Poplar Bluff, MO – Buying election ads with taxpayer funds, writing tickets for passing out political literature, conducting an investigation they have no authority to, HAVING ARMED POLICE TEAR DOWN CAMPAIGN SIGNS; no you are not reading about Moscow, or even the real Chicago, these things happened in Poplar Bluff over the last week and are a big reason it has the nickname “Little Chicago”.
The City of Poplar Bluff placed a measure on the ballot to raise sewer rates by 75% to pay for a rehab of the current sewage treatment facility. The measure was largely under the radar screen except for a story in the DAR that simply reiterated the city’s pro rate increase position. Then just before the election, advertisements began to run in the Daily American Republic supporting the rate increase.
In the final weeks of the campaign, frequent Municipal Utilities critic, Brian Becker, began a campaign to defeat the rate increase. The city alleges Becker did not comply with Missouri Ethics Commission rules requiring the display of a “paid for by” disclaimer on certain promotional pieces. However, the city also did not display a “paid for by” disclaimer on their advertisements promoting passage of the rate increase as is stipulated by the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Prior to the election city manager, Doug Bagby, wrote a letter to the editor repeating the themes of the pro tax increase ads and later Becker and Bagby got into a heated email exchange that Becker chronicled on his blog: blog.semo.net that ended with Bagby offering to “continue to pray for Becker and his family.” The measure ultimately passed by a wide margin.
On Election Day the dam broke when city manager, Doug Bagby, filed a police report stating that individuals had complained to him about election flyers being placed at their houses and he was asking the police as a private citizen to investigate the matter. He listed specifically City Clerk Pam Kearbey, City Attorney Wally Duncan, City Councilman Johnny Brannum, and one other unidentified woman as people concerned with the flyer in question. However, after contacting councilman Brannum he vigorously denied asking the city manager to file a police report on his behalf. “He asked me about it, but never mentioned asking the police to do any investigation. I am surprised my name was brought up in it. The first time I ever heard the city was trying to do an investigation was in the DAR. I will be speaking with him shortly”.
The SEMO TIMES was able to briefly review the police report before it was taken away and “reclassified.” We found that after Bagby’s initial complaint, City Clerk Pam Kearbey sent an email to the Chief of Police, Deputy Chief of Police, and City Manager with the subject line: BECKER. The email states that Kearbey’s husband’s co-worker told him to tell her that a person at the street department saw Brian Becker distributing the leaflets. The report goes on to list a short statement from newly-hired city street department employee, Marcus Donnel, that he saw Becker from a platform at church through a window on the street nearly 50 feet away placing the flyers on people’s windshields that were parked on the street.
The report went on to include a large amount of documentation revealing the Poplar Bluff Police detectives’ search for the company that printed the flyers supposedly on behalf of the Missouri Ethics Commission. After their exhaustive investigation they found the flyers had been printed at the local Office Depot located at the busiest intersection in Poplar Bluff, and were designed and ordered by the SEMO TIMES. “Of course we designed them and ordered them, just as we do for several clients. It really shows that the Poplar Bluff Police should stick to doing what they are some of the best in the world at; solving murders, kidnappings, and drug busts. They are terrible at playing politics. In the past three months I have spoken to and text messaged Danny Whiteley, Jeff Rowland, Doug Bagby, and Dave Sutton and all they would have had to do was call me. We did nothing, but a private commercial job for a private client. If they would have really wanted to talk to me they have never had a problem doing so, but none of them did. I think they are just playing upon Don Schrieber’s hatred of me to manipulate him and distract from the serious issues facing City Hall. As the person who chaired the committee that hired Doug Bagby to be City Manager, I sincerely hope they get their act together over there,” said SEMO TIMES Publisher, Scott Faughn.
After spending 4 to 5 minutes reading the police report an officer with the Poplar Bluff Police Department came into the room where the SEMO TIMES was reviewing it and stated that, “I need that report back, that isn’t public information anymore.” This was after the Daily American Republic had been provided unfettered access to the report so they could write a hit piece the day earlier. The SEMO TIMES asked to speak with the Chief and Deputy Chief and were told they were in a meeting and unavailable. It was later confirmed by a road officer that they were in a meeting with the City Attorney trying to learn what is public and not public regarding investigations on behalf of the Missouri Ethics Commission. There were further questions surrounding whether or not it was a conflict of interest for the city police to investigate a matter that City Hall was so deeply and obviously involved in.
This is where the story completely unravels.
Around 3:00 p.m. on Election Day a city detective traveled to the Ward 2 polling station where Becker was working the polls and issued him a ticket for “placing handbills on vehicle without a permit.” According to two longtime Poplar Bluff Police Officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing they would lose their jobs if they were on record, said that this was the first ever ticket written for this in his career. One officer laughed out loud when asked about it and said, “They have lost their minds downtown.”
Then an armed officer was dispatched to tear down signs that he claimed were illegal. The officer then tore down the signs opposing the city’s ballot measure while ignoring other signs without “paid for by” disclaimers. He informed the crowd of poll workers that he was “only supposed to take this sign.”
Up to now the police have claimed they were working on an investigation for the Missouri Ethics Commission. They claimed they would turn everything over to them, and subtly implied they were working together. This is what was quoted in the Daily American Republic and what four members of the City Council were under the impression of as were many people in the community when we spoke with them.
City Council members are up in arms over the bullying tactics being used by employees of the city they are supposed to supervise on behalf of the people. The SEMO TIMES spoke to four City Council members Thursday evening. All four were under the impression, from direct statements from the City Manager and public comments to the Daily American Republic, that the city was conducting an investigation on behalf of or at least in conjunction with the Missouri Ethics Commission. All were very surprised to learn that the Mo. Ethics Commission had no idea about the rogue actions being taken by the police department supposedly under the City Council’s supervision.
“I would have to say I am very surprised to hear this. They have acted like they are doing all of this as a favor to the Ethics Commission. I am going to find out more about what is going on,” said 5th Ward Councilman Robert Smith. Mayor of Poplar Bluff, Ed DeGaris, commented, “In my 33 years at the Poplar Bluff Police Department I have never heard of the department doing Ethics Commission investigations. It is certainly odd. If we were working with another agency I would think we would at least call them and tell them we are working with them.” While surprised at the nature of the investigation Mayor DeGaris did agree with the use of taxpayer funds to support the ballot measure, “Yes I did think we should spend some money to help pass it. In my opinion it would save money in the long run if we spent money now to help show people it would be good for them.”
At-Large Councilman, Loyd Matthews, stated, “The first I heard about this was in the DAR. I had understood we had been asked to do this investigation, but that is just what I read from the papers and heard at City Hall. If someone is abusing their position I will not stand for bullying, and I will get to the bottom of it and see if we need to do something about it.”
Councilman Brannum concluded, “If there is something fishy going on here we need to find out about it. There are processes for dealing with these Ethics Commission complaints and we need to follow them and treat everyone fairly whether they are for what the city is trying to do or opposed.”
We contacted City Hall to get a response from Mr. Bagby. He instructed his staff to tell us that he was “busy doing other things.”
Stay in touch with the SEMO TIMES throughout the weekend via our app, Twitter, Facebook, and at www.semotimes.com as the only news outlet that will be reporting the story for news as to City Hall’s reaction; possibly the responses to the many Sunshine Law filings that the SEMO TIMES will be submitting tomorrow to find out the true taxpayer costs in terms of advertising and manpower they have spent campaigning; and the possible ethics violations they may have committed as a result of their actions.
UPDATE: City Manger Doug Bagby did return our call early this morning.