Saturday, March 17, 2007

Case In Point By Joe Koester, Councilman Ward 9

Men of integrity, by their very existence, rekindle the belief that as a people we can live above the level of moral squalor. We need that belief; a cynical community is a corrupt community.

John W. Gardner

Many years ago, in a community far, far away, Saint Charles was a small town. Sheriff Plackemeyer was retiring after, I believe, it was 25 years as sheriff. I’m not sure of all of the candidates who decided to run for the position; however, I know two of them for sure. On the Republican ticket, there was a man named Frank Dapron who lived out on Highway K in O’Fallon just south of the Service Road. One on the Democratic ticket was Bob Koester, my dad, who had been a St. Charles City police officer, the interim Police Chief, and a lieutenant, I believe, at the Sheriff’s Office.

Frank was renowned back in the 1970s among children because he was the county’s K-9 officer. His German shepherd would perform all sorts of commands and Frank would take him to schools or anywhere kids were to be found. The dog’s name, by the way, was Ho-Prince. I was the youngest in the family and only six when dad died, but I remember trips to Frank’s house in O’Fallon. He had a swimming pool, which was pretty rare for our county back then, and he would play the fiddle if you asked him too. Since both Frank and dad had a primary race, Frank would campaign and ask for people’s vote, as politicians do. The unusual part to his campaign wasn’t soliciting votes, but it was what Frank would say when he met people around the county, which was, “I would appreciate your vote, but if you don’t vote for me, I would sure appreciate it if you’d vote for Bob Koester.”

Dad took office in 1968 and asked Sheriff Plackemeyer to stay on as an advisor – which he did. Frank Dapron stayed on too and our family remained friends with him until his death. I have always considered my town and my county to be that same place. A place where I remember going to Peruque Harbor down on the Mississippi – a Harbor owned by Earl Wehrle. John’s Boat Harbor was another place we often spent time just right up the road from Earl’s, but it was at Earl’s river pecan grove where I remember running around playing and sneaking drinks of cold beer while adults enjoyed each other’s company and did their politicking. I even have a photograph of dad and mom talking to Senator Eagleton right there among the people in St. Charles County. No $1,000 a plate occasion, instead it was local politics. My oldest brother has a letter from President Nixon sent to dad for outstanding law enforcement; never mind that they were of opposite political parties – Democrat and Republican was not written so large back then. Our county was open to electing from both sides and those sides were friends, they shopped at the same stores, and they knew the same circles of people. Somewhere along the way, our county and town lost its civility. The political scene became pretty monolithic and the GOP in town began to resent the audacity of a Democrat even daring to run for office. The system is broken because it is competition that provides some of the checks and balances within the elected body and competition is being quashed by the powerful and well connected. Those who can outspend their opponents create reality.

What has changed? Well, locally, one Proverb is certainly apropos – The love of money is the root of all evil. Our City’s budget hovers around the $100 Million dollar range and this brings in lots and lots of companies who want to pocket as much of that cash as they can get their hands on. The state budget is in the billions and the same holds true there too. Some will feign wanting to shrink the budget; however, business has always benefited from a cozy symbiosis with government and politicians are always all too willing to spend more to help their contributor’s firms land contracts that feather their nests. The expenditures that you will see for the humble, little office of councilman and mayor of St. Charles will be outrages. Much ado will be made about fighting at city hall (which ended a year and a half ago) but that will be the smoke and mirrors because only one thing brings so much money into play and that’s the chance to make or control even more money. Let me exemplify just how warped the process now is, just how far from the Days of Frank Dapron we have fallen. A local businessman and political pundit told a friend that, “I’m going to kill that [expletive, expletive] Koester.” This person’s reason for spouting such venomous remarks was that I ran against Tom Dempsey. Wow! I hope you can appreciate just how remarkably sad this is. Three years ago I ran for council and my opponent was Bo Hagan. Mr. Hagan is a good guy and today I have no malice towards him. Would you expect otherwise? I think most St. Charles residents would have the same mindset. I remember two Christmases ago I stepped over to chat with Mr. Hagan and he joked with me by saying, “Thank you!” Of course, he was thanking me for keeping him out of office and a lot of turmoil. Today, my opponent is a friend who worked for my dad back in the 1970s. Campaigns are part of the process – they are the competition of thoughts and ideas and not battles between good and evil. It is discouraging to see our town the focus of so much outside money – can’t local residents debate and communicate with their peers about local matters without spending thousands upon thousands of dollars? I kind of think we can and I think the rebuffed recall effort of Dottie Greer is evidence of this.

Over the years my opinions about partisan politics has certainly changed. Both sides for pandering to moneyed lobbyists regularly discourage me. Of course, it can be tough for a congressman or senator to vote against the people who are financing his multi-million dollar campaign (we need publicly financed elections). Is it inevitable that council will make its every move in the same fashion? I hope not.

So, everyone, please take a breath, remember that the process is open to all and that no one has any inherited right to retain office indefinitely.

To end:

“When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”

. J. O’Rourke