This Monday, July 11, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources will hold its annual Brownfields Conference. The conference, held at the Tan-Tar-A Resource at Lake of the Ozarks, aids public officials in assessing brownfields and securing resources to abate them for redevelopment. Obviously, the reclaiming of a site which was contaminated by toxic pollutants in a prior use, and redeveloping it, is a tremendous asset to communities in which such sites presently serve as an obstacle to desired development. And were Ferguson such a community, it could be valuable for our economic development staff to attend such a conference.
Fortunately for Ferguson, brownfields are not an issue here. According to the brownfields map from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the only active brownfield in our city is the property owned by Emerson Electric, at the corner of West Florissant and Ferguson Avenue. Given the fact that this $18 billion a year company meticulously maintains that property, on which they paid nearly $25,000 in property taxes last year, I’m confident that the city’s assistance is neither sought nor needed here. Aside from that site, the city has no brownfields at all.
It is puzzling, therefore, that our mayor believes it to be important that she personally attend this conference. We asked Mayor Jones, who said this:
“As a member of the Missouri Municipal League and on the Environment, Energy and Sustainable Development Policy Committee, member of the U. S. Environment Protection Agency’s Local Government Advisory Committee and Small Communities Advisory Subcommittee I was invited to attend on a scholarship. I attend all meetings for each one of these committees.”
Mayor Jones also points out that there is a “potential brownfield” at the corner of Elizabeth and Pershall, where underground tanks are compromised at an abandoned gas station. However, that would not be the city’s responsibility unless the owner lost possession of the property, and the city obtained it. According to Mayor Jones, “The City can apply for funding on behalf of the owner to have the site surveyed for Phase 1 or Phase 2 possible clean up.”
The US Environmental Protection Agency has a program to deal with such situation, the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund. This is not part of state programs that would be covered at this conference. And in any case, if the conference was relevant to city interests, a member of the city’s economic development staff would be the appropriate attendee. Adding to the puzzle, councilor Phedra Nelson is also attending the conference.
According to several reliable sources, Mayor Jones demanded the use of a city vehicle. Because of recent hires, there was no vehicle available. When she was told that the vehicle was needed for use by a newly hired inspector in the public works department, the mayor looped in the city attorney (What is his bill rate?), and demanded that the city rent her a car.
Mayor Jones claims that “Historically and traditionally Admin 1 has always been the vehicle reserved for the Mayor.” But in fact, James Knowles, who served as mayor from 2011 to 2020, states that he never used a city vehicle for mayoral business. For local business, he used his personal vehicle, and was not reimbursed for mileage. And for a trip such as this, he could have received a mileage reimbursement. Steve Wegert, who served as mayor from 1996 to 2005, said this:
“During my time, there wasn’t a “spare” vehicle in the fleet at all. I never used a city vehicle during my 9 years as Mayor. When I traveled occasionally to Jeff City for training sessions, I drove my own personal vehicle. I could have turned in my mileage for reimbursement as there’s a line item in the budget for that type of council expense, but I don’t recall ever taking advantage of that. Similarly, I used my own cell phone as I considered that was part of the $150 /month honorarium I received.”
Finally, aside from the usefulness of the mayor’s attendance at this conference, there’s the issue of authorization. When city staff seeks to attend a conference, council must approve the expense, after considering whether it is a wise use of city funds. To our knowledge, Mayor Jones neither sought nor received approval of the council, but expects the city to cover her transportation costs. The conference provides scholarships for local, state, and federal governments, so there is no fee to attend. But no fee doesn’t mean free. Our city resources do not exist for the convenience of our elected officials, nor do they have an unfettered hand in the expending of those resources.