An ethics complaint filed against the Mehlville Fire Protection District and its three-member Board of Directors has been dismissed as “unsubstantiated” by the Missouri Ethics Com-mission.
Michael A. Klund of Lemay filed the complaint in April against the district and its board — Chairman Aaron Hilmer, Treasurer Bonnie Stegman and Secretary Ed Ryan — alleging taxpayer resources were used to promote Stegman’s re-election campaign and two tax-rate-decrease measures the Board of Directors had placed on the April 7 ballot.
Stegman, elected to a four-year term on the MFPD board in April 2005, defeated Peter “P.J.” Polizzi in the April election and was elected to a six-year term. Polizzi had been endorsed by Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The two tax-rate-decrease measures, called Proposition 1 and Proposition 2, were overwhelmingly approved by voters April 7. Proposition 1 asked whether the district’s general-fund tax-rate ceiling should be permanently reduced by 36 cents per $100 of assessed valuation while Proposition 2 asked whether the district’s pension-fund tax-rate ceiling should be permanently reduced by 4 cents per $100.
Voter approval of both propositions will save taxpayers nearly $10.5 million per year, according to Hilmer, who has said district residents were the first in the state to vote on tax-rate-decrease measures.
In a letter to the Call published March 5, Klund wrote, “… The so-called tax reduction Prop 1 and Prop 2 are nothing more than playing the game of politics. They do not lower anyone’s taxes. The MFPD already has that ability. The so-called numbers you use in stating savings are off of rates that were never charged.”
In his April 3 complaint, Klund wrote, “Prior to the open-ing of filing and continuing after the opening date, the Mehlville Fire Protection District has undertaken a campaign using district funds to contact voters and advertise Bonnie Stegman’s involvement with recent projects.”
Klund cited a sign placed in front of the district’s new No. 2 firehouse at 5434 Telegraph Road when it was under construction. The sign identified Stegman as board treasurer and stated the new firehouse was being built with a tax decrease and without a bond issue.
“… She had little to do with the funds used to build the firehouse and she is one of three directors,” Klund wrote in his complaint. “To place her name alone on a large sign with her name enlarged at a cost to the taxpayers for this exposure is wrong and was a sign of things to come …”
Klund also objected to a newsletter mailed to district residents by the fire district in early February “only to those who voted in the most recent general election. It was mailed to far less residents than are registered to vote in the fire district and even less than the district residents overall. The letter was sent to inform the residents, however, was only sent to the active voters … The present Board of Directors (has) never mailed a letter to its residents and to begin to mail and commit to further mailings so close to an incumbent’s election, all at taxpayers’ expense, is wrong and unethical.”
Klund’s complaint stated, “… Two newsletters and one flier were prepared — again, after filing closed for the upcoming April 7, 2009, election — wherein Mrs. Stegman is the only director of the three singled out, quoted or photographed. Articles detailing her educational background and experience appear within. The Mehlville Fire (Protection) District has not produced a newsletter in many years. It is more than a coincidence that two months before the election, the Mehlville Fire Protection District board produces a ‘newsletter’ focusing on Mrs. Stegman.”
Klund’s complaint also cited the Board of Directors’ decision to award a bid to Call Newspapers of Green Park to print and distribute a district newsletter. Two bids were submitted in response to a request for proposals issued by the board — one from the Call and one from Woodward Printing Services of Wisconsin.
“… A community newspaper in the district, and from which Mrs. Stegman is seeking endorsement, was awarded the bid to produce and distribute the referenced ‘newsletter,’ again with district funds at a cost of $19,902.74. They also were awarded a Hotline mailer, which the cost is presently unknown,” Klund wrote.
“… The Missouri Ethics Commission must weigh the above described pattern of events, review the provided examples attached hereto and decide if the district funds have been misused by the Mehlville Fire Protection District. The fundamental principle of democracy is a fair election; fairness to the voters and fairness to the candidate in reaching voters,” Klund wrote. “The Mehlville Fire Protection (District) Board of Directors’ use of district funds and commitment to do so, as in their letter to further one board member’s campaign, is not only unethical, but illegal.”
Klund also wrote the Ethics Commission “should act immediately” to:
“Suspend further mailings to voters until this investigation is completed.”
“Scrutinize the past conduct as detailed herein and view the information in totality as Mehlville Fire Protection District’s instituting a pattern of events to influence voters.”
“Cease and desist these forms of communication.”
“The district should be reimbursed by those responsible for: the sign on Telegraph Road, including construction and installation costs; the newsletters sent to private residences, including production and postage costs; and the cost of the newsletters, including their production costs and the costs expended for employees to compile and produce the information.”
“This case should be reviewed from a legal standpoint as tens of thousands of dollars have been spent of taxpayers’ dollars to ensure her (Stegman’s) re-election. All the Board of Directors’ votes to spend the above taxpayer money have been unanimous and with little or no discussion about them.”
However, the Ethics Commission last month determined Klund’s allegations were unfounded. In a letter sent to district officials, Executive Director Julie A. Allen wrote the Ethics Commission found no reasonable grounds that state statute was violated when the district paid for and produced a flier regarding the two tax-rate-decrease measures that were on the April 7 ballot.
“The flier was informational and did not advocate support for the initiative,” Allen wrote. “The commission also found no reasonable grounds that the district paid for printed matter in support of a candidate. Finally, the commission found that the district received bids for production and distribution of the district newsletter.
“From the facts presented, the commission voted to dismiss this case as the allegations were unsubstantiated,” Allen’s letter stated.
Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer told the Call he was pleased Klund’s complaint was dismissed.
“We are pleased to be exonerated of yet another baseless complaint or frivolous lawsuit by this little group of harassers,” he said. “We have taken the district past 2008, yet these malcontents are still so 2000 and late.”
Klund told the Call he was disappointed, but not surprised his complaint was dismissed. However, he found filing the complaint to be a learning experience.
“… I was even told up front when they investigated it and stuff, it’s basically even though I might know what they’re doing, you might know what they’re doing, what their intent is, proving intent is another thing …,” he said. “Basically, if somebody doesn’t say ‘for’ — F-O-R — in their statements, the way the law’s written, there’s basically nothing illegal. It’s the politicians writing the law for politicians.”
But filing the complaint was worthwhile, Klund said.
“Well, I felt justified in doing it …,” he said, noting the way the law is written, violations are “almost impossible to prove.”