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Nothing Like a Recall To Bring Feelings To the Surface

The last few days, since the recall attempt of Jennifer Florida was announced, have been interesting. Many views exist on both Ald. Florida and the recall process in general. Similarly, many views exist on the main controversy leading up to the recall petition. I want to share some background information on recalls as well as my latest thoughts on McDonald’s, Florida, Pyramid and such.

First, the so-called recall madness.

In 2003 voters in the 21st Ward were successful in recalling Ald. Melinda Long. Long was elected in April 2001 after defeating incumbent Bennice Jones King in the March 2001 primary. Not even two years later, on March 4, 2003, she was recalled (results). In a four-way race in April 2003, King was reelected to office as an independent candidate (results). Long was one of the candidates that ran again.

In the 4th Ward Peggy Ryan was recalled in a very tight vote on March 8, 2005. Once again, the alderman that was recalled ran for the office. Three others also ran for the now vacant seat. O.L. Shelton garnered the most votes in the special election to replace Ryan on June 7, 2005 (results).

A few months later, on September 20, 2005, Ald. Tom Bauer was recalled (results). On December 13, 2005 William Waterhouse was elected to represent the 24th Ward in a three-way race which included the former Ald. Tom Bauer as an independent.

A recent recall attempt was waged against 22nd Ward Ald. Jeffrey Boyd but petitioners failed to have enough signatures after it was determined not all of the signatures were valid (dead folks can’t sign petitions).

So what does all this say? Are citizens recall crazy? Is it a system run amuck? I don’t think so. In the first two in the 21st Ward & 4th Ward it can be said the recalls were motivated by rival political factions rather than a particular development issue. In the 24th Ward it was several development related issues that got citizens mad enough to take action. In the case of the 24th Ward the development issues were unquestionably mostly at risk of affecting those within that ward although I would argue they had larger implications as well.

In the 15th Ward a different situation is occurring . We’ve got a banned use (drive-thru service) being railroaded through the system on a parcel two blocks from an extreme ward boundary. The bulk of the residents affected by the decision just happen to live in an adjacent ward boundary. And through some twisted logic, these people are not supposed to be able to have an impact on their own immediate surroundings simply because this arbitrary ward boundary was drawn on map.

I think an increase in recalls of late is a signal that citizens have a greater awareness of the dealings of aldermen and what is going on. More citizens are taking an interest in the future of the city and are participating at the grassroots level to bring about positive change. Most Aldermen, in my view, are responsive to citizens’ views only when it comes to fixing a sidewalk, adding yet another stop sign, or requesting a new dumpster — all things an administrative staff person with the city should be able to handle provided City Hall was well organized. When it comes to bigger development issues the Aldermen want to play architect, urban planner and contractor. They do not see citizens in the process but as obstacles to the deal. This is a fundamentally wrong approach to development and eventually repopulating our city.

A recall is, by nature, reactive. Therefore, those participating in a recall are branded as being reactionary. Well, the alternative is to be pro-active but I don’t think a pro-active approach to recalls would be wise. So, yes, recall petitioners are reactionary in the sense that they are seeing what they feel is something unjust and in reaction taking steps to correct the situation. If you agree the actions of an elected official is unwarranted and/or unethical yet do nothing is that being apathetic. Democracy is not served by those unwilling to participate.

Ward boundaries are also brought up as an issue. Are these imaginary lines really that sacred? If so we have our priorities mixed up. The boundaries serve as a way to know whom is your representative. It does not remove it from the rest of the city or region. Taxes are not collected on a ward basis. Wards are not independent entities in the way a municipality is. Furthermore, we change the boundaries every 10 years based on the U.S. Census. The parcel in question was part of the old 10th Ward with Grand as the dividing line to the 15th. But in 2002 the dividing line for the 15th got moved two blocks further East in this area. Two whole blocks. Less than three football fields. People in the 20th Ward will be able to see the proposed McDonald’s from their homes. Yet, by some people’s convoluted way of thinking they are not supposed to be able to have an opinion. However, a person living nearly a mile away on the opposite corner of the 15th ward is automatically assumed to have a say.

I live on a corner lot in the 25th Ward but the other three corners are all in the 9th Ward. Before I bought the building the residents worked to get it shut down due to drug dealing and major nuisance activity. Did anyone tell them not to complain because it was not their ward? I certainly hope not. Eventually the building was condemned for occupancy. After the bank foreclosed on the owner I was able to purchase and rehab the building. By rehabbing a boarded up former drug house I helped the area, not simply the 25th Ward portion of the area.

If we are ever going to succeed in repopulating the city we must think beyond ward boundaries. We must create a strong city based on outstanding commercial arterials and a great network of neighborhood streets. This cannot be accomplished with a ward vs. ward mentality.

Furthermore, I believe we need to reevaluate our neighborhood boundaries. Major streets such as Grand are used as dividing lines. Look at the case of Cherokee Street between Jefferson & Gravois. Originally that street was the centerpiece of the neighborhood but since at least the days of former Mayor Vince Schoemehl Cherokee has been viewed as the edge of two neighborhoods rather than the commercial center. This is really a subject for an entire post, so I will stop here.

Some posters here and elsewhere seem to question the recall process altogether — that an official would have to do some sort of major criminal offense before a recall is warranted. Others seem to think it is OK to attempt to recall an official as long as it is warranted. The big question that is coming up, therefore, is whether or not this recall is warranted. It is no secret that I think the recall is just.

All officials have to make unpopular decisions, that is part of their jobs. No matter the decision someone will be unhappy. And no, we do not want them to make decisions based solely on if it would spark a recall attempt. But, if an official strays too far away from the wishes of their constituency then a recall is warranted. I do believe that is the case here.

The McDonald’s/Pyramid land swap has apparently been in the planning stages for some time but it came to the forefront in January when a building permit was applied for. Gravois Park residents, some of whom live in the 15th ward and some that do not, contend they were previously told by Jennifer Florida the McDonald’s would not be relocated to their neighborhood. Jennifer Florida outright lied to a group of people (including me) during a meeting in Dutchtown. What I wrote on February 15, 2006:

I sat next to Alderman Florida on Monday as the proposed McDonald’s at 3708 S. Grand was discussed before the Commercial District Committee of the Dutchtown South Community Corporation. She claimed to not have any graphics to show the group of the proposal, instead she showed site plans for the nearby Southside National Bank project. Yet, in her possession was a site plan for the McDonald’s project. When questioned on the subject she claimed the site plan she had was not the final plan. Digging a deeper hole she said a current site plan did not exist, that nothing had been submitted. We were puzzled at the idea of a public hearing on the zoning of a drive-thru could be held without a site plan. The truth is it can’t.

The site plan in her possession was the final plan submitted to the city in January. I finally obtained said plan through the Sunshine Law process but due to some delays on the part of the city I was not able to get a copy until after the hearing had been held. I believe she intentionally held back the plans for the project because she knew that neighborhood groups like Gravois Park and the adjacent Dutchtown would not be pleased with the standard formula McDonald’s.

I understand elected officials can’t make everyone happy. But, elected officials can operate in a manner in which everyone is informed, debate occurs and then a decision is reached. That wasn’t the case here. A decision was reached by Florida, she kept the information hidden as long as possible from the public, and then belittled anyone that dare speak out against the project. This is not conduct befitting an Alderwoman.

Early on she should have sensed where this was going. She could have asked Pyramid to withdraw the permit application to allow for public hearing to resolve disputes. That didn’t happen, they forged ahead without a chance for any real public input. Public input didn’t happen until the first conditional use hearing on the drive-thru held on February 19, 2006. This would be the hearing where the administrator entered into the record that they had letters of support from Mayor Slay, State Sen. Coleman and State Rep. Mike Daues. Again, through the Sunshine Law, I was able to see these letters did not mention McDonald’s at all. At the hearing nobody from the general public supported the McDonald’s but many from the neighborhood spoke out against it. Florida, however, called the McDonald’s a “linchpin” for future development and has suggested it will reduce crime. The hearing really didn’t matter, decisions had already been made. You see, Florida and her buddies at Pyramid & McDonald’s had no interest in public discussion. And since opposition began they’ve been even less interested.

Good politicians have the ability to step back and say, “You know, I thought this would be a benefit to the area but I can see many are not happy. We should get together and work on a master plan for this section of Grand to see what we can come up with.” This area has been in Florida’s ward for four years now. When I expressed to her that I was pleased to see the Lawrence Group would be doing some additional buildings in future phases of the South Side National Bank building she indicated she was insistent on them being two stories and up to the street. On one hand she comes across as getting urbanity and being able to push developers to do better. That Jennifer Florida I really like. It is the other Jennifer Florida, the one that yells at residents, “You can’t get everything you want” that I don’t care for.

Placing a drive-thru on the old Sears site is a very poor decision, one that will have effects on the area for a good 20-30 years until it can be razed. But how much damage will it have done to the perception of the commercial street and the adjacent residential uses? This is fundamental land use planning issues folks. This is not the addition of a stop sign or a replacing a dumpster or simple things an alderman can do without much long-term impact. Land use decisions for a major corridor used by thousands of citizens from many neighborhoods and wards is simply too critical to be left up to one person.

Then we have the issue of the redevelopment plan. Ald. Florida argued under oath the plan’s prohibition on drive-thru uses is only applicable when seeking tax incentives. So what does she do, she gets the LCRA to approve an amendment to the plan removing the prohibition on drive-thrus for only the parcel McDonald’s wants — a clear case of spot zoning. Next she introduces BB39 on the first day the Board of Aldermen are back in session to legally amend the ordinance to allow drive-thru uses on that parcel. Again, she argued just days earlier that the drive-thru prohibition is only applicable if you are not seeking tax incentives. Thus, it would appear they are setting the ground work to give McDonald’s some sort of financial incentive to move.

Many new readers are just joining in. This is a very complicated issue and I can see where those just now hearing of it may draw the conclusion that people rushed to recall her. The truth is Florida and major campaign contributor Pyramid are rushing this through the system without adequate public participation.

If you are interested in knowing the details check out my category called “McDonald’s on Grand.” The posts are in reverse order so you’ll need to start at the bottom and work your way up. Along the way you’ll begin to get a clear picture of the process and timeline as well as see supporting documents. If, after reading all this, you still don’t think the recall is warranted then we’ll have to simply agree to disagree. For me, if this is not grounds for a recall then I don’t what is.

– Steve


Fox 2 News’ Elliot Davis Interviewing Ald. Florida

May 12, 2006 Ald Jennifer Florida, Events/Meetings, McDonald's on Grand, Media, Politics/Policy, South City Comments Off on Fox 2 News’ Elliot Davis Interviewing Ald. Florida

davis_floridaI’m reporting today from the Board of Aldermen meeting. Following the meeting Fox 2 News reporter Elliot Davis began questioning Ald. Florida. From the balcony I can’t hear his questions or her answers. Suburban Journal reporter Jim Merkel followed Davis in questioning Ald. Florida.

On a side note, the aldermanic chambers are absolutely stunning. The public balcony is located on the third floor of city hall. If you have not attended a meeting before give it some consideration if you are downtown on a Friday morning.

– Steve


Recall Florida Effort Adds Phone Hotline

I received an email informing me that a voice mail box has been set up for the Recall Florida effort, 314-995-2047. The recorded message has 15th Ward resident Mary Ann Lawrence introducing herself and mentioning they’ll have petitions in Tower Grove Park this coming Saturday and at Hardford & Roger the following Saturday, both from 9am to 11am. The message is also asking for volunteers to help go from door to door gathering signatures.

I met Rev. Mary Ann Lawrence briefly on Tuesday. As the voice mail says, she is a 15th Ward resident but she is also the pastor of the St. Matthew United Church of Christ at 2613 Potomac St. where the Gravois Park Neighborhood Association holds their meetings. As a 15th Ward resident and as a spiritual leader in the neighborhood where the McDonald’s is proposed I can see why she is so involved in this effort.

[UPDATE 5/12/06 – Looks like they’ve also added a website although it is quite sparse right now.]

– Steve


Board of Adjustment To Render Decision Regardless of New Design

On April 19, 2006 the Board of Adjustment tabled a decision on the citizen appeal of a drive-thru variance for a proposed McDonald’s on South Grand. At that hearing Ald. Jennifer Florida stated “they” would be revising the McDonald’s plan to reflect the Toronto standards that I first suggested on March 20, 2006. Funny, but it almost sounded like Florida considered herself part of the development team rather than the people’s representative. But, I digress…

A May 4, 2006 , letter from the Board of Adjustment states:

“If plans are not received within 2 weeks of the date of this letter, the Board will deliberate upon this matter with evidence already received. If revised plans are timely received, this appeal will be rescheduled for a later date.”

So is the wonder team of Pyramid, McDonald’s, Core States Engineering and spokeswoman Jennifer Florida working on a revised site plan? Probably, because it did not seem like the Board of Adjustment was impressed with the standard menu of small building, tons of parking and excessive curb cuts.

I just called the city’s zoning department to inquire if any new plans have been submitted, I am awaiting a return phone call. Meanwhile the deadline is a week from today.

I have re-read Toronto’s “Urban Design Guidelines for Site with Drive-Through Facilities” and I must say it is quite complete (4.9mb PDF file). The document covers the history of drive-thrus, problems associated with them and reasons for seeking to control where and how they are built. The document should be adopted by every other city in North America, including St. Louis.

Any facility with a drive-thru that is being touted as applying these guidelines needs to front on all public streets. So, a business such that is not on a corner should have its building up to the single street it faces. Those located on corners, however, should have their structures up to the public sidewalk on both streets. Anything less is simply lip service.

The original site plan of the proposed McDonald’s had three curb cuts, two on Grand and one on Winnebego. Way too many for a single business. Anything they submit needs to have no more than two curb cuts. Lighting should also be carefully designed to minimize glare on neighboring properties. But as I’ve said before, this really shouldn’t matter. The McDonald’s could & should just rebuild on their current site and Pyramid should build a mixed use project on the old Sears site.

– Steve


Sign the Recall Florida Petition at Tower Grove Park on Saturday

Volunteers will be taking signatures from folks wanting to sign the Recall Florida petition this Saturday from 9am to 11am near the new Tower Grove Farmer’s Market. Look for volunteers in Recall Florida t-shirts near the new Tower Grove Farmer’s Market opening this Saturday just West of the Pool Pavilion. This is just West of the main traffic circle, see #20 on this map.

Be sure to check out the market but it looks quite promising with some great vendors lined up. It will run every Saturday into October.

[UPDATE 5/11/06 @ 11:45am. I revised the headline to remove the Farmer’s Market reference. I also made it clear the volunteers with the petition will not be in the market but near the market. As people have commented, this market is a great thing for the city and has absolutely zero involvement with the recall effort.]

– Steve