Posted on July 10, 2006

The Little City That Couldn’t

Malcolm Gay, River Front Times, July 5, 2006

Tooling around his Pine Lawn neighborhood, Johnny O’Kain marvels at a house that seems caught in a slow-motion collapse. Its roof fallen-in, weeds overwhelm the small structure.

“It’s abandoned. Look at the weeds. It’s crazy,” says O’Kain, who was impeached three months ago and removed from his post as an alderman for the city’s Third Ward. “You allocate money for certain houses to be demolished. This is one of the houses that I said needed to come down. But Sylvester Caldwell” — the mayor of Pine Lawn — “knows he doesn’t have support in Ward Three, so this is how he treats Ward Three.”

As in many of the small towns that ring St. Louis, this north-county municipality’s city hall doubles as the stage for an ongoing drama. In the case of Pine Lawn, the plot turns can prove professionally lethal, as when the Board of Aldermen voted three months ago to impeach O’Kain. A number of Pine Lawn politicos say the administration of Mayor Sylvester Caldwell has brought the town to a new low.

“You take the whole makeup of the board: They can’t tell you the difference between an ordinance and a resolution — and yet they’re here governing the city,” says Adrian Wright, who served as mayor from 1993 until 2005, when he lost the election to Caldwell. “We’ve got an alderman who sits up there and is totally illiterate — he can’t read or write. It’s deplorable.”

One of a half-dozen down-at-the-heels communities that straddle Natural Bridge Road, Pine Lawn saw its population surge in the 1950s, after City of St. Louis voters passed a bond issue to demolish Mill Creek Valley, an African-American enclave that stretched from Vandeventer Boulevard to the Mississippi River between Olive Street and the railroad tracks. Dubbed the “negro removal project” by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the demolition displaced roughly 20,000 of the city’s black residents. Along with inner-ring suburbs like Wellston and University City, Pine Lawn absorbed the exodus, developing into a solidly middle-class African-American community.

As long as property taxes kept pace with spending, the town’s part-time mayor and Board of Aldermen could balance the budget with a checkbook ledger. But as the infrastructure and World War II-era housing stock began to age, the populace began to migrate to greener pastures, and Pine Lawn slowly slid into disrepair. Today the city’s annual budget tops out at just over $2 million, almost half of which funds the police force. Faced with a shrinking tax base, Pine Lawn politicians now fight over the scraps as they struggle to balance the budget and field full-time police, housing and streets departments.

The city’s tribulations have landed on the desk of St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, whose office is looking into allegations of voter fraud stemming from the elections of April 2005. Investigators from Missouri State Auditor Claire McCaskill’s office recently wrapped up the fact-finding portion of a financial audit. McCaskill’s last audit of Pine Lawn, six years ago, found that the city was owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in uncollected trash fees, had routinely awarded no-bid contracts to private companies and had not published a semiannual financial statement in five years.

Officials from both agencies declined to comment on the ongoing investigations. But interviews with current and former Pine Lawn officials and municipal employees, along with financial, court and administrative documents obtained by the Riverfront Times, reveal that the city’s financial woes appear not to have improved and may represent only a fraction of a systemic problem. Among the particulars:

The police department has hired an officer whose state Peace Officer License remains on indefinite probation stemming from a 1985 rape charge. That same officer was placed on administrative leave after being involved in a shooting late last month; the incident is under investigation by the St. Louis County Police Department.

Another newly hired officer is alleged to have subsequently committed physical assault on a security guard at a St. Louis drugstore.

Insurance policies for city employees have lapsed owing to nonpayment by city officials, even as workers continued to have the premiums deducted from their paychecks.

Meanwhile, Pine Lawn’s top full-time city official, who had no prior experience in municipal government, resigned his post last month.

“There are so many things that are going on that are wrong,” says ousted alderman Johnny O’Kain. “With all the things that they’re doing, there’s not going to be a Pine Lawn in five years.”