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Chesterfield City Council splits over mayoral appointments

By: Jim Erickson


What appeared to be a routine appointment and reappointment to positions in Chesterfield turned out to be a brouhaha that took up the major portion of the City Council’s almost 90-minute meeting June 4.

At issue were the reappointment of Chesterfield Municipal Judge Richard Brunk and the appointment of city resident Gene Schenberg to the planning commission. However, a third appointment, Ferne Wolf’s nomination to the Human Rights Commission, was quickly approved.

As required, all the appointments were made by Mayor Bob Nation, subject to the council’s approval.

When Nation noted his reappointment of Brunk during an agenda review session before the formal council meeting, Councilmember Ben Keathley [Ward 2] said he felt the nomination should go first to the Public Health and Safety Committee for consideration and an interview of the candidate. Keathley, who chairs that committee, repeated his view during the council meeting.

Nation said a committee vetting of new appointments was appropriate but it has not been the council’s practice to send reappointments to committee for review.

Brunk, who was at the meeting, has served as Chesterfield’s municipal judge since 1994 and earlier was the city’s prosecuting attorney for six years.

Councilmember Tom DeCampi [Ward 4] said he and his colleagues should have received notice of the reappointment earlier. In effect, the council was “blindsided” by the reappointment and that the process was “like a country club,” he said. However, Nation noted that the agenda and other meeting materials were posted May 31 and Brunk’s three-year term of office and his last reappointment are matters of public record.

Keathley then introduced an amendment, to an earlier motion to confirm Brunk’s appointment, that would have referred the matter to the Public Health and Safety Committee first. That amendment lost on a 3-5 vote, with DeCampi and Councilmember Michelle Ohley [Ward 4] joining Keathley in supporting it while other councilmembers voted against it.

Before the vote, though, Keathley grilled Brunk on potential conflict of interest situations due to Brunk’s private practice in addition to his being a municipal judge. Brunk declared he is aware of the potential for conflict of interests and strictly avoids such situations.

Although it wasn’t mentioned at the council meeting, both Brunk and Tim Engelmeyer, Chesterfield’s prosecuting attorney, recently asked to be recused from a case involving a speeding ticket given by Chesterfield police last November to a DeCampi family member. Presiding Circuit Court Judge Douglas R. Beach agreed with Brunk and Engelmeyer that they faced potential conflicts of interest and appointed an outside special prosecutor and municipal judge to handle the case.

Asked about the current status of that case, Engelmeyer said he hasn’t kept track of it since Beach’s April 6 order. However, the matter probably still is pending, Engelmeyer said. He doesn’t believe the outside prosecutor and judge have come yet to Chesterfield to take charge of the case.

In a written response to a question about whether the status of the speeding ticket affected his views about Brunk’s reappointment, DeCampi stated, “As I said multiple times Monday, the appointment of a judge should involve public scrutiny equal or greater than any other appointee. My reason for voting against Brunk was simply based on a lack of opportunity for proper vetting and nothing to do with any particular case.” He added that his position is consistent with a campaign pledge to oppose “rubber stamping” of appointments.

Keathley also was asked about the issue because a partner in his law firm initially had taken on the speeding ticket case on behalf of the DeCampi family member.

“My vote against Judge Brunk has nothing to do with any single case outcome,” Keathley replied. “I asked the judge about possible conflicts because he stated that he himself actively represents criminal defendants while simultaneously serving as a judge. It disappoints me that a majority of the council refuses to take its responsibility of confirming appointments seriously.  The fact that requesting that the council properly research issues is itself controversial should worry everyone in our community.

“The nomination and reappointment of Judge Brunk was [sic] rushed, glossed over and forced without the proper deliberation that it deserves. … The council was never informed of the mayor’s nominee until the agenda was published. No information of Judge Brunk’s qualifications were [sic] shared with council, nor was anyone else’s opinion sought. Judge Brunk may very well be a qualified and outstanding judge, but now our residents will never know because of a sham appointment process. … I am demanding better for our city.”

As the discussion wore on at the council meeting, tempers appeared to fray. Nation ruled DeCampi out of order when the Ward 4 alderman attempted to make a point and to answer a question without being recognized. When the vote on the main motion to confirm Brunk finally came, Keathley, DeCampi and Ohley voted against it while councilmembers Dan Hurt and Michael Moore [both of Ward 3], Mary Ann Mastorakos [Ward 2] and Barbara McGuinness and Barry Flachsbart [both of Ward 1] supported the reappointment.

Although shorter in length, the debate over Schenberg’s nomination was equally fractious and Nation had to cast a deciding vote to support the appointment when the council deadlocked 4-4.

Dominating the discussion were Nation’s decision to nominate a Ward 1 resident [Schenberg] to replace Wendy Geckeler [Ward 4] who had asked not to be reappointed for another term.

While the nine-member commission has two representatives from each of three wards, Ward 4 has had three on the basis that area has been where the lion’s share of development projects has been occurring.

Another sore point was Nation’s reference, in an email to councilmembers, that Schenberg’s appointment would mean a better gender balance among those serving on the commission. During the public comment period, Chesterfield resident Ben Murphy criticized that observation and said it appeared to him to be a question of politics.

Nation defended his position, noting Schenberg’s earlier service on the commission and the nominee’s apolitical view on how development projects should be evaluated, regardless of their location in the city.  As for his gender balance comment, Nation noted that came in one brief part of what was a longer email covering other nomination-related issues. To emphasize that point, he asked Keathley to read the entire email aloud, and the councilmember complied.

Ohley asked why a female candidate from Ward 4 wasn’t considered for the appointment. Nation replied that when he heard about the female Ward 4 candidate, the process for nominating Schenberg was too far along to begin reviewing other possible nominees.

 

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