The Wright Stuff

Mayor Adrian Wright knows what's right for Pine Lawn. If folks don't like it, that's just tough.

Pine Lawn Mayor Adrian Wright is rocking in his chair. This is no leisurely, grandfather-on-the-front-porch type of rocking. No, Wright's agitated and he's going back and forth, back and forth, as though someone has put a lighted match to the seat of his pants.

"Ah, now you're getting my dandruff up," Wright huffs. "I'm doing the best I can with what I got. There ain't nothing illegal going on here. We are trying to do good things for this community." He leaps from his chair and whips out a series of artist's renderings for various development projects -- a motel, a shopping center, a health clinic. "I talk to all these people trying to come in here and do some development," he says. "You don't think I get tired of going to meeting after meeting, trying to do all this? I am sick and tired of being criticized for all the stuff we don't do. It gets frustrating."

No one ever said politics was easy -- especially not in Pine Lawn, where politicians are legendary for not just slinging mud but rolling around and wrestling in it. Nevertheless, the mayor's response comes as a surprise. Wright -- a tall, lean man known for striding through town in a white cowboy hat -- has been riding out scandal after scandal since becoming mayor in 1993. One would have expected a much thicker skin on a politician who was bombarded with press coverage after Ald. Rose Griffin accused him of calling her a "stupid-ass motherfucker" before trying to hit her with a door and who just last month had 100 of his citizens marching outside City Hall, demanding his ouster.

What is getting Wright's "dandruff" up is the mention of investigations -- two in the past seven years by the state auditor's office and a demand by some of his political enemies that St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch launch a criminal investigation. The investigations, Wright says, are a bumper crop of sour grapes planted by his political opponents: "It is just a disgrumbled [sic] group of citizens who can't get elected."

He is particularly irked by the state audits, which were sought by residents. "All they have to do is petition every three years to get this done," Wright says. "I'm sure they plan on doing it again, and we will be getting a visit from the auditor's office in three more years." Moreover, Wright says, the auditors found nothing more than minor discrepancies.

That's not how state Auditor Claire McCaskill sees things. In the most recent audit, completed in 2000, McCaskill says, her staff found "a laundry list of all the things you are not supposed to do when running a government." Pine Lawn, with a population of just over 4,200, showed just how poorly a city could be managed. "It is rare to find a community with that many findings in so many areas, from violations of the Sunshine Law to budget problems to poor bidding practices," McCaskill tells the Riverfront Times. Pine Lawn's most recent infractions included failing to collect $656,000 in trash fees, failing to publish a semiannual statement in five years and buying equipment and awarding contracts without getting three bids as mandated by state statute. Auditors also criticized the mayor and the city's eight-member Board of Aldermen for going into closed session illegally.

More disturbing, says McCaskill, is that of the 35 violations identified in last year's audit, 25 were similar to ones discovered in 1994. Of the recommendations made by the state in 1994, only 10 had been implemented by the city six years later. The $21,848 cost of both audits was paid out of the coffers of a city with an annual budget of just $1.9 million and a commercial tax base largely comprising barbershops and barbecue joints.

Wright contends that the audits are meaningless, and he may be right. The auditor's office has no enforcement arm and relies on local governments to fix their own problems.

"Even though the audit revealed complete dysfunction and mismanagement of the city government," McCaskill says, "the lot of the auditor's office is that we shine a bright light on the problem."

But if the state was shining a bright light, Wright is thumbing his nose in the spotlight. Case in point: the auditor's suggestion that the city stop purchasing funeral flowers using taxpayers' money. "So what if it is taxpayers' money?" Wright says with a shrug. "If someone suggests we buy florals for a particular family and the rest of the board agrees, what am I going to do, say no? Then I would really be out there on the street. I would get voted out."

If running the city means bending a few rules along the way, so be it. Wright, who only votes to break a tie on the board, didn't even try to hide the fact that the board held a special meeting last month to appropriate $500 for a Halloween party. "That is a violation, according to the auditor," Wright says. "They feel we shouldn't spend city money for these kinds of things, but we do, and as long as the Board of Aldermen approve, we will keep doing it."

Besides, Wright argues, the audit is composed mostly of trumped-up allegations against a small city that was behind on its paperwork. "They went through all of that, and all they could find was procedural things," Wright says. "They didn't find anything illegal. They found things that I guarantee go on in cities all around us."

Wright is only partially right. Yes, a majority of the violations could be considered procedural, such as failure to have a job description for every City Hall employee, another recommendation Wright has no intention of implementing. But the two audits also revealed a long-standing pattern of poor planning and mismanagement, a troubling precedent for a cash-strapped city with a shrinking property-tax base of only $15 million. Paradoxically, while Pine Lawn officials continue to spend, they continue to argue that Pine Lawn can't afford additional staff to adequately manage the city.

McCaskill says it wasn't procedural but just plain irresponsible when the city paid $13,358 to Norman Stanley Fott and Associates in 1997 for a new community center that never got off the ground. The payment resulted from a project that started in 1994, when the city, without taking bids, entered into a contract with an architect to convert a building donated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis. According to the contract, the architect would be paid only if the voters approved a bond issue. Getting voters to agree wasn't the problem; funding the project was. Then-city attorney Kenneth Heinz advised Wright and the Board of Aldermen that the city didn't have enough revenue to float the bonds needed for the $3 million project. Nevertheless, the aldermen pushed ahead and put the bond issue on the ballot. Voters readily approved the measure. Just as Heinz had predicted, the city couldn't get financing. The architect, who had an iron-clad contract that guaranteed payment if the voters passed the measure, sued. The city fought the lawsuit but ended up paying not only $13,358 to the architect but $9,400 to lawyers.

McCaskill says it was "just plain dumb" for the city to blow nearly $23,000 because it started a project without knowing how to pay for it.

Wright agrees, but he doesn't blame himself or other city officials. Instead, he faults the citizens who voted for the community center. "If we spent according to these citizens out here, we would be bankrupt," Wright says. "They voted for a community center against the will of the city attorney at the time. We didn't have the money to even float the bonds to build a community center. We knew we only qualified for $1 million."

So why put it on the ballot? James Reynolds, a former alderman who adamantly opposed the project, says poor planning wasn't to blame but, rather, the city's desire to pull a fast one on residents. Reynolds charges that the mayor and other aldermen really wanted to use the bond-issue funds to renovate City Hall.

"They knew the citizens wouldn't vote for a new City Hall," Reynolds says. "So they put that it was for a community center. Then they tried to use the money from the bond issue for repairs to City Hall."

The mayor doesn't exactly deny the charge. "If you look at the language on the ballot, it was for a community center," Wright says. "It didn't say anything about City Hall, but as we speak we are going to renovate City Hall. But the monies approved for the community center aren't being used because we couldn't sell the bonds."

And what about the city's failure to get bids on large expenditures for such things as equipment, demolition contracts and gas purchases? Wright says there is no proof the city doesn't bid out projects, just no documentation. "Prove it," he says. "Everybody is making all these accusations, but they are not provable. They [the state auditor's office] perceived it that way because we just didn't have the paperwork. All our contracts are bid. We might not have the written agreement with that, but we call around, believe you me, to find out who's the cheapest, what we want and what we expect to get."

Despite getting dinged repeatedly by state overseers, the mayor says he's going to keep doing what he wants. "As long as there are no improprieties of money missing," Wright says, "no auditor can tell us how we, as a board, can run our city."

In truth, state officials don't want to be put in the position where they have to tell a city what to do.

"They want the auditor to have the authority to come in and then have the citizens deal with the problem through the ballot box," says Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League. "I think the Legislature doesn't want to be responsible for babysitting a municipality."

And for good reason: State government would have its hands full. St. Louis County has more than 90 municipalities, and Pine Lawn isn't the only one that's run afoul of state auditors. "Unfortunately, there are lots of cities that operate on the back of an envelope," Fischesser says. "They are not doing anything illegal, but they try to run the city like they would their own home or business.

"It is a symptom of a bigger problem," Fischesser says. "When cities like Pine Lawn were first established, it was OK not to have a professional government because the problems weren't as significant. But now the cities are experiencing a midlife crisis: The infrastructure is wearing out, and they have lost their middle class. They are showing their age. When that happens, an unprofessional system, no matter how hard they try, can't provide the level of municipal service required by statute or that should be expected from a common-decency point of view."

But Pine Lawn -- in theory, anyway -- had professional management in the form of city manager Pervaiz Butt.

Butt came to Pine Lawn in 1991, when former Mayor Pelton Jackson brought him in as a consultant to install computers. The consulting job quickly turned into a full-time position. Pine Lawn desperately needed a city manager but was unable to afford a large salary. No one knows exactly why, but Butt, who had a master's degree in accounting, eagerly accepted the job as city manager. "He was overqualified and significantly underpaid," Wright says. "He started out only making $24,000. When I came into office, one of the first things I did was get him a raise." Even after several raises, Butt was still paid only $31,000. He supplemented his modest income by doing other accounting work, including acting as part-time treasurer for the neighboring city of Beverly Hills.

By everyone's admission, including Wright's, Butt ran Pine Lawn.

"This [the mayor's position] is a $600-a-month part-time job," Wright says. "The city manager was a full-time position. Any mayor that preceded me worked two hours a day. I do more than they did, and I spend four at the most. For the amount of money I get, I am not going to sit here eight hours a day and take all this abuse and all these headaches. That is what Mr. Butt was for."

But Michael Horskins, a former alderman and longtime political opponent of Wright's, says Butt's control of City Hall went well beyond day-to-day management. Horskins claims Butt orchestrated everything that took place within the borders of Pine Lawn, from creating a nonprofit agency known as Pine Lawn Development Inc. to cultivating development projects to paying every bill. Many of the auditors' concerns focused on Butt's management. Butt hadn't published the semiannual finance reports that are required by law in more than five years. City budgets were always late, and, as a result, the city often overspent by $10,000 or more a year. According to city minutes, Wright noted the trend by telling the Board of Aldermen, "If we keep spending like this, we are going to end up being bankrupt."

Nevertheless, the city continued to pay bills and award contracts to anybody but the lowest bidder. Horskins says a passive Board of Aldermen seemed content to remain in the dark with regard to the state of the city's finances.

"We never got to see the actual bills," Horskins says. "All we would see is what Mr. Butt said we owed. I repeatedly asked for a breakdown of the bills, but he wouldn't give us a breakdown on anything. I didn't have enough support on the board to push it through."

Rose Griffin says pressing for a breakdown of expenses got her on Butt's bad side. "He told me if I wanted to see the receipts that I had to come to City Hall. But when I got there, he told me, 'I am not going to give you nothing. You are uneducated.'" Griffin says she was especially concerned about the amount the city was paying to put gas in police vehicles. She says she felt the amount -- an average of $2,000 a month, according to auditors and city records -- was extraordinarily high. "I live in the city, and I knew they weren't doing that much patrolling," Griffin says. "Pine Lawn isn't that big."

When Butt wouldn't give her the receipts, Griffin went to Police Chief Donald Hardy and asked for records of gasoline purchases for a single month. The police-department receipts totaled $1,406 for October 1999 -- $608 less than the $2,014 Butt submitted for payment. "Nobody knows where the rest of the money went," Griffin says. "And even today I don't think anyone at City Hall really cares. They just took whatever [Butt] said as gospel. I challenged him and became the enemy. Both he and the mayor told me, 'We are going to make sure you don't win the next election.'"

Wright says Griffin's research into gas prices is reflective of her pattern of stirring up trouble. "She has sued me and claimed I threatened her life," he says. "These people are consistent, but that doesn't make them right. They cannot run for office and win, and so there is always a problem."

State auditors, in last year's report, also noted the discrepancy between how much gasoline Pine Lawn was paying for and how much it was actually using but stopped short of saying anything illegal was going on. McCaskill's office, however, did recommend that a mileage log be kept to document appropriate use of vehicles and to support the charges. Wright and Butt, according to auditors, made no clear promise they would do it. They called the log "difficult and time-consuming to implement" but said a written policy would be established by June 30, 2001. That has yet to be done -- in part, Wright says, because Butt's fatal heart attack on Jan. 16 brought everything, including the city's finances, to a screeching halt.

"I saw him at work that Friday, and the next day I got a call from his wife, telling me he was dead," he says. "It was shocking. This was a man who took good care of himself. He didn't drink, he watched what he ate and he walked every day. No one expected him to die at 50 years old."

Clearly Butt hadn't planned for his departure, either. After his death, Pine Lawn and Beverly Hills officials scrambled to locate and decipher the cities' financial records. Some were at Butt's home in Ladue, others in his car. Butt, they say, took computer passwords and bank-account numbers to his grave, fueling wild speculation about dozens of "secret" accounts he may have created. Horskins, for example, says he heard that Pine Lawn's money was held in 15 different banks. Horskins, who admits he has no real proof, believes something shady was going on. Tim Head, the city's new accountant, says there were actually 15 different accounts in four banks and if there was something untoward in Butt's accounting, "it would have likely been picked up in the audits."

Wright bristles at continuing accusations about how the city manages -- or mismanages -- its affairs: "All these accusations have been going on for years. If any of these people had change for a quarter, I would have sued years ago."

Undaunted, several organizations, including Pine Lawn ACORN (the local chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and Concerned Citizens of Pine Lawn, filed a joint complaint with McCulloch, the county prosecutor. The groups charge that Wright violated state law by buying four city properties without first making them available for public auction. Wright admits to buying four properties but maintains he did it legally. McCulloch has yet to respond, but Wright says he isn't worried. "Let them investigate," he says. "We don't have nothing to hide, because we aren't doing anything wrong."

It is easy to see why Wright says his political opponents are behind the investigations.

Horskins is a member of Pine Lawn ACORN. Cheris Metts, who is acting as the organization's secretary and is also president of Concerned Citizens of Pine Lawn, has a longstanding feud with Wright, one that includes allegations that the mayor put a gun to her son's head not once but twice.

Metts' account of the incident, which she says occurred several years ago, when her son was 9, has never been substantiated. The reason, Metts says, is that the city conspired to keep it quiet. "I found out [a minister's] son-in-law knew somebody who was connected to the FBI, and they rigged up something to prove that this wasn't true," she says. "We was at the point we couldn't sue and couldn't file criminal charges, either, because it was Daniel's [her son's] word against the mayor." She adds, in a whisper, "But one of the citizens who just passed away says he overhead them all in Wright's office talking about Daniel. They thought they had scared Daniel enough so he wouldn't talk, but he did."

Metts also suggests that the conspiracy to protect the mayor stretches to the county prosecutor's office. "The day we turned our complaints over to Bob McCulloch, the mayor ended up with a copy," Metts says. "Now, how did he get a copy, unless McCulloch gave it to him? I'm telling you, they are all in this together." (Our efforts to reach McCulloch's spokesman for comment were unsuccessful.)

Wright, for his part, suggests that Metts is a few peas short of a casserole. "She tried to get everyone involved in her craziness. These are reputable people, and they never heard such a crazy tale. She is accusing all of us of being in on this," the mayor says. "Can you believe that? I don't know Daniel from anybody else. All that was investigated and was unfounded because it's a lie. It never happened."

Of course, if a majority of Pine Lawn residents are truly "disgrumbled" at the mayor and his cronies, they would have tossed the bums out by now, right?

Easier said than done, say Wright's political opponents, especially considering that the person who registers candidates in Pine Lawn happens to be Wright's biggest political ally -- his wife, Janet.

Janet Wright has served as city clerk since 1990, almost three years before her husband was elected mayor. "When she became city clerk, I started coming to meetings," Wright says. "I saw how things were being run and decided I could make a difference. Now, all these years later, people are crying nepotism. These are the same ones who voted for her to be reappointed as city clerk."

There is no denying that politics are at play. Wright encouraged Griffin to run, and Griffin voted for Janet Wright to be reappointed as city clerk. But when Griffin's relationship with Adrian Wright soured (Griffin says it was because her husband put a political sign for an opposing mayoral candidate in their yard), Janet Wright refused to put her on the ballot for re-election. "She said I hadn't paid my trash bill, but I knew I had and even had the receipt," Griffin fumes. "By the time I took it down there to prove it, [Janet] said she was sorry but that the deadline had already passed."

Metts was also denied a place on the ballot last April because she had an unpaid trash bill. Metts says the bill is under the name of her husband and his first wife, who died several years back. "I don't care if her name isn't on the bill," Janet Wright says. "Everybody knows she lives there and hasn't paid her trash bill for years." So Metts had to go through the county and register as a write-in candidate. "When you are a write-in candidate," she says, "right from the beginning you are already at a disadvantage."

At the same time, Janet Wright certified candidate John O'Kain, even though he didn't live in Pine Lawn. According to personal-property-tax records, O'Kain lived at 3437 St. Olaf Dr. in Berkeley as late as May 22. And even though O'Kain ran for Ward 3 alderman, the county's voter-registration records show he lived at 3743 Sylvan Pl., which is in Ward 2.

Mayor Wright says the conflicting addresses were just technicalities, but assistant St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bart Calhoun didn't agree. Calhoun told Pine Lawn's city attorney, in a letter dated March 13, that O'Kain didn't meet the residency requirement to be a legitimate candidate in Pine Lawn. But Janet Wright left O'Kain on the ballot after he signed a sworn affidavit saying he lived in Pine Lawn. The mayor, who swore O'Kain into office, explains: "Now, he is a single young man -- I don't know where he sleeps, but he has been registered to vote well over a year. If he says Pine Lawn is where he lives, then I believe him."

So familiar are the political antics in Pine Lawn that the mere mention of the city's name is enough to elicit an audible groan at the St. Louis County Election Commission. "We were just saying we hadn't heard from Pine Lawn in about two weeks," says Judy Taylor, commission director. "I guess we spoke too soon. You can count on every April there will be a few people coming in here because the city clerk won't take their filings. The last two years, it seems like it has gotten worse."

Even when they manage to get on the ballot, it seems, Wright's opponents are not satisfied. Horskins, Metts and Griffin all charge that election irregularities sway the vote in Wright's favor, even though the election commission has never found any evidence supporting this claim. "Oh, I know there was voter fraud," Griffin says. "I called the Board of Elections seven times during the election, telling them people were tampering with the write-in ballots. I saw them doing it, but nobody from the election board ever came."

"The election judges are picked by the mayor's wife," Metts says. "I was a write-in candidate, and a number of people voted for me and the judges told them, 'You can't do that,' and wouldn't put the ballots with my name on it in the box."

Horskins says that more than 130 ballots weren't counted: "We had our own Florida here, I am telling you. If they had counted those ballots, I know I would have won. I never got a really good reason why they didn't count them."

Taylor groans at the exaggeration. She has explained this before but patiently goes over it once again: Of the 499 ballots cast in the mayoral race, 475 were tabulated. The other 24 ballots were disqualified. Even then, Wright was the clear winner, with 283 votes to Horskins' 192. Metts had 24 votes to O'Kain's 83 -- so even if the 42 disqualified ballots had been counted, she would have lost. Taylor says, "Some people in Pine Lawn get it in their minds that something is going on and nothing can sway them from that, not even the facts."

The fact that Wright and his allies keep winning, over and over, evidently doesn't matter to Pine Lawn's vocal dissidents, says Sylvester Caldwell, an alderman since 1994. "Let's be for real," he says. "What you have here is a handful of people; it is just 12 folks. If it was more than that, how come Adrian Wright just got re-elected? Most of the citizens of Pine Lawn are satisfied."

Leroy Brown is one of Pine Lawn's satisfied residents. On a crisp Saturday afternoon, Leroy's Barber Shop is humming with activity. The whir of razors mixes with steady hip-hop beats and conversation. All 11 barber chairs are full. More customers wait their turns. "Most of them don't vote," Brown says as he surveys the shop, which is overflowing with young people. Brown, who has lived in Pine Lawn most of his life, does. He doesn't know enough details about the state audit to offer an opinion. He doesn't know whether he even cares. As far as he is concerned, Wright is doing a good job. "He helped clean up the mess on Jennings Station Road," Brown says. "The crime was getting really bad, but now it's safe. He sincerely seems to care for the city. It is a tough job, but he is doing an excellent job with what he has to work with."

William Parks, another resident, agrees: "I had problems with him before because of the trash bill, but now I think he is doing a good job. I voted for him again, so that says something." He shrugs. "But really, you don't know how good that guy is until you see someone do it better."

Horskins says most citizens don't realize they can do better and have simply stopped participating in the process. Considering that 2,465 people are registered to vote in Pine Lawn and that fewer than 500 actually voted in the last mayoral election, he may be right. "Things have been like this for so long, they figure, 'Why even vote, because nothing is going to change.' What the mayor has done is divided those who can say something from the other citizens. We have tried to have meetings at the senior-citizens' center, but even though the city doesn't charge other groups, he started charging us. We tried to meet at the public school, and he tried to block that. We have been pushed out of our own community and have had to have meetings at a Job Corps building in another municipality. How is that democracy at work?"

Griffin concurs. "I know at some point the citizens will take things in their own hands, but how can they do that if their hands are tied? All this deserves to be investigated," she says. "There already is evidence that there are so many unanswered questions about the finances. We know some laws are being broken. Why are there laws if nobody is going to enforce them?"

Fischesser says the real problems are nebulous audits that provide no real enforcement and take no real stand on what is occurring in a municipality. "It is like a drive-by shooting," he says. "They point out all these problems that look odd but don't place them in any real context. They never say specifically if something is significant, perhaps illegal, or if it is simply, in their opinion, Pine Lawn's way of doing business."

In Pine Lawn, Mayor Wright's way of doing business is doing business as usual.

And if residents of Pine Lawn don't like the way things are done, McCaskill suggests, they'll have to elect better leaders, not count on the state or law-enforcement authorities to clean out City Hall.

"There is nothing criminal about bad government," McCaskill says. "If that was the case, there would be a lot of people in government in jail."

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