Serving as 6th District county councilman not what O’Leary imagined it would be

O’Leary says he really tried to make a difference in office

Kevin O'Leary

Kevin O’Leary

By Gloria Lloyd

Serving as the 6th District county councilman was not at all what Kevin O’Leary imagined it would be.

O’Leary, D-Oakville, was elected as the “mayor of south county” in April 2015, but did not run for re-election and was succeeded by Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, on Sunday.

As O’Leary campaigned in early 2015, he promised to be a new kind of councilman who would focus on what south county residents want instead of offering the cold shoulder many feel they traditionally received from Clayton.

But that was a promise easier made than kept, O’Leary told the Call in his final interview as councilman. His tenure was marked by a series of developments vigorously opposed by residents that O’Leary sponsored for passage.

And for the last six months, he stopped taking calls from residents and reporters.

“Sometimes you can’t always get done what you’d like to get done because of the way things are done in government,” O’Leary said. “I think I figured out pretty early it was going to be hard to get things done. I went into it with an open mind and had to do the best that I could, and that’s what I did, and I’m satisfied with the effort and what I tried to do.”

Unlike residents who live in cities with mayors and aldermen to ostensibly protect their interests, the local government for Oakville and other residents of unincorporated areas is headquartered in Clayton.

During his campaign, O’Leary promised to shed more transparency on local projects to prevent a repeat of the circumstances surrounding the county’s approval of National Church Residences Telegraph Road, a federally funded senior apartment complex in Oakville. The complex won county zoning approval in 2012 with little fanfare but a year later, it was heavily opposed after neighbors found out about the three-story project.

The resulting outcry from Oakville residents changed the way the county communicated about zoning projects and was a hot topic in the 2015 race between Affton native O’Leary, 64, and former Green Park Ward 1 Alderman Tony Pousosa, a Republican now running for mayor of Green Park.

O’Leary’s term began with promises that things would be different. He was a newcomer to politics but had a well-known name, helped by his longtime co-ownership of his namesake Sunset Hills restaurant and bar with his childhood friends John Goodman and Karl Kloster.

Hand-picked by County Executive Steve Stenger, who held the 6th District seat before he took office as county executive, O’Leary was backed by police officers’ associations and unions and benefited from significant campaign donations from actor Goodman, who once name-dropped his future councilman friend in the movie “Revenge of the Nerds.”

In the Call’s candidate questionnaire before the election, O’Leary wrote, “Recent development failures could have been avoided if we would have focused more on listening and communicating with our community. If elected, I would work to develop a new notice policy, ensuring that while not everyone will agree in our government, everyone will be heard in our government.”

He also pledged that “if elected, I will fight to ensure that any project supported by the county will represent the interests of the community, not those of the council or big business.”

But when Oakville-based developer J.H. Berra proposed a 232-unit apartment complex at the intersection of Tesson Ferry and Bauer roads last year, neighbors said they couldn’t get a single meeting with O’Leary to discuss their opposition.

The lack of response from O’Leary and his legislative assistant, Diann Valenti, not only spurred opposition to the complex but also the unexpected rise of Trakas, a political newcomer familiar to most voters only because his wife, Lori, served on the Mehlville Board of Education before she lost her April re-election bid.

Asked what the most disappointing aspect of his tenure was, O’Leary alluded to Bauer Road.

“I got hung out to dry, and it’s a shame that it happened,” O’Leary said. “It backfired — that’s a good way to say it.”

He added, “If it’s my fault, I’ll stand up and be a man and say yeah, I made mistakes. I’m not going to say I didn’t make mistakes, but when it’s not directly my fault and I’m left out there to take a beating, you know, I don’t like it. I don’t think anybody likes it. Whether they know 20 percent of the facts, or 80 percent of the facts, they don’t always know — but neither do we always know, meaning the councilmen.”

O’Leary’s votes closely aligned with then-4th District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, along with Stenger’s interests, except the time he surprised everyone by voting against a rental license sponsored by O’Mara.

After an incident in which a resident contended Stenger and O’Mara “Chicago-style strong-armed” O’Leary, the Oakville councilman again sided with O’Mara. The legislation, now tied up in court, narrowly passed 4-3.

At O’Leary and O’Mara’s last council meeting Dec. 20, 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, joked to former soccer player O’Mara, “Take your ball and go home — and take your weightlifter/bodyguard, Kevin O’Leary, with you.”

Being “mayor of south county” is not what it’s cracked up to be, O’Leary said.

“I figured out pretty early on that the game’s not played on a fair ball field, so someday I guess things will come out,” he said. “I didn’t go into it looking for any glory or anything else other than that’s where I lived, and I figured I could make a difference. But when your hands get tied, and being the new kid on the block, it’s hard to accomplish those things.”

If he had it to do over again, O’Leary said he still would run to try to make a difference but might have tried to be “more boisterous” when challenged.

“As you’re well aware of, I got blasted about three or four times,” he said. “If I did something wrong, I don’t mind it if it’s my mistake, my bad, but when you get thrown out there … I guess nobody likes it, and I didn’t like it either.”

Never having won office before, O’Leary was proud of his win but soon saw the negative side of politics, with attacks from residents, other officials and newspaper editors.

“I worked my whole life for that, and I guess I didn’t like it very much when you start getting blasted and calling names and people get personal,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fun for anybody, and it wasn’t fun for me and I didn’t like it. But I was proud that I stood up for things, whether it was for the team or it wasn’t. I really tried to make a difference.”“Sometimes you can’t always get done what you’d like to get done because of the way things are done in government,” O’Leary said. “I think I figured out pretty early it was going to be hard to get things done. I went into it with an open mind and had to do the best that I could, and that’s what I did, and I’m satisfied with the effort and what I tried to do.”

Unlike residents who live in cities with mayors and aldermen to ostensibly protect their interests, the local government for Oakville and other residents of unincorporated areas is headquartered in Clayton.

During his campaign, O’Leary promised to shed more transparency on local projects to prevent a repeat of the circumstances surrounding the county’s approval of National Church Residences Telegraph Road, a federally funded senior apartment complex in Oakville. The complex won county zoning approval in 2012 with little fanfare but a year later, it was heavily opposed after neighbors found out about the three-story project.

The resulting outcry from Oakville residents changed the way the county communicated about zoning projects and was a hot topic in the 2015 race between Affton native O’Leary, 64, and former Green Park Ward 1 Alderman Tony Pousosa, a Republican now running for mayor of Green Park.

O’Leary’s term began with promises that things would be different. He was a newcomer to politics but had a well-known name, helped by his longtime co-ownership of his namesake Sunset Hills restaurant and bar with his childhood friends John Goodman and Karl Kloster.

Hand-picked by County Executive Steve Stenger, who held the 6th District seat before he took office as county executive, O’Leary was backed by police officers’ associations and unions and benefited from significant campaign donations from actor Goodman, who once name-dropped his future councilman friend in the movie “Revenge of the Nerds.”

In the Call’s candidate questionnaire be-fore the election, O’Leary wrote, “Recent development failures could have been avoided if we would have focused more on listening and communicating with our community. If elected, I would work to develop a new notice policy, ensuring that while not everyone will agree in our government, everyone will be heard in our government.”

He also pledged that “if elected, I will fight to ensure that any project supported by the county will represent the interests of the community, not those of the council or big business.”

But when Oakville-based developer J.H. Berra proposed a 232-unit apartment complex at the intersection of Tesson Ferry and Bauer roads last year, neighbors said they couldn’t get a single meeting with O’Leary to discuss their opposition.

The lack of response from O’Leary and his legislative assistant, Diann Valenti, not only spurred opposition to the complex but also the unexpected rise of Trakas, a political newcomer familiar to most voters only because his wife, Lori, served on the Mehlville Board of Education before she lost her April re-election bid.

Asked what the most disappointing aspect of his tenure was, O’Leary alluded to Bauer Road.

‘Hung out to dry,’ O’Leary says

“I got hung out to dry, and it’s a shame that it happened,” O’Leary said. “It backfired — that’s a good way to say it.”

He added, “If it’s my fault, I’ll stand up and be a man and say yeah, I made mistakes. I’m not going to say I didn’t make mistakes, but when it’s not directly my fault and I’m left out there to take a beating, you know, I don’t like it. I don’t think anybody likes it. Whether they know 20 percent of the facts, or 80 percent of the facts, they don’t always know — but neither do we always know, meaning the councilmen.”

O’Leary’s votes closely aligned with then-4th District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, along with Stenger’s interests, except the time he surprised everyone by voting against a rental license sponsored by O’Mara.

After an incident in which a resident contended Stenger and O’Mara “Chicago-style strong-armed” O’Leary, the Oakville councilman again sided with O’Mara. The legislation, now tied up in court, narrowly passed 4-3.

At O’Leary and O’Mara’s last council meeting Dec. 20, 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, joked to former soccer player O’Mara, “Take your ball and go home — and take your weightlifter/bodyguard, Kevin O’Leary, with you.”

Being “mayor of south county” is not what it’s cracked up to be, O’Leary said.

“I figured out pretty early on that the game’s not played on a fair ball field, so someday I guess things will come out,” he said. “I didn’t go into it looking for any glory or anything else other than that’s where I lived, and I figured I could make a difference. But when your hands get tied, and being the new kid on the block, it’s hard to accomplish those things.”

If he had it to do over again, O’Leary said he still would run to try to make a difference but might have tried to be “more boisterous” when challenged.

“As you’re well aware of, I got blasted about three or four times,” he said. “If I did something wrong, I don’t mind it if it’s my mistake, my bad, but when you get thrown out there … I guess nobody likes it, and I didn’t like it either.”

Never having won office before, O’Leary was proud of his win but soon saw the negative side of politics, with attacks from residents, other officials and newspaper editors.

“I worked my whole life for that, and I guess I didn’t like it very much when you start getting blasted and calling names and people get personal,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fun for anybody, and it wasn’t fun for me and I didn’t like it. But I was proud that I stood up for things, whether it was for the team or it wasn’t. I really tried to make a difference.”