Police and plowing issues draw 90 to board meeting

Police chief thanks aldermen for backing his department

By Gloria Lloyd

The city of Sunset Hills has always plowed private streets after snowstorms, but residents are frustrated because it is now up in the air whether the practice is legal.

Along with votes to keep the Police Department, the issue brought 90 residents to the Board of Aldermen meeting last week. Most speakers and aldermen agreed that they would prefer the city still do what it has always done and plow private streets.

Aldermen unanimously voted to ask City Attorney Robert E. Jones to study the issue again and see how other cities legally plow their private streets.

Twenty-six residents and the majority of the Board of Aldermen crowded into the public-works conference room for a Public Works Committee meeting before aldermen met Sept. 9 to express their frustration at rumors that the city might stop plowing private streets.

At the meeting, a resident read from an August legal memo written by Jones, who wrote that he believes that the city’s current practice is unconstitutional, violating Article VI, Section 23 of the Missouri Constitution, which prohibits a government from granting public money to a private entity.

Although the city had denied the Call’s request for the memo in advance of the meeting, after the meeting the city provided a copy of the memo to the Call.

“Is it your stance that we’ve been doing something illegal since the start of the city?” Ward 1 Alderman Dee Baebler asked Jones.

“That’s an unfortunate question to ask at a public meeting,” Jones said, adding that, “If you continue, it is subject to a court challenge, and that court challenge might very well be successful.”

Although the majority of public speakers supported continuing to plow, other speakers objected that their own privately owned streets are not plowed, or noted times when the city declined to assist them with other services — which they felt indicated favoritism to the southern end of the city at the expense of the north.

Responding to rumors that some city officials might want to dissolve the Police Department, the Board of Aldermen agreed that the city’s police are not going anywhere.

Acting board President Scott Haggerty said that none of the aldermen want to change the city’s police force.

“I can confirm that we have no intention to dissolve or outsource our Police Department,” he told the audience, to loud applause. “We certainly appreciate everything you guys do.”

Police Chief William LaGrand told aldermen, “It’s been a difficult period of time. Thank you for clarifying this and eliminating that concern.”

In addition to the larger-than-average audience, seven uniformed Sunset Hills officers crowded inside the back door of the chambers to listen in on the discussion and votes about their department. Aldermen unanimously passed a series of resolutions recommended by the Police Advisory Board in support of the Police Department, its officers and LaGrand, including restoring LaGrand’s personal use of a city car and clarifying that outsourcing police would require a public vote by aldermen.

The chief’s car was reinstated as of the night of the meeting, according to a motion made by police board member and Ward 1 Alderman Richard Gau, which passed unanimously in open session.

In a May closed-session vote, aldermen voted 7-1 to take away LaGrand’s personal use of the car, with Gau opposed.

Baebler, who initially voted to take away the car, wrote in an August email to her constituents that the decision to take away the car had been based on rumors that were later proven untrue by employment records.

The resolution passed by aldermen included language about the chief being a “first responder,” which Ward 2 Alderman Tom Musich asked about in regard to the chief.

“What does a first responder do, and has the chief been a first responder for the past 10 years or so?” Musich asked.

LaGrand said that he is on call and responds to the scene for any major event that happens outside of typical city business hours, such as a homicide or the 2010 New Year’s Eve tornado, and he makes the official decision to activate the Major Case Squad if needed.