After Political Ambush in St. George, Write-Ins Await Confirmation of Their Sweep
In a huge turnout for the tiny city, the Disincorporation Steering Committee may have seized the government for a new purpose. This is part one of a series on St. George’s politics.
In St. George, a group of write-in candidates who favor disincorporation of the small city appear to have won four seats on the board of alderman as well as the mayor's seat in Tuesday’s municipal election. However, the write-in votes must be counted by the St. Louis County Board of Elections before their success can be confirmed.
The campaign was an electoral ambush. The town's incumbents were left unchallenged until the write-in candidates made their intentions public barely a week before Election Day. On March 21, Carmen Wilkerson mailed a letter to St. George residents declaring herself a write-in candidate for mayor, opposing incumbent Mary Kaufmann.
“Instead of fight city hall, we decided to become city hall,” Wilkerson said in a interview Wednesday.
Wilkerson is a current St. George alderman and an activist who worked to dissolve the city’s scandal-fraught police department. With the city now contracting with the St. Louis County Police Department, she said she had not filed for re-election.
However, she changed her mind when she discovered what she said was a plan by Kaufmann to bring back the municipality’s notorious speed trap by contracting for police service with the City of Charlack in North County. Kaufmann disputed this claim and said that she was merely consulting with the other city as the board of aldermen prepared to renew their contract with the county police. (Editor’s Note: Patch will have a full story about this issue in the second part of our series early next week.)
With her were write-in aldermen candidates Jeremy Collier, Christina Charpentier and Susan Preis, as well as current Ward 1 Alderman Dianne Burns, who ran unopposed.
“Crazy Carmen was going around in the snow one day distributing letters (about the Charlack plan),” Charpentier said Thursday. “I told her, ‘This isn’t going to happen. I just can’t deal with that.’”
The group—sometimes called the Disincorporation Steering Committee—canvassed the neighborhood furiously up to the election, promising citizens that they would use city hall resources to explore the option of dissolving the city to become part of unincorporated St. Louis County.
“Having a city government is a big responsibility,” Wilkerson said. “If we aren’t going to treat it as a responsibility and participate, we should just get rid of it.”
One hundred and fifty-six write-in ballots were cast for mayor, versus 137 votes for Kaufmann.
In Ward 2, there were 52 write-in ballots against 47 votes for incumbent alderman Barbara Dierstein. In Ward 3, there were 37 write-in ballots, 36 votes for incumbent Herbert Pyne and 19 votes for another candidate Thomas True.
The other seat in Ward 2 was also up for grabs, but with no candidate having filed it will presumably go by write-in vote to Charpentier. Collier and Preis ran for the contested seats in Ward 2 and 3, respectively.
Wilkerson said that the voting levels on Tuesday might have broken St. George records for an April municipal election.
“It was really a great victory,” said Bob Burns, Dianne Burns' husband and a retired staffer for Senator Claire McCaskill. “I think it is really going to be a great thing for the people here.”
Kaufmann said she was disappointed with the election results. “The people were misled by many things, by Mrs. Wilkerson. Very much misled,” she said. "We put out the facts...I feel good that I kept my integrity in this.”
The initial unofficial election results only compare votes for filed candidates with the total number of write-in ballots. The board of elections has 10 days after the election to sort through those ballots and count them for any declared write-in candidate. If too many of those votes turn out to be illegible or were cast for someone other than Wilkerson’s crew, one or more of the filed incumbents may win.
However, if only one of the write-in alderman candidates loses, the disincorporation committee will likely still have three seats plus the mayor’s tie-breaking vote—enough to control the government.
As the city waits for the official results, incumbent mayor Kaufmann and her allies have accused Wilkerson and the disincorporation candidates of campaign ethics violations.
“I think that there were some very unethical things that went on. I think they preyed on older people,” said Marilyn Schneider, who has been St. George’s full-time city administrator for 26 years.
According to Kaufmann, Wilkerson distributed campaign literature without the mandatory “paid for by” disclaimer. Wilkerson admitted that she was out of compliance with the law in her first mailing, but she said that when it was pointed out she contacted the board of elections and is working with them to resolve the issue. It is unclear what, if anything, the county could do to sanction Wilkerson now that the letter has gone out.
“I’m concerned about it. It was totally ignorance on my part. I’m not a politician, I’m an activist, and I’m prepared to deal with the elections commission on it,” Wilkerson said.
Kaufmann also said that on election day several citizens had reported being asked by election workers in St. George if they were planning to cast a write-in vote. This is indeed against the rules for poll workers but may have been a natural, albeit illegal, response to the unexpected slew of voters asking for help with write-in ballots. Wilkerson argued that she had no control over election workers.
“We were very careful at the polls that day not to intermingle with the judges and to stay 25 feet away,” she said.
Schneider further said that the write-in candidates put campaign literature in mailboxes without postage, but Wilkerson said that this claim was false.
Finally, Kaufmann also said that a disincorporation supporter named Kathy Heins brought a group of elderly citizens and some of St. George's Bosnian residents to the polls. She did not say what law this might be breaking, but simply that these were "people who don't usually vote." According to Wilkerson Cathy Heins is a resident of St. George's condominium community who "spends her time doing random acts of kindness for elderly people."
“I don’t think our mayor is a dishonest person, I just think she is fighting hard to keep the city,” Dianne Burns said.
Others who oppose disincorporation see the election differently.
“She wants to be the mayor of a city that she doesn’t want around. It doesn’t make any sense to me," said Shannon Kaltenbronn, Kaufmann's daughter. “I think she is going through all this trouble because of a disagreement she’s had with others in the city. Pardon my French, but I think it lit a fire under her rear.”
St. George sits above where Interstate 55 crosses Reavis Barracks Road. It has a population of around 1,400 and covers only 0.2 square miles. It also has a history of government scandals. The last police chief, Scott Uhrigm, is being tried for sexually assaulting a young girl. The two mayors before Kaufmann both resigned. Harold Goodman did so after he was caught by police with marijuana, and Heather Hediger resigned after she misused the city credit card.
In the wake of the write-in campaign, strong emotions have been flying from both sides of the disincorporation debate. Patch will have more on the election and the disincorporation process as we continue our series on St. George politics next week.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story did not reflect that Shannon Kaltenbronn is Mary Kaufmann's daughter. Kaltenbronn failed to acknowledge this fact when initially asked about her relationship with the mayor and current board of aldermen. Further information was also added about Kaufmann's claims of unethical electioneering by her opponents.
Correction 4/12: An earlier version of this story attributed a comment about campaign literature being placed in mailboxes without postage to Mary Kaufmann. That comment was actually made by Marilyn Schneider.