a campaign to torpedo the project and, within three months, Main Street Ventures was dead. Though the fight was to prevent eminent domain, the Blechles also took aim at Mayor Paul Renaud, the project's ringleader.
Amid the public outrage, Renaud abandoned the downtown development project. But the Blechles would not be satisfied until they ousted Renaud and the aldermen who had gone along with him. "I went after them as far as I could," Jim Blechle says.
The Blechles teamed with Randy Hudson, another Main Street business owner, and Lyn Schipper, whose wife worked at Hudson's jewelry store. Their unofficial headquarters was the Trigg Banquet Center, a recent addition to O'Fallon Plaza, owned by a former police officer and North St. Louis County businessman, Tom Wilkerson.
Through Wilkerson they met Rick Fischer, a Clayton lawyer and fellow north-county transplant, who would stop by for a beer on his way home from work. In the April 2004 election that followed the Main Street Venture brouhaha, three political newcomers, including Schipper, defeated three sitting aldermen. All ousted were project supporters. A month later Renaud, who had held office since 1995, announced that he would not seek re-election.
In the late fall of that year, Blechle and Hudson recruited a citizen activist named Donna Morrow to run for mayor. Hudson and two others ran as a "smart growth" slate. Morrow and two of the three challengers won in the 2005 election. (One of the challengers, Jimmy Mitchell, lost his race, but Morrow appointed him to the board after a Renaud ally resigned.)
Steve Blechle remembers the day after the election. He and his father were in the O'Fallon Plaza office, reveling in their victory. Ervin Davis, a veteran of St. Charles County politics, made a visit and announced, "Well gentlemen, now the hard work begins." Still grinning, Blechle didn't understand. "Now you got to keep it together," the gruff, retired family-court judge explained.
Blechle would soon realize what Davis meant. Instead of fighting Renaud, the newly elected officials began to fight among themselves. "We lost our cause," says Steve Blechle. "We lost our unifier, which was Main Street Ventures."
Since the contentious 2005 election, O'Fallon has weathered one political storm after the next. Top administrators fled, and the results of a blistering state audit initiated by a petition drive during the Main Street Ventures fight became public. Renaud's supporters were enraged by efforts to investigate the prior administration, calling it a witch-hunt. The backlash heightened when the anti-Renaud aldermen, forming a six-to-two majority, fired the city's popular police chief. The mistrust extended to a new city administrator, and the six-to-two alliance soon fractured. Three aldermen abruptly walked out of one meeting. Within a year, three members of the gang of six, as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist John Sonderegger dubbed them, had resigned.
The state auditor's report, released in May 2005, vindicated Renaud's detractors. The findings showed city employees and elected officials were carelessly flinging around public money, including dubious travel and meal expenses. The city bought and sold land without documenting appraisals or soliciting bids, according to the report. One of the more incendiary findings revealed that in 2003 the city paid more than $200,000 in salary bonuses to top administrators for duties that should have been part of their regular jobs. The report also backed allegations the Blechles had raised about the city understating its debt.
"There was a lot of self-serving going on in the past government," says Jayne Voss-Robinson, the editor and owner of O'Fallon's free weekly, The Scoop. (Voss-Robinson shows her scorn for the former mayor by refusing to use his name in the proper title of the city's recreation venue, the Renaud Spirit Center.)
While the 27-page auditor's report focused on 2003, Schipper and Hudson believed backroom deals had gone on for years. They were hopeful about uncovering more wrongdoing when Morrow asked O'Fallon police officer Dave Buehrle to look into potential criminal action raised by the audit. She also appointed Fischer, the lawyer, as "special counsel."
The ongoing investigations lent an air of chaos to city hall. Morrow says her goal was to prepare a criminal case against a municipal court clerk who stole $350,000, but other tips started flooding in. Buehrle began scrutinizing the building inspection department, the city's towing contract and tracking down a missing September 11 memorial. Schipper, president of the board of aldermen, became Renaud's most vocal critic and flew to New York with Buehrle to look into the missing memorial.
Meanwhile, the board's six-to-two vote in August 2005 to fire police chief Steve Talbott, a home-towner whose wife taught in the local school district, gave Renaud's supporters further reason to cry foul. Talbott was accused of delaying the investigation of a drug-related death to shield a well-connected suspect. Criticism from Talbott's supporters rained down. Picketers showed up at Hudson's jewelry store. Fischer and some of the aldermen thought a private investigator was following them.
After Morrow hired a new city administrator (who, in an ironic twist, was Schipper and Hudson's top choice), the board began to fracture. Robert G. Lowery Jr. was the assistant police chief in Florissant and a friend of Wilkerson, the banquet center owner. Lowery took the job in October, but it wasn't long before he, Schipper and Hudson were at odds. Lowery says the aldermen wrongly assumed he would back the internal investigations, but he thought they should have been conducted by an outside agency. Schipper, who vowed that O'Fallon would not do favors for developers, says Lowery let homebuilders shape his opinions on key issues. Schipper and Hudson asked for Lowery's resignation. Lowery called their bluff; they didn't have the votes to fire him.
Tensions peaked in January 2006 when Hudson's colleagues discovered that he had been recording conversations inside city hall. Morrow publicly declared an end to their alliance. In February, Schipper was hospitalized with stress-induced health problems and later resigned. In March, Hudson and aldermen Terry Busken and Jimmy Mitchell abruptly walked out of a board meeting. By the end of that month, Hudson and Busken also resigned.
It's almost time for Fischer and Schipper, O'Fallon's self-appointed shit-disturbers, to begin their fifteen-minute program on country station KFAV (99.9). They call it Fish and Ships. Before the show, they gather inside Fischer's office. A man who keeps odd hours, Fischer has left a pair of shorts and sandals scattered on the floor in front of his desk. He sits facing his computer, likely browsing a political blog or local message board.
It's September 21, and today's topic is Donna Morrow's crusade to find out who filed an anonymous ethics complaint against her in February 2006. The complaint centered on money that Morrow received from Tom Wilkerson. Wilkerson wanted to help her pay for health insurance because she lost her job with a direct-mail company right before the election. (The part-time mayor's job doesn't come with benefits, and Morrow now works as a flight attendant for a charter airline.)
The Missouri Ethics Commission, following a protracted legal skirmish, had recently cleared her of any wrongdoing. Now Morrow badly wants to know who filed that complaint.
Voss-Robinson and Sonderegger, who writes Talk of Charleytown for the Post-Dispatch, have taken up her cause. Voss-Robinson goes so on to speculate about who might be the source of the strange missives that Morrow began receiving this year.
The postcards and letters inexplicably predict that she will end up in prison. One letter is a full-page depiction of the inside of a jail. Another, addressed to "100 N. Maim St.," features a stick figure in a hangman's noose and asks "Got jail?"
Voss-Robinson names one of Morrow's longtime rivals, former councilman Peter Cantwell, as "one of three realistic possibilities suspected of involvement in this cowardly act. The other 'possibilities' have not made blatant public statements, so we will not elaborate on any suspicions."
Fischer is incensed. He heard that Morrow, when talking to The Scoop, mentioned him as a suspect. "I hear I'm one of the names," he says. "It's absolute bullshit." Schipper quips: "I'm hurt they don't think it's my name."
Practicing a tirade that he will repeat on the air, Fischer says Morrow and her sympathizers are trashing someone they don't know. The person who filed the ethics complaint might have had a legitimate concern as a whistle blower, he says. Taking a breather, he adds wryly, "See, this is what we do before we go on the radio. We get ourselves all angry."
The show, which Hudson sponsors, started as a lark, but Fischer and Schipper have stepped on some toes. Morrow tried to get a copy of that particular broadcast several days after it aired and planned to distribute it to the other politicians who were slammed on Fish and Ships that day. Steve Kaspar, part-owner of the station, has so far ignored complaints, including the anonymous letter that reads in part: "You continue to air the Fish and Schips program. Why is a complete mystery? Do the right thing, get rid of this show, before the wrong things begin to happen at your station."
Schipper grew up in O'Fallon and supervises field technicians for AT&T. He is a longtime Rush Limbaugh listener, but it was the battle against Main Street Ventures that drove him into the political arena. "The more you looked into it, and the more you got resistance from the local government and how blatant they were the more angry I got," Schipper says. He decided to run for alderman because he thought, "I can at least work for the people as opposed to these cocksuckers, doing what they're doing."
With a deep, made-for-radio voice, Schipper seems to have found his niche as antagonizer. "I kinda like stirring the pot," he says as he emerges, satisfied, from KFAV's tiny studio. The radio show is not the only post-denouement soapbox around. Ofallonwatchdog.org, a Web site where the content closely parallels Fischer and Schipper's pet issues, went up on October 5, 2006. Fischer and Schipper both deny running the site. "They can think all they want," Schipper says. "I don't take care of that site. I don't send stuff to the mayor."
Schipper doesn't limit himself to heckling. He and Steve Blechle, who hangs the "Don't Tread on Me" Gadsden flag in his office, are the founders of a new Republican club. Schipper says the club has about twenty members who hope to back candidates who won't bend to developers' interests. "Most Republicans in St. Charles County are shills," Schipper says. "You've really got to pay attention to who's running your city and what their ideas are, or who's manipulating them."
Rick Fischer grew so obsessed with uncovering the secrets of the Renaud administration that he left his law practice in Clayton to set up shop in O'Fallon. I lived and died this stuff for quite some period of time, he says. It started getting to the point, if somebody had a problem in Wentzville, they'd call me. It was crazy.
On September 22, 2005, Fischer went before the board of aldermen to discuss what he had unearthed about the Renaud administration since his appointment as special counsel. Fischer, a general-practice lawyer who usually plays to juries, told the board, "My investigation has gone into further areas, and let me say, what I find is absolutely disturbing. This city, under the prior regime, failed to follow ordinances. People were given favors. Money was provided without going through the board of aldermen. I put a list together, and when I got to 35, I stopped."
Though Fischer suggested the board bring Renaud and his former staff back for questioning, it never happened. When prosecutors failed to pick up the thread, Lowery, Morrow and the local press dismissed Fischer as a conspiracy theorist. Fischer resigned in February 2006. "All I ever wanted was simple," he says. "Nobody's ever asked these guys the questions. If you ask the questions, you become the guy they attack."
One question that still gnaws at Fischer is why O'Fallon helped MasterCard International, which opened its Global Technology and Operations headquarters there in 2001, get a tax break in 2003 two years after the company opened its doors. MasterCard's decision to move about 2,000 employees to O'Fallon was a tightly orchestrated project. State agencies and local government cooperated to provide a state income tax credit worth more than $8 million, plus local property tax abatement up to $6.6 million.
A quasi-public agency called the Missouri Development Finance Board issued $154 million in bonds for the construction and holds title to the property, which it leases back to MasterCard. MasterCard pays off the debt, but under this arrangement it is eligible for the state tax credit. With O'Fallon and the Wentzville School District party to the agreement, MasterCard also gets the property tax break.
Later, MasterCard decided it should have been eligible for a sales tax break on construction materials, worth a reported $3.9 million. O'Fallon, through an entity called the O'Fallon Public Facilities Authority, gave MasterCard the certificate it needed to submit to the Department of Revenue for a rebate.
Fischer questioned the deal in his September 2005 presentation. In response, MasterCard sent representatives to reassure the new city officials that the sales tax break was valid.
Fischer is not convinced. In July 2002, Mike Downing, an official with the Missouri Department of Economic Development, e-mailed O'Fallon's economic development director, Jim Grabenhorst.
"As you probably know," Downing wrote, "MC is wanting to get a sales tax exemption on the bond purchases, and it was not part of the original deal. Have you heard any more about this lately, or any other info on MC?"
O'Fallon indeed heard from MasterCard in March 2003. According to e-mails that city officials exchanged at the time, some administrators and the city's attorney, Mark Piontek, didn't think the deal was on the up and up at least, not at first. "We all share the same concerns in regard to our authority to issue the exemption certificate," assistant city administrator Todd Galbierz wrote to city administrator Patrick Banger and Mayor Paul Renaud.
Says Fischer: "I don't think I'll ever let it go."
The post-Renaud meltdown resulted in broken friendships. When Schipper, Hudson and Fischer began to doubt the integrity of the new city administrator Bob Lowery, it didn't sit well with their buddy at the banquet center.
Tom Wilkerson, who was a St. Louis County policeman about twenty years ago, says an incident back then proved Lowery to be a "good, good friend." While Wilkerson credits Fischer with saving his business in North St. Louis County, the two haven't spoken since the split with Lowery.
Morrow, meanwhile, says she feels caught in the middle of a "pissing match," though she says she's hesitant to use such language. "When does it ever end?" she says. "I feel like I'm living down in Tennessee, with the Hatfields and McCoys."
Schipper criticizes Morrow for playing "victim," but concedes he has few complaints about her job performance.
In 2004 Blechle and Hudson were looking around for candidates to run for Renaud's seat. They noticed the gutsy blonde who was pushing O'Fallon to pass a law that would keep high-pressure fuel pipelines away from homes. Morrow had seen a pipeline moved to within 35 feet of her home in WingHaven so a builder could squeeze in one more house. She was standing up to developer interests and, Blechle says, she had a flair for drama.
Making her case about the danger of pipelines to the board of aldermen, she nonchalantly started shaking a can of Coke. In her other hand she held a pin, which she drew closer to the can, to symbolize the potential disaster. Two security guards apparently took the threat of an exploding Coke can seriously, Blechle says, chuckling, because they started moving in on Morrow.
After witnessing that performance, Blechle and Hudson asked her to run for mayor. Proudly campaigning as "the pipeline lady," she won the five-way race.
Nothing sums up the gap between O'Fallon's feuding parties like The Legend of the 9/11 Steel. A memorial to the victims of the terrorist attacks, the steel is a twisted rusting mass that rests behind city hall, encircled by flower beds and a wrought-iron fence. The legend begins not on that fateful day, but in April 2005 when Paul Renaud was about to give up his mayoral post.
The steel was stored in a particle-board shed behind the locked gates of the sewage treatment plant, as it had been since 2002. That year, Renaud, then-assistant to city administrator John Griesenauer, and an artist traveled to New York to find material for a memorial. MasterCard paid for the trip.
Griesenauer, one of the few city employees remaining from Renaud's years, recalls how they started out at the Fresh Kills landfill. They found some smaller pieces, but it was pretty well picked over by other memorial-builders. (One of the small pieces today resides in a glass case inside city hall. The rest of it is part of a memorial at the intersection of WingHaven Boulevard and Highway 40, near MasterCard headquarters.)
The O'Fallon team headed to a scrap yard in New Jersey. There, they met the man in charge, who was so touched by the small Midwestern city's desire to create a memorial that he donated a twenty-ton piece of steel. The steel was trucked to O'Fallon, but there was just one problem with the plan: The city had set no money aside to pay for it. When Renaud floated the idea, some residents wondered why a September 11 memorial in O'Fallon was even necessary.
A few days before the April 2005 election, two men showed up at the locked gates of the sewage treatment plant. They wanted to take the 9/11 steel. A supervisor phoned city hall to get the OK.
Meanwhile, alderman Lyn Schipper received a tip about what was going on. Schipper tried to intervene with city hall staff. In the end, Renaud gave the green light. Once Renaud was out of office, the city launched an investigation. Schipper and O'Fallon officer Dave Buehrle flew to New York to find out where the steel came from, how it was meant to be used and where it ended up. Buehrle tracked the steel to a construction yard in St. Louis. Its final destination was to be the entrance of a new subdivision by one of Renaud's main supporters, WingHaven developer Paul McKee Jr.
St. Charles County Prosecutor Jack Banas brought the matter before a grand jury, which issued no indictments. Banas chalked it up to political feuding. But the city had paid the freight bill for the steel's cross-country trip, Morrow says, and McKee's company voluntarily sent it back. As far as Morrow is concerned, enough was enough. "Was there crime and corruption? Yeah. It was taken. But we got it back. We found the steel. What is it that they want?"
Schipper, again, is not satisfied. Noting that Buehrle was not asked to testify before the grand jury, he believes Banas caved to political pressure. "Paul's last executive order was to give the City of New York and O'Fallon the middle finger all for Paul McKee's sake," he says.