Hasta La Vista...Whitteaker?

Many Valley Park residents want their mayor to step down.

Valley Park Mayor Jeffery Whitteaker

The fur is flying in Valley Park with a growing number of residents doing a slow burn over disparaging comments Mayor Jeffery Whitteaker made recently about the city's Mexican community.

A pair of aldermen, in fact, have gone so far as to suggest that Whitteaker consider resigning in the wake of the Riverfront Times' March 1 feature story, "Valley Park to Mexicans Immigrants: ¡Adios, Illegals!", which described the mayor's strong-armed tactics to enact an anti-illegal immigration ordinance.

The aldermen made the statements at their March 5 board meeting, a rancorous session during which Whitteaker was chastised for telling the RFT that the legislation was meant, in part, to keep "Cousin Puerto Rico and Taco Whoever" from overcrowding this suburb twenty miles southwest of St. Louis. The aldermen discussed possible litigation against the newspaper, but City Attorney Eric Martin called such an effort fruitless.

At Alderman Mike Pennise's behest, the board unanimously passed a resolution requiring that all further media interviews with the mayor or any Valley Park official take place at City Hall — and in the presence of the city's attorney.

Whitteaker began the meeting with a public apology for his contributions to the article, before adding, "Many of my comments, I thought, were off the record."

(Whitteaker granted the RFT three lengthy interviews, and at no time did he indicate that he wished to say anything off the record.)

Longtime resident Marlene Hedrick proceeded to caution the Board: "You've been put there by the people for the people. A lot of you forget why you're there. Please watch yourselves."

Another citizen referred to Valley Park as "the laughing-stock," and asked that the 47-year-old first-term mayor — a self-described lifelong Democrat — "do the right thing and quietly step down."

Resident Jim Morris, however, dismissed the RFT as a "tabloid" which "spinned the information to confirm to their preconceptions." He encouraged the board "not to back down" on the illegal immigration measure that drew national attention after gaining unanimous approval from the city's eight aldermen in July 2006.

Alderman Don Carroll then addressed Mayor Whitteaker directly: "I feel that you've embarrassed your family and your city with your comments in the Riverfront Times. I know you said it was off the cuff, but the fact that you made those comments at all is the problem. I think you should seriously consider stepping down."

Board President Mike White rose to Whitteaker's defense, but Alderman Ed Walker proceeded to echo Carroll's suggestion.

Fellow alderman Randy Helton, meanwhile, took pains to distance himself from the mayor. As Helton put it, "I'm not a racist. You made a mockery of this ordinance. It has nothing to do with what the Riverfront Times printed."

Helton went on to stress that the ordinance — which punishes with stiff fines landlords and business owners who rent to or employ illegal immigrants — was enacted in order to stem a loss of jobs to local residents and to ensure compliance with housing codes.

Whitteaker claimed that the article "twisted" certain facts but conceded that he'd learned "a very valuable lesson" about talking to the media. The mayor additionally dismissed the paper as "a magazine that sells slut ads."

Further elaborating, the mayor said, "It takes a man to say he made some mistakes. But it's not all my mistake. You guys empowered me to do all the talking. You didn't want to talk."

Whitteaker did not return repeated calls for comment for this article.

Judy Riehn, chief operating officer of Galaxy Maintenance, a landscaping firm based in Valley Park, says she's "nervously" monitoring "the turmoil."

"Everybody is asking us, 'Did you see the article? Did you see the article?' What the mayor said, it's just appalling," says Riehn.

Stephanie Reynolds, owner of the Valley Deli, and the main plaintiff in the civil lawsuit challenging the legality of the ordinance, says she and a handful of other people are investigating the possibility of recalling Mayor Whitteaker or unincorporating the city, all the while waiting for the verdict in Reynolds v. Valley Park.

The case was tried on March 1 before St. Louis County Circuit Judge Barbara Wallace, who on March 12 voided the ordinance entirely. Wallace ruled that the measure directly conflicts with Missouri State law pertaining to landlord-tenant relations.

The cost of Valley Park's legal defense — between $200,000 and $300,000 by Whitteaker's estimate — is a point of contention among some residents. To avoid using tax dollars for the cause, the aldermen hired a GOP fundraiser to tap donors nationwide, in addition to soliciting funds on the city's Web site.

The legal fund got a boost at the March 5 board meeting when two women representing Missourians Against Illegal Immigration and the Constitution Party of Missouri hailed Whitteaker as a "patriot" before presenting him with a check for $5,000. The money was raised during "Defenders of America," a February 24 fundraiser at Valley Park Middle School, which was organized by the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a so-called "border-watch operations" group.

Whitteaker attended the event, along with aldermen Dan Adams, Mike White and Steve Drake — appearances that outraged Martha Rodriguez, a Hispanic candidate in the upcoming aldermanic election.

"From what I understand, the Minutemen are tantamount to the Ku Klux Klan," explains Rodriguez. "It's too bad that Valley Park felt they had to bring in the Minutemen to support them, but it's even worse that they brought them to the school."

Two weeks ago Valley Park began enforcing a new immigration ordinance that requires landlords to submit a family tree and citizenship data for a household's occupants. The city checks the information against a federal database and then clears the resident to move into the house if he or she proves not to be "an alien unlawfully present in the United States."

Martin, the city attorney, says he is not aware of any violations to date.

Florence Streeter, a Valley Park landlord and one of four plaintiffs in the case, describes the process as "a nightmare."

"The city will not come in to do your occupancy inspection until after you tell them who's going to live there," says Streeter. "So say you have your house under contract with a nice family with three kids, and the city only approves the house for four people: You've just lost a sale, and a lot of time, and so has the prospective buyer. So why wouldn't he or she just skip right over Valley Park in the first place?

"This could have devastating effects," she concludes. "And it opens the door wide for accusations of discrimination."

Molly Langmuir contributed to this report.

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