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State audit finds that Florissant stands out for more than its flowers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2010 - The trouble with Florissant, says state Auditor Susan Montee, is that there aren't many Missouri communities like it.

Florissant has what is called a "strong mayor" form of government that many area mayors may covet (notably, the last half-dozen St. Louis mayors), but most don't have.

Tuesday night, Montee outlined the findings of her office's exhaustive and expensive audit of Florissant's city government, conducted at the behest of petitioning city residents.

The upshot: some Florissant residents might not like how Mayor Robert Lowery operates -- but the city ordinances give him the power to do pretty much what he wants.

"The mayor has the legal authority to make a whole lot of decisions," said Montee, adding that few Missouri communities give their mayor as much power as Florissant does.

In fact, her staff auditor in charge of Florissant's audit said she had never encountered another such "strong mayor" setup in her 30 years in the state auditor's office.

The powers appear to have been amassed during the 30-plus years that the late James J. Eagan was mayor of Florissant, the largest of St. Louis County's 91 municipalities.

Overall, said Montee, her staff uncovered no serious financial problems. Not that there weren't some recommendations and concerns about how Lowery has handled city money.

Montee's audit says that Lowery has failed to maintain logs that document when he uses his city-leased car for official and personal use. Such records are required by the IRS, she said.

He was also faulted for:

  • Waving rental fees for city facilities and equipment that Montee's staff estimates cost the city as much as $18,200 in lost revenue. Such spending included city chairs and tables used for Lowery's wedding anniversary celebration;
  • Overseeing 12 closed city council meetings between December 2008 and February 2010 that Montee said failed to provide documentation of what happened during those meetings, and why they were closed, as mandated by Missouri's Sunshine Laws.

Additional questions were raised in the audit about Lowery's use of $20,000 in city "discretionary" spending that he's allowed annually.
For example, the auditor's office raised questions about the necessity of:

  • $470 that Lowery spent for tickets and advertising for an unnamed not-for-profit group;
  • $1,241 that the mayor spent on Christmas cards last year, including postage;
  • $2,166 for "various trinket items" emblazoned with "Robert G. Lowery, Sr., Mayor, cty of Florissant" and his phone number;
  • $220 for four players in the St. Louis County Municipal League tournament;
  • $374 for a holiday party for city department heads;
  • $200 spent out of the city's "sewer lateral fund" for four city employees to participate in the golf tournament held by the Missouri Association of Building Officials and Inspectors.

But Montee emphasized that such spending, while appearing not "necessary to accomplish the mission of the city," did not violate any laws -- given Lowery's broad powers as mayor.
Most cities, she said, have city-manager forms of government where the mayor is primarily a ceremonial post, or the communities are governed by a strong board of councilmen or aldermen.

But in Florissant, Montee explained, the mayor governs the city as well as acts as its ceremonial figurehead.

Montee recommended that the nine-person City Council enact ordinances imposing more restrictions on what the mayor can do, and how he or she can spend city money. But for now, Montee repeatedly said, Lowery was breaking no laws.

In response to audience questions, Montee said nothing in the city ordinances mandated that the mayor spend a certain amount of time at City Hall. Some of Lowery's critics contend that he spends too few hours in his office.

"The mayor is the mayor 24 hours a day," Montee said, regardless of where he is. She noted that whoever is Florissant's mayor attends a lot of night and weekend meetings and events.

As a result of Montee's conclusions, Lowery wasn't too upset with the audit's findings. He emphasized that he believed that all of the questioned expenditures were appropriate and necessary to promote Florissant. The audit, he said, had been sought by a small band of political critics.

"After four months and three auditors," said Lowery, the lack of serious financial questions means "we're running a very efficient organization."

Councilman Andrew Podleski, who had supported the audit, said he was disappointed that the audit didn't focus more on his concerns about how Lowery "moves money around" and spends city money in ways other than what the money was budgeted.

But Podleski -- who lost a bid to unseat Lowery a couple years ago -- said he recognizes now that the issue is the amount of power that Florissant's current setup allocates to the mayor.

Montee, meanwhile, said that Florissant's distinctive form of government contributed to her audit's unexpectedly high cost.

Estimated at $24,000, the costs totalled around $50,000. Florissant is required to cover the $24,000, but Montee's state budget will cover the rest.

"This is not a city that I'm going to compare to other cities," Montee said. Instead, she explained later, Florissant's form of government ended up serving as a lesson, helping to educate her staff for the next time they encountered such an unusual setup.

There is a similar "strong mayor" city government not far away, she and Lowery noted -- the city of St. Charles.

If St. Charles' residents ever petition for an audit, the state auditor's office will be ready.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.