Thursday, February 2

Politics of trash | Political Eye

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The search for St. Louis City’s new police chief has taken yet another series of plot twists, with one candidate withdrawing his application over the weekend, another announcing his rejection this week, and the decision being made ahead of the expected deadline of December 31. 

First, Columbia, South Carolina, Deputy Police Chief Melron Kelly, who appeared virtually during last week’s town hall, announced his withdrawal with a predictable excuse on Sunday “after consultation with his family and trusted advisors.”

Melron Kelly

Melron Kelly

But we have a feeling the withdrawal may have more to do with Kelly’s performance at the town hall, where he was asked by moderator Dr. LJ Punch whether removing “from society” the people who commit crimes actually reduced violence. “Those people,” Kelly said, “unfortunately have to be incarcerated, or should be incarcerated, for a period of time in order to bring justice to society and their victims.”

Kelly’s pro-incarceration stance does not align with the values of St. Louis voters (nor has that approach worked) who have continued to elect representatives who favor alternatives to long prison sentences, especially for non-violent offenders. Most recently, Aldermanic Board President Megan Green, a pro-abolition candidate, handily won a citywide race against pro-police, pro-incarceration candidate, former prosecutor and Alderman Jack Coatar (Ward 7). That resounding victory followed voters overwhelming choice of pro-police reform candidate Tishaura O. Jones over her pro-status quo opponent,  Alderwoman Cara Spencer (Ward 20). When provided with the choice between a candidate who recognizes the failures of over incarceration and a candidate who believes in repeating the same past failures, St. Louis voters in recent years have shown their preference for the candidates with the more realistic view about over incarceration.

Dr. LJ Punch

Dr. LJ Punch

An opinion essay in the N.Y. Times by Phillip Atiba Gott, a Yale professor who is a leader of a non-profit organization that focuses on making policing less racist, less deadly and less pervasive, this week maintains that insufficient punishment is not the root cause of violence and challenges a prevailing narrative about crime that posits that bad people are the problem and toughness in the form of police and prisons are the solution. He says policies like this have little, if any, effect on violent crime because they don’t address the real causes. Further, he says that “if people are telling you how tough they are and how scared you should be, they care more about keeping you scared than keeping you safe.” He confirms the view of local elected officials who feel that real public safety needs real alternatives.

On Tuesday, SLMPD Lt. Col. Michael Sack, the interim police chief, announced that he was not selected to lead the department. The remaining candidates on Wednesday morning were Chief Larry Boone of Norfolk, Virginia, and Chief Robert Tracy of Wilmington, Delaware, with Tracy ultimately being chosen as SLMPD’s next police chief.

Police Chief Robert Tracy

Designated Police Chief Robert Tracy

Tracy brings more than 30 years of experience between New York Police Department and Chicago Police Department, and most importantly – no strings tied to the St. Louis Police Officers Association that would otherwise trip up his ability to lead.

By the way – has anyone heard from SLPOA since they started negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement?

Mayor Jones’ office continues to receive blame for a trash pickup problem that began long before she entered public office — 1978, to be exact. Under then-mayor Jim Conway, a pilot program for a new, “cutting-edge” trash pick-up system that cut refuse jobs began. Of course, this was all in the midst of a refuse driver strike that ran in the late 1970s. Not surprisingly, the new trash trucks were successful initially in saving public dollars but ended up creating more problems in the future.

Let’s start with former mayor Vince Schoemehl, who adopted the new trash truck pilot program full-time after he took office in 1981. The pilot program was strongly opposed by Teamsters Union Local 610, which represented around 170 of the 175 Refuse Division drivers, collectors, and incinerator operators at the time. In an early Schoemehl-era letter to the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Schoemehl’s then-chief of staff, John Temporiti, defended the program, declaring that “[t]he savings result from the fact that refuse is now picked up by a one-man crew, a driver-operator, rather than a three-man crew with two men emptying cans by hand.” 

That’s right: our city’s current trash problem was born out of a poorly thought out deal amidst a labor dispute in the 1970s — and we’re still being impacted today.

“I don’t think the thing will work,” Teamsters president Glen Boyer said in November 1978. “The equipment cost will be too high, the maintenance cost will be too high, and, if there are mechanical problems, you won’t have the men to collect the trash manually.”

Despite the very predictable problem of using a proprietary pick-up system with a specially-designed dumpster that only one type of truck can pick up, Schoemehl expanded the use of the new trucks across the rest of the city by the end of the 1980s. His administration proudly touted cutting 90 jobs – nearly half – from the Refuse Department.

Only one company in the U.S. has been identified as the manufacturer of “special” trucks used by the St. Louis City Department of Refuse: the International Truck and Engine Company, now known as Navistar. These trucks were proprietary to International, meaning that only their trucks were capable of latching, lifting, and dumping the special dumpsters that the city also was forced to buy. Too bad MEC records don’t go that far back – the EYE would love to see whose coffers were filled after that lucrative deal.

Learning that history and context is important to understand St. Louis’ current trash crisis. This is not a Mayor Jones problem, this isn’t even a former mayor Lyda Krewson or Francis Slay problem. Placing responsibility where it is due, Schoemehl exchanged good paying jobs for city residents for a mechanized trash pick-up system with problems that persist decades later.

If you’re looking for someone to blame, you start with the people responsible for buying proprietary trash trucks that no other refuse company can lift and empty.

Data point: Alderwoman Sharon Tyus (Ward 2) and her recent attacks on Mayor Jones’ office through newspaper articles and not, you know, picking up the phone and having an adult conversation about her grievances. 

Tyus – who has served as the aldermanic chairwoman for the Streets, Traffic, & Refuse Committee for far too long – has refused to pass a budget for St. Louis Works for two years, negatively impacting the fund that fixes sidewalks, repairs roads, provides equipment upgrades, and covers some salaries for city employees. Without any proof, Tyus claimed the Mayor’s Office did not communicate with her; the Mayor’s Office in turn provided copies of all of their attempts to contact Tyus. 

Tyus never returned those calls or emails, so maybe we should go ahead and identify the alderwoman as a major source of “government dysfunction” here.

Instead, the Northside alderwoman has turned to gaslighting St. Louis residents, refusing to acknowledge her behavior, and all the while expecting her constituents to keep her in office in four months. Despite being the sole person responsible for moving the St. Louis Works budget, Tyus nevertheless has sought to place blame on the Mayor’s Office. 

We also can’t ignore the behavior of former city director of operations Todd Waelterman who appointed himself as refuse commissioner in May 2021, after he realized that then-incoming Mayor Jones would replace him. Waelterman, who has worked for the city since 1989, was escorted from City Hall in July of this year after the Civilians’ Service Bureau received 1,800 trash-related complaints the month before. It was Waelterman who led the Refuse Division when it began throwing out recycled material with trash.

Todd Waelterman

Todd Waelterman

This is the inside view that Tyus doesn’t want St. Louis residents to see – the history of self-appointments, self-dealing, and selfish interests. But this has been the history of St. Louis, and we have to expose that behavior so it can’t continue.

Proposed development for a new QuikTrip gas station in 7th Ward’s Tiffany neighborhood, just south of SLU Hospital at Grand and Lafayette, has received overwhelming community rejection after years of trying to force the project. Readers may remember that in 2016, the Board of Aldermen established a redevelopment corporation controlled by SLU Hospital and SSM Health. The newly-created St. Louis Midtown Redevelopment Corp. was directed to “facilitate signature development” at the corner at Grand and Lafayette. Saint Louis University even said in a press release announcing its “strategic plan” that called for the university to become “a leader in just land use and responsible urban design.”

A new gas station was apparently the best “just land use” they could do for “signature development.”

Fast forward to Summer 2021, when the Midtown Redevelopment Corp. publicly announced its preliminary plans to sell the tract of land to QuikTrip. As a redevelopment corporation, the SLU-controlled quasi-public entity has the ability to offer property tax abatement — without the Board of Aldermen’s or mayor’s approval. Not surprisingly, the Midtown Redevelopment Corp. submitted its letter of approval for the QuikTrip location a year before the public knew of it being considered – and in contradiction to the redevelopment corporation’s own stated goals. The former Tiffany Community Association President, aldermanic candidate Jon-Pierre Mitchom, wrote a 2019 letter supporting the QuikTrip construction – also before the public knew of the potential project and without support from the residents of the neighborhood. 

The planned footprint to build the QuikTrip on, as it turns out, went beyond its original boundaries, forcing developers to seek to quietly purchase the homes immediately adjacent to the tract. Because the residential properties fall outside of the Redevelopment Corp.’s geographical boundaries, any demolition plans would have to go before the City’s Preservation Board; as of the date of our publishing, no demolition permits have been applied for these homes.

On Wednesday, the Planning Commission held its hearing on the proposed zoning changes for the tract of land, amid community backlash and a flood of written testimony opposing the construction of a QuikTrip.

“What does this project accomplish and add that isn’t already here?” asked 7th Ward aldermanic candidate Alisha Sonnier, who currently sits on the St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education. “This land was purchased by SLU with the assurances that it would be a community development. What community service does another gas station offer?”

Perhaps most telling is the fact that the surrounding neighborhoods have not been approached by the Midtown Redevelopment Corp. about projects, and residents have been denied their opportunity to share their concerns about this controversial project in a meaningful way. Moreover, Midtown Redevelopment Corp. already has a fairly storied history of development projects suspected of misusing the public tax incentive process.

Interestingly, many Midtown Redevelopment Corp. projects are located on the site of the historic Black neighborhood, Mill Creek Valley.


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