For second time in two years, city of Sunset Hills has new mayor

New Sunset Hills Mayor Svoboda says he will ‘listen to the people’

By BURKE WASSON

For the second time in two years, the city of Sunset Hills has a new mayor.

Ward 4 Alderman Mike Svoboda easily dispatched of incumbent Mayor John Hunzeker in the April 8 election as Svoboda earned roughly 68 percent of more than 1,700 votes cast for mayor, according to unofficial election results. Svoboda received 1,517 votes while Hunzeker earned 545 votes, or 32 percent.

Svoboda, 61, first was elected last year as a Ward 4 alderman.

One of his first duties as mayor will be to appoint a new alderman in Ward 4 to fill his now-vacant seat until the April 2009 election.

Svoboda anticipates a replacement could be nominated when the Board of Aldermen meets Tuesday, April 22. Any nomination must be approved by a vote of the board.

But with this year’s election now over, he said he is looking forward to taking the reins of the mayoral post and “just let things calm down from the turmoil that they’ve been in.”

Svoboda and Hunzeker both campaigned aggressively as the two candidates had spent more money on their election bids by April 1 than all other south county races.

Hunzeker had raised $8,500 and had spent $8,446.01 as of April 1. Of that $8,500, Hunzeker donated $6,616.12 to his own campaign.

Svoboda had raised $8,789.16 and spent $7,245.12. Of that $8,789.16 in campaign funds, Svoboda loaned $2,319.16 of that sum to his campaign.

With those contentious campaigns now behind him, Svoboda said he will restore civility and respect in Sunset Hills government that he believes was lacking under Hunzeker, whose mayoral manner was referred to by Svoboda as “in your face.”

“I’m going to listen to the people,” Svoboda said. “I can sit and listen to their grievances. Sometimes I may not be able to do anything about it immediately. But I’ll try to investigate everything and not just dismiss people out of hand.

“I was at a Special Projects (Committee) meeting last night (April 9) … You could just tell that people were voicing their opinions and getting things out in the open more, knowing that the mayor wasn’t going to come back and undermine them and say: ‘Hey, never mind about that. We’re going to do it this way.’ I just think that the employees also are going to be a little bit more at ease.

“Sometimes people think it’s easier to work under somebody like that. Just do what he says. But … you find after awhile that it’s a little bit more stressful because they usually demand more of you than what you think is right. And you can’t criticize them and you can’t interface them and say: ‘Well, I don’t think that’s right,’ because they’re dictatorial about it. And it works for awhile. But after awhile, people just get fed up with it. It took me four or five months to really see how he (Hunzeker) operated. And once you ticked him off, that was the end of it with you and him.”

At press time, Hunzeker had not responded to a request to be interviewed.

Svoboda also emphasized that as mayor, he will protect residents’ property rights and seek to engage more input from them if prospective developments are proposed in mostly residential areas.

“I just think residents should have more of an input of what pops up next to them,” Svoboda said. “Especially, typically in Ward 4, there’s big lots. There’s still a lot of ground in Ward 4. You’ve got some acre lots going down the road. All of a sudden, somebody wants to come in and put in quarter-acre lots with huge homes and some small subdivision in between all these huge lots. Well, what do the neighbors think of that? That’s called spot zoning, and I don’t think we’re going to get into spot zoning.”

Specifically, Svoboda referred to McEagle’s denied proposal to redevelop the Heimos nursery on Eddie & Park Road into office buildings as an example of “spot zoning” that he will fight to prevent.

“The Heimos property is zoned R-2 right now with a conditional-use permit,” he said. “Heimos wants to sell. OK, tear it down and build R-2 homes on it — not four-story office buildings … People have tried to develop the Heimos property like this before. And it’s been turned down in the past before. So this isn’t the first time the Heimos property has popped up like that for commercial development. It’s been turned down in the past, and I didn’t realize that. I just thought they had finally decided to sell.

“But it turns out that this keeps coming up apparently every few years. So this is nothing new that’s popped up and it’s nothing new that it’s getting turned down.”

Svoboda said he also realizes that he and several of his fellow aldermen were elected largely due to fallout from the failed 2006 effort to raze homes in the Sunset Manor subdivision through eminent do-main to build a new shopping center near Interstate 44 and Lindbergh Boulevard.

Because of that proposal, Svoboda said he and his colleagues “came out of the woodwork” to run for political office.

“It used to be we had trouble getting people to run,” he said. “And I think the eminent-domain issues in the area have really brought people out of the woodwork as far as coming in and running. That’s why we’re all in right now. It’s because of the eminent-domain issue that had popped up.”

Besides protecting neighborhoods’ residential integrity, Svoboda also supports an expansion of Sunset Hills’ parks and trails.

When it comes to commercial developments, Svoboda is wary of economic-development taxing tools like tax-increment financing, or TIF, because he believes they merely transfer businesses from one area to another over time. With all of that shifting, the newly elected mayor believes a new business that would implement a sales tax to pay off the city’s initial TIF investment may not survive to pay off that entire portion, leaving the city short of money.

“Personally, I think TIFs, eminent do-main, all they’re doing right now is pitting one community against another and trying to steal businesses from one community to make yourself look good for awhile,” he said. “It’s like musical chairs with developments around the St. Louis area right now. All you do is wind up stealing business from one place.”

And because he believes the city’s finances are stable, Svoboda does not feel an urge to seek out new commercial developments, but realizes that city officials must start planning for the future.

“Right now, we are spending what we take in,” Svoboda said. “We’re not in dire financial straits right now. But we’re spending pretty much what we’ve got. But we’ve got a few years’ cushion to look at stuff and not be in panic mode to where somebody can come in and say ‘We’re going to build this shopping center here. You really need this.’ We can sit back and say ‘Maybe not. Let’s take a look at it.'”

But most of all, Svoboda is grateful to residents for his election, which he views as a victory on multiple fronts.

“This has been a win for the board, the employees and mostly the residents,” Svoboda said.