Before a crowded chamber on Feb. 12, the Wildwood City Council motioned to approve Brian Rull and Rob Meinert for council positions in Wards 6 and 8, respectively, after councilmembers Jerry Porter [Ward 6] and Larry Goodson [Ward 8] resigned earlier this month.
Mayor Jim Bowlin nominated the men, who also are candidates in the upcoming April 3 municipal election, for the vacated positions.
Rull’s appointment was approved 10-3. Meinert’s appointment was approved 11-3, with Rull’s vote adding to the total. Councilmembers Tammy Shea [Ward 3], Don Bartoni [Ward 2] and Greg Stine [Ward 7] voted against both appointments. Councilmember Greg Alexander [Ward 6] was absent.
Rull and Meinert will sit on the council until the April 3 election; at that time, voters will decide who will fill those seats. Additional candidates in Wards 6 and 8, respectively, are Cheryl Jordan and Niles Stephens. Whoever wins in April will fill the council position for a two-year term, concluding in April 2020.
Although the appointments received applause from some audience members, other residents and councilmembers expressed concerns regarding the appointment of two existing candidates and potential “incumbent” advantage. However, Bowlin said he was obligated to fill the vacancies quickly and to the best of his ability.
“I think it’s important to recognize, under our charter, that when a resignation occurs, I am obligated to make an appointment within 30 days,” Bowlin said at the meeting. “I believe I’m also required to use my best judgment.” Additionally, Bowlin said that incumbent candidates have been beaten in Wildwood elections before.
“Wildwood voters are some of the most educated in the state, and have demonstrated historically that they do their research and they know who they’re voting for,” Bowlin said. “I don’t buy into the argument that, because someone is in a certain position, that a Wildwood voter would vote for them for that reason alone.”
Councilmember Joe Garritano [Ward 8] said he thought it was “well within the mayor’s right to nominate candidates.”
“I think if there was a concern, it would have been pulled out of the city charter,” Garritano said. “Appointments need to be made, and residents need to be represented.”
But some residents and councilmembers asked why a “placeholder” had not been nominated for the position.
“I am not in support of candidates in a contested race being appointed to a seat,” Wildwood resident David Sewell [Ward 6] said. “It’s providing an unfair advantage to the other person that was not appointed. It [gives] them an incumbent position, and it’s not the appropriate thing to do. We haven’t done that in the past, and I don’t think we should be doing it in the future.”
Shea said, “The process was not afforded to other people to be considered because of the expediency of this, and it draws into suspicion motivations. I actually heard two people in Ward 6 come forward who were interested in being considered, and couldn’t get their names forward. This is unprecedented in our city, and it’s very disappointing.”
However, Bowlin said the option of a placeholder was entertained, but not chosen due to a variety of factors.
“I concluded it wouldn’t be exercising my best judgment for our residents, principally of the two wards involved, because, by its very nature, a placeholder is someone who, in an elective position, isn’t wanting to seek an elected position,” Bowlin said. “That’s inconsistent.”
Concern also was expressed about the quick turnaround of nominations as related to the resignations. According to an inquiry by Shea at the Feb. 12 meeting, Rull learned of his nomination on Feb. 4 after an email was sent out about Porter’s resignation on Feb. 1. A second email was sent out announcing Goodson’s resignation on Feb. 6, the same day Meinert received a call from Bowlin about his nomination.
“My point is that the process of determining a replacement candidate for a position on a vacancy should take more than three days, and in [Meinert’s] case, [it took] not even a full day,” Shea said. Others in attendance approached the council with more specific concerns. Candidate Niles Stephens [Ward 8] stated on Feb. 12 that a phone call made by Bowlin to announce the nominations of Rull and Meinert, prior to a public announcement, contained statements with possible ethics violations. Stephens declined to comment on the specific content of the 31-minute phone call but told West Newsmagazine that the possible ethics violations would be communicated to the city attorney in the future.
For now, he said, “I’m just ready to campaign. Let’s go.”
Bowlin said, “I phoned him [Stephens] as a courtesy before the nominations were made public, as well as Ms. Jordan, to let them know about my decision, the fact that I had to make it and how I got there. I don’t have any idea about what Mr. Stephens is referring to as a violation.”
Stephens wasn’t the only candidate to raise concerns.
Candidate Kevin Dillard [Ward 3] stated at the Feb. 12 meeting that a letter had been sent to his employer by Bowlin requesting that Dillard cease his candidacy.
“The mayor, through his attorney, sent a legally threatening letter to my employer about a week after I filed my papers to run, demanding that I cease making comments critical about him and his administration,” Dillard said. “The letter also demanded that I cease running for city council, as doing so, and I paraphrase, will practically assure that further additional critical statements will be made about his administration.”
Dillard said he was not informed as to what statements could have prompted the letter.
“While I wish it was the case that I could spend more time and energy talking about the need for a Village Green, the need for responsible and citizen-driven economic development and following the Master Plan, among other such issues, the issue of official abuse of power is quickly rising in importance,” Dillard said.
Dillard is employed as an attorney for a healthcare organization that previously employed Bowlin.
According to Bowlin, the specifics of the letter weren’t discussed due to an ongoing confidentiality agreement.
“I thought that it was an unfortunate outburst, and what occurred was a potential breach of an existing confidentiality agreement with one of my former employers,” Bowlin said. “Because that agreement is in place, I must honor that agreement and can’t speak to specifics. What I can say is that I have no intention of having an impact on who decides to run for office. I specifically delayed having the letter he referenced sent until after filing for the election had closed, and the ballot form had been submitted to St. Louis County, so it’s just not the case that there was any effort to deter someone from running for office. ”
The evening also saw concern from residents regarding the involvement of two organizations: We Are Wildwood and the Progress for Wildwood PAC. Rull and Meinert are endorsed by Progress for Wildwood, which also is supported by Bowlin. In reply to an inquiry by Shea, Rull said he accepted no campaign funds from the PAC, while Meinert said he accepted $300, which is the contribution limit. We Are Wildwood is a community organization and not a PAC. This means the organization does not request or provide funding for candidates.