With Ryan’s election to MFPD board, chairman plans to continue reforms

Skelton: Write-in votes cast for him ‘a significant showing’

By MIKE ANTHONY

With last week’s election of Ed Ryan to the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors, Chairman Aaron Hilmer plans to “keep going full throttle” with the reforms he says district voters have mandated.

Ryan, who was supported by Hilmer and board Secretary Bonnie Stegman, defeated write-in candidate Dennis C. Skelton, who was endorsed by Mehlville Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Ryan received 5,672 votes — 67.67 percent — while Skelton received 2,722 votes — 32.33 percent — in the April 3 election, according to unofficial results.

Of the district’s 79,236 voters, 8,867 — 11.19 percent — cast ballots.

Ryan, 64, an electrical engineer/project manager for the Parkway School District, was elected to a six-year term on the three-member board. He replaces Dan Ottoline Sr., who did not file for re-election.

Ryan told the Call he was “thrilled” to be elected to the Board of Directors.

“We’re looking forward to improving the services. We want to work diligently at that. As the new man on board, I have background in budgets and the proposed new building (the No. 2 firehouse), I’m interested in working on that project, too, with the chief and his officers,” he said.

The newly elected board member also said he was disappointed with the tone of the campaign waged against him.

“I work for a school district and one of the negative things they did put out about me was that I’m against schools because we don’t have kids. I work for Parkway School District. I’m very proud of working for Parkway School District,” he said. “I watch how they spend the money. There’s times budgets don’t match because of unforeseen conditions. You open up a wall and you find asbestos or you find plumbing that wasn’t shown in the original documents … When I listened to the gentlemen who were running for the (Mehlville) school-board positions, they all referenced Rockwood and Parkway as districts to try to meet regarding how money is spent. So I was very pleased just to sit there and smile …

“The other thing is my two sisters are teachers. They both retired from Mehlville,” he said, adding that his wife, MaryAnn, taught for city schools for 35 years and now works full time for the Special School District in the Lindbergh School District at Truman Elementary School.

“So equating that I have no children and that I’m a friend of Aaron’s, I know he’s had some issues with taxes with the school districts … I just wanted to clear that up because they did have teachers spreading the word that I was anti-Mehlville (School District) and that’s not the case,” he said.

Ryan also said he was pleased with the support he received from voters.

“I’m very thankful for all the support received from the people I didn’t know, and I will have an honest and forthright approach as a member of the board ..,” he said.

Both Skelton and Local 1889 President Bob Strinni said they were pleased with the number of write-in votes cast last week.

“I think we knew it was an uphill battle as a write-in, but I still think it was a significant showing,” Skelton said. “I think it shows that many people are concerned about the direction of the district and think that number’s going to grow.”

Strinni said, “Did we ever think we had a chance to win? Never. I didn’t … What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to educate the public and I think in two weeks we educated 3,000 people to what’s really going on …”

But Hilmer said he views last week’s election results as a mandate to continue the reforms started two years ago.

“I was encouraged that voters chose to continue the reforms that they started two years ago,” he said. “We look forward to working with Ed, especially with Ed’s background as a professional engineer and the work that he does with the school district he works for. There’s been a lot of buildings and infrastructure that really have been neglected over the last decade or so as money was squandered on other things. So what we’re going to do is over the next few months we’re going to sit down as a board, we’re going to have some workshop sessions with Chief (Jim) Silvernail and we’re really going to hammer out what capital improvements we’re going to do. And we’re going to then figure out how to fund them and I hope that Ed will work on overseeing those so they’re brought in on time and on budget.”

The board chairman also was critical of the campaign waged against Ryan, calling it a “smear campaign against me personally.” Hilmer particularly was critical about an “Invitation to Vote” mailed to Mehlville School District students that was paid for by Local 1889’s political action committee, the Firefighters Action Committee to Elect, and signed by Skelton. Skelton and his supporters say a local mailing firm incorrectly addressed the invitation to students.

Hilmer said, “Looking at it, it became clear that their message, which is basically to residents: ‘Hand over more of your money’ is so out of touch with the average south countian that they had to target children. This ‘invitation to vote’ sent to children, some as young as 5 years old, was nothing more than a tirade about Aaron Hilmer, that I’m destroying both your schools and fire district, I’m showing no signs of stopping and that I don’t have any children going to the (school) district. It said zero about what Mr. Skelton would do if elected or, more importantly, anything about his past record or background …”

The invitation contained numerous allegations, such as the number of firefighters and paramedics has been reduced over the past two years.

“It’s just typical of this whole letter,” Hilmer said. “There’s no facts. There’s no figures. There’s no data points when these actions happened. You know, there’s part of an old legal adage that says: If you don’t have the facts, pound the table and shout a lot. And this whole thing turned out to be a smear campaign against me personally. It was done by the firefighters’ union and rogue elements of the local school district. I guess some people are threatened when you prove it’s possible to decrease taxes instead of dreaming up ways to increase them.”

Asked if the allegations contained in the invitation were true, Hilmer said, “I think if these allegations were true, Ed Ryan would not have got nearly 68 percent of the vote.”

Now that the election is over, the board chairman says he plans to focus on three items:

• Pension reform — “Regardless of the journey through the courts, pension reform will be enacted one way or another.”

• Proposition TD, or Tax Decrease — “We’re going to do everything we can to get Prop TD back on the ballot.”

Skelton had filed a successful lawsuit re-moving Proposition TD that Hilmer and Stegman had placed on the April 3 ballot.

• “Neglected infrastructure” — “The third thing we’re going to focus on is the infrastructure that’s been neglected over all these years.”

Looking to the future, Hilmer said, “I hope and have hoped that some rational employees will step forward to talk to the board, not sue the board, not threaten the board, but work with the board on real-world problems facing the district. I know it’s possible because Bonnie and I did it at South County Fire Alarm where we worked with Local 1889 employees to right the ship for the betterment of both parties. But unfortunately, it seems that these types of individuals are not in the majority at Mehlville.

“Even after all these campaign shenanigans, we still want to work with them. They may have missed. This train has left the station and we’re going to arrive at our destination of total reform. Now if they want to come along, they can. But all they want to do is derail the train by lawsuits and harassment, and I hope they work with us …,” he said.

“For 30 years, the fire board was completely controlled by employee-endorsed candidates. In two years, voters dumped all of them, and I think that speaks volumes that average people are fed up with business as usual. They’re tired of double-digit reassessments and they’re sick of these political subdivisions’ non-stop posturing for higher taxes. They want reform and we’re going to keep going full throttle giving it to them,” Hilmer said.