Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Interview with Robert Garrett - Candidate for Florissant Mayor

First let me say this, I am not coming out in favor of any one candidate. I do not think it is my place. With that said, I feel it is very important that all of the people voting for the Florissant mayor should know something about the candidates. That is why I have chosen to get involved with this mayoral race. I said it before and I will say it again, as Florissant goes, so goes North County.

I reached out, via email, to the candidates for Florissant mayor requesting an interview. Three of them responded and said they were open to it. After reaching out to my readers, I drew up 15 questions to ask. All three candidates were sent the same questions. Below, you will find the response from Robert Garrett exactly as he responded to me, unedited and just as he sent them to me. I hope you read what he has to say and think about it as you decide and choose which candidate will best represent you.

1. What makes you qualified to be mayor of one of the larges suburbs in the St. Louis area?

I’m an attorney with deep roots in the Florissant community, some understanding of small business and the problems facing small business owners as well as the important role of business in Florissant, and extensive experience in, and understanding of the workings of, Florissant city government.

In such regard, I’m currently a self-employed patent attorney and mediator. That means that not only can I practice as an attorney throughout the state of Missouri, but that I am also licensed to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and can do so throughout the country. In addition, I am qualified as a mediator for both civil and domestic matters under Missouri Court Rules.

I’ve been married to my wife, Toni, who is a math professor at the Meramec campus of the community college district, for over 41 years, and we have 3 adult kids, Anthony, Joe, and Susan Therese, spread from coast to coast. We have lived in our current house here, in the middle of Old Town, on the same block where I grew up, for over 33 years. We bought that house from my grandfather’s estate.

I’m a Florissant native, and at least 3 of my ancestors have served as Florissant Mayor: my great grandfathers Sidney Garrett and August Albers, and my great great grandfather Charles Castello.

I attended Sacred Heart School, including classes held in the old school building, and, with the aid of some scholarships, eventually obtained Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Electrical Engineering from Washington U.

I’m an Air Force veteran and was commissioned and began my active duty service as a Reserve Officer before being awarded a commission as Regular Air Force Officer. While on active duty I served as an engineer in satellite checkout and launch at Vandenburg AFB. My duties included activities with a variety of systems and also required me to work with and to exercise oversight of contractor engineers and union technicians who were working on the satellite vehicles.

Following my active duty time, I attended, and graduated from law school at St. Louis U., using the GI Bill, while remaining in the inactive reserve as a Captain.

Subsequently, for over 31 years, until April 1, 2009, I operated and, for many years, managed the patent law firm of Haverstock, Garrett & Roberts LLP, a small to medium size patent law firm in downtown St. Louis, and, in so doing, became familiar with problems facing small businesses and their owners, including management of personnel.

During the time that I was with that patent law firm, I also served on the Florissant Planning and Zoning Commission, and was later elected to and served 6 terms on the Florissant City Council from 1984 to 2002. During my City Council tenure, I served 1 council term as council Vice-President and two council terms as President of the City Council. During part of that time, Jim Eagan was Mayor and during the latter few years Bob Lowery was Mayor.

During that same time period, I served on various committees and commissions of St. Louis County and the St. Louis County Municipal League, including the St. Louis Co. Capital Improvements Committee, the Boundary Change Committee, and the Special Laws & Boundary Changes Committee.

I subsequently also served on the St. Louis County Interstate 270/ Highway 367 Corridor Advisory Commission, and I more recently served as Chairman of an Old Town Partners committee that was addressing business development and the possibility of establishing a new improvement district that would encompass at least the Old Town business district. That particular committee included not only Old Town Partner members, but also several business owners from the Old Town area and several City officials.

While I served on Council, I was a strong advocate for infrastructure maintenance and improvement, and was the driving force behind establishment of a long-term plan for the improvement of streets in the Old Town grid. That plan has been initiated, but will take many, many years to complete.

I was also a supporter, along with various other council members, and in opposition to Mayor Eagan’s desires, of numerous creek paving and improvement programs that have proved a boon to the City and to residents along those creeks.

Although I was sometimes at odds with Mayor Eagan, I also worked with him on various matters, including the purchase by the City of what is now the Florissant Government Building at St. Francois and Florissant Road. I was the one who initially proposed that purchase, and was invited by Mayor Eagan to appear with him for the closing of that purchase.

Over the years I have been a staunch supporter of our City’s police department, and I believe that it is imperative that we maintain a strong and effective force into the future.

I have worked to try to respect the history of Florissant and its historic treasures while also allowing residents and the City to be able to undertake property maintenance and updates without undue regulation and interference by the City. In such regard, I worked for many months in meetings with Rosemary Davison, then Council member Geri Debo, and City Attorney John Hessel, and sometimes others, to develop an improved ordinance regarding historic structures throughout the City and the Historic District. Many compromises were necessary in order to develop a workable ordinance that would address not only historic preservation, but also desires of residents of historic structures and of the Historic District to be free of unnecessary regulation. Had we not worked out and adopted a new ordinance when we did, repairs, and even the scheduling of repairs, would have been significantly delayed and impacted following the hail and ice storms we experienced some years ago because of the previous requirements regarding approval processes.

I have been a strong advocate of business development within the City, not only because of the more immediate favorable tax consequences for the City, but also because of the jobs that are made available to City residents and because of the general improvement that such businesses afford all of us in our daily lives. In such regard, I, along with four other Council members and Mayor Lowery, pushed for the redevelopment of the old, outdated shopping center that had been located at Cross Keys, which has now been replaced with the Shoppes at Cross Keys development and includes, among other stores, Barnes & Noble, Schnucks, Pier One, OfficeMax and Home Depot. At the time, that action was very controversial, and I faced a great deal of criticism from various other Council members and a significant portion of the Florissant populace. In the days before the final vote for that project, I met at Sansone offices to discuss and work out with the principals of that corporation some of the final amendments and concessions to be included in the bill, and to address with them the significant possibility that the project might not be approved, and the consequences of non-approval. I ask you to consider what that area would look like today had that development not been pursued. Fortunately, the project was very narrowly approved. In hindsight, I would hope that everyone could agree that that was a good decision!

2. What advantage/skill set makes you more qualified than the other candidates?

No other candidate has the background, qualifications, and wealth of experience that I do. See the answer to Question 1.

Significantly, no other candidate has the legal training and experience that I do.

In addition, no other candidate is a trained mediator.

Additionally, while I was a Councilman, I believe that I became known for my attention to detail, my desire to “get things right”, and my ability to work with the Mayor and other council members even when we did not agree, and without the exhibition of ongoing rancor and personal animosities.

I believe that those abilities, especially when coupled with my business experience and my long service on the City Council, including as both Council Vice-President and Council President, make me more qualified and better able to address the challenges as Mayor of Florissant.

3. What is your stance on the strong mayor system that Florissant has and why do you feel this way?

Florissant has had a strong mayor system since the adoption of the current charter almost 40 years ago, and that system has served the City well over that time period.

I am an advocate of the “don’t fix what ain’t broke” school of thought. It doesn’t appear to me that the strong mayor system for Florissant is broken.

Florissant’s mayor serves not only as the chief executive of the City, but also as the chief operating officer. In council/manager systems, a city manager or administrator, typically chosen by the city council, acts as the chief operating officer.

Some argue that a city manager would be more qualified to run the day-to-day matters of city government because the city manager would be specifically trained for such a role. However, the history of city managers in numerous other communities shows that that is not necessarily the case. While some city managers do have specific college training and some previous city administration experience, others, when first hired by a municipality, have little or no previous administration training or experience. In some instances, the city manager is a previous police chief or other city official or politician who was able to secure the support of a majority of the council to be hired.

Some also argue that adoption of a council/manager system would get away from the more obnoxious “politics” associated with city government. That is clearly not the case. A city manager is a political appointee of the council, or more accurately, of a majority of the council. In far too many instances, a change in the make-up of the council may result in the firing of one city manager and the hiring of a new city manager. In some instances, especially where the council is fractious and closely split, the election of any new council member may result in a change in the council majority. In recent years, in several municipalities locally, on the East Side, in St. Louis County, and in St. Charles County, we have seen cities experience revolving door firings and hirings of city managers.

Some also argue that it would be cheaper to have a council manager than a full-time mayor because the mayor would be paid less. While I would expect a mayor in a council/city manager system to be paid less than the mayor of a strong mayor system, that does not mean that there will be an overall savings, however. If the City wishes to attract and be able to employ a well qualified city manager, the pay for that position would need to be commensurate with the pay for city manager positions in cities of comparable size and with comparable responsibilities. In many cases, that pay would need to be set as high or higher than the current pay for Florissant’s mayor. As of several years ago, the pay for O’Fallon, Missouri’s city manager was set at about $168,000, and an assistant city manger was paid an additional approximately $122,000. I don’t know the pay of other city managers and assistant city managers throughout the area, but a survey conducted by University City several years ago reflected that, at that time, there were at least 13-14 city managers in St. Louis County who were then being paid over $114,000. I think that the pay of the city manager of Hazelwood, which is considerably smaller than Florissant and which also employs an assistant city manager, is among those city managers who were then making over the $114,000, and I believe substantially more. Since Florissant is the largest community in St. Louis County, and is generally comparable in size to O’Fallon, Missouri, at least as of the time of the city manager pay referenced above, it would seem that it might well be MORE expensive for Florissant to move to a council/manager system.

If Florissant could not attract and elect qualified individuals who could act as both chief executive and chief operating officers, it might make greater sense to move towards a council/manager system instead of a strong mayor system, but that does not currently seem to be the case.

4. Younger families are flocking to St. Peters and O’Fallon. As mayor, what are you going to do to attract and retain young families to Florissant.

While St. Peters and O’Fallon have indeed grown rapidly over the past decade, as Florissant did in the 1960s, I don’t know that all, or even most, of that growth can be accurately attributed to younger families “flocking” to those communities. On the other hand, I do not doubt that such growth is, in part, due to some substantial influx of younger families into such communities.

Over the same period, while Florissant, as a more mature community, has not seen such substantial growth, it has remained a very stable community, and the latest 2010 census shows a slight increase in Florissant population over the 2000 census.

Part of the problem that Florissant faces is a perception problem—a perception that Florissant is stagnating or in a decline, a perception that North County is not a desirable place to live. This is attributable in no small part to repeated media statements that tend to paint the entire North County area as a less desirable part of the region and to ongoing, often incorrect, media reports that identify various problems, or crimes, or criminals with “Florissant” when, in fact, those problems and crimes are NOT associated with the City of Florissant.

Because a large swath of North County, from Hazelwood to the Mississippi River and generally from I-270 north to the Missouri River, is serviced by the Florissant Post Office, many people, including many journalists and members of the media who should know better, attribute almost anything “bad” that occurs within such area as being associated with the city of Florissant, rather than as something that is associated with an area, largely unincorporated, that is outside of city limits and, in many cases, many miles outside of the city limits. That type of “reporting” is grossly misleading and highly unfair to the city of Florissant.

Additionally, the media frequently ignore or don’t address “good” things that happen within such area, and especially within Florissant city limits, with the same fervor, and seem to prefer to issue praises for portions of West County and areas west in St. Charles County.

We have to take issue with those media outlets and personnel when they engage in such misleading “reporting”, such as when they state that a “Florissant apartment complex” has been closed down because of building and maintenance problems when, in fact, that complex is not within the city limits of Florissant and Florissant has no jurisdiction or control over the complex, or when they state that there has been a shooting, believed to be gang related, in a Florissant neighborhood when, in fact, the shooting occurred miles from the city of Florissant in an unincorporated area patrolled by the St. Louis County Police Department and not by the Florissant Police Department.

Florissant is still a vibrant community with many amenities. We offer an extensive park and recreation system and are one of only a handful of local communities that have NO property tax. Many generations of Florissant residents, of which I am one, remain in and return to Florissant and continue to call Florissant home.

I believe that we must emphasize the advantages and amenities available to young families, including the lack of a property tax, the ready access to interstate highways for rapid travel to the city of St. Louis as well as to St. Louis County and St. Charles County, the proximity of the Florissant Valley campus of the community college district, the many shopping areas within just a few minutes drive, our extensive parks and recreation system, our award winning police department, an our family life centered approach.

I would take issue with those who wrongly “report” about problems with Florissant, and would encourage everyone else to do the same, and would attempt to continue the tradition of providing the services and amenities that have made Florissant the great community that it is.

5. Considering these tough economic times, do you see any cuts to the city’s senior and youth programs?

Not at this moment.

However, it will be necessary to continually scrutinize our budget to make sure that we remain financially viable and self sustaining. Consequently, we will have to continually evaluate all our programs to ensure that they remain cost-effective, that they are truly addressing what they should be, and that they are being efficiently provided. If not, over time, changes of some type may become necessary.

6. The two school districts in Florissant do not have a great reputation. This is major reason people site for not moving into Florissant. While the city does not control the schools, what are your thoughts on how the city can help change this perception?

It was not that long ago that some of the Ferguson-Florissant schools were cited nationally for their excellence in education.

Within the last few years, the Hazelwood school districts superintendent was selected to become the head of Missouri’s department of education.

Despite such positives, test scores in those school districts are down in recent years and possible accreditation problems have surfaced.

Large, if not the greater, parts of both school districts lie outside of the Florissant city limits.

Part of the problem appears to me to be non-motivated students and a lack of involvement by parents in pushing their children to succeed and excel.

Another part of the problem is undoubtedly school funding, and the hit that such funding has taken in this down economy.

Because the City of Florissant forms only a portion of both of such districts, any actions that can be taken by Florissant are limited. Even if every Florissant child were a straight A student and every Florissant property had an average or higher property valuation, those effects can be diluted by the rest of the districts.

Consequently, we must work with the surrounding communities and unincorporated areas to try to maintain high property values and the availability of good jobs within the entire region, and we must try to reverse the perception that North County is an undesirable region. See also my response to Question 4 in such regard.

We must also try to instill within the families a belief in the value of education and the need for heavy parental involvement in the education of their children.

In addition, to the extent feasible and financially possible, I want Florissant to actively push the DARE program within our local schools in order to combat gangs and crime within the schools and to promote good citizenship and a respect for laws and the police.

7. What do you like about the city of Florissant?

Many, many things.

Let me list just a few of those things:

Florissant’s sense of community
Its family centered values
Its rich historic tradition, including
Old St. Ferdinand Shrine,
Taille de Noyer,
Casa Alvares,
and many other historic buildings and locations
Its extensive religious heritage, including
the many churches and denominations throughout the City
Its convenient location
Its continuing designation as one of the safest cities of its size in the country
Its many parks and recreation facilities
Its superior senior citizen programs and facilities
Popular business locations such as
Old Town Donuts, and
Hendel's Market Café, to mention only a few

8. There are a lot of vacant businesses in Florissant. What are you going to do to fill those vacant buildings and attract vibrant businesses to the city?

As I have previously noted, over the years I have been a strong advocate of business development within the City, not only because of the more immediate favorable tax consequences for the City, but also because of the jobs that are made available to City residents and because of the general improvement that such businesses afford all of us in our daily lives.

Unlike certain other candidates seeking the office of mayor, I was an early and ardent supporter of the highly successful Cross Keys redevelopment, and worked hard to get that approved, despite criticism for my position and despite the political downside associated with strongly advocating for what was then a highly controversial project during an election year for me. Despite the political hit that I knew I would take, I pushed for such redevelopment because I truly believed that that was the correct thing to do for the betterment of Florissant. Unfortunately for me, I lost that following election. Despite that, I believe that I made the right decision when I pushed for such redevelopment, and I believe that my position has been vindicated over time.

Mayor Lowery and the administration have worked diligently for years now to try to attract additional developments and businesses, and are to be commended for their actions in such regard, which have contributed to Florissant’s stability as many surrounding communities and areas in St. Louis County have, unlike Florissant, experienced population declines in the last decade. We have to continue such activities, especially in the current economic climate, and continue to try to improve and update the City’s business base and business properties.

With regard to some of those businesses that have opened developments in Florissant in more recent years, Mayor Lowery has advised that various of those businesses report that their Florissant facilities are among the highest performing sites of those chains throughout the country. Such reports enhance the attractiveness of Florissant as a city in which other businesses will want to expand or to set up shop.

I would continue the efforts of the administration over the past few years to attract new businesses and developments to the City and the North County area.

I believe that other activities in the past few years bode well for the future, despite the more recent economic downturn throughout the country. The North Park business park near the airport holds promise for attracting businesses to the North County area. Ferguson has established an improvement district along its downtown area that has revitalized its business area. Florissant and Hazelwood have participated in beautification and improvement projects along Lindbergh Boulevard (N. Highway 67). All of these activities are helping to overcome negative perceptions about Florissant and the North County area (see responses to Questions 4 and 6), and Florissant needs to encourage such activities.

I want the City to be seen as a partner with businesses and as a location that will work with businesses to help those businesses realize success, and not as a municipality that inhibits businesses or seeks to have them jump through hoops simply for the exercise.

That does not, however, mean that I think that the City should automatically approve everything, or relax standards, or blithely ignore circumstances or situations that may properly require critical analysis (see, for example, responses to Questions 9 and 15 relative to payday loan and related businesses and to Wal-Mart).

I would continue to aggressively pursue new business development and the jobs they would bring.

9. Some residents complain that there are too many check cashing, payday loan, rent to own and used card lots in Florissant. They feel that this brings in a seedier element and detracts from the city. What are your thoughts on this?

I agree with their complaints regarding many of those businesses.

When I was on the City Council, we tried to prohibit or greatly restrict some of those businesses. However, courts have directed that under Missouri, or in some cases federal, law or constitutions, cities like Florissant cannot prohibit or impose many of the restrictions that I might personally consider desirable.

Under the circumstances, Florissant is bound by such laws and court rulings and must comply with those, even when they are at odds with prohibitions or restriction that I believe would be more beneficial to the City.

10. It has been said that our current mayor can be contentious if you do not agree with him. How do you plan on working with the city council?

People will always disagree.

We all disagree at times with our spouses, children, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. Usually, we manage to limit our disagreements to particular issues and do not let those disagreements become ongoing sources of contention.

I do not expect to always agree with everyone on the City Council or in City government. I appreciate that sometimes I may even find myself in disagreement with a majority of the City Council.

From my very first Council meeting, I had significant disagreements with various other Council members. However, our disagreements over a particular matter were, more often than not, left on the floor of the council meeting. That did not prevent me and council members such as Dave Reynolds, Charlie DeMoulin, and Ken Bond, among others, from subsequently discussing our disagreements, sometimes in colorful terms and with colorful invectives, as we later met with one another and socialized--and such discussions allowed us all to gain valuable insights as to the positions and reasoning of one another, and to sometimes understand why that “ridiculous” position or proposal by that other son of a gun Council member was not really that “ridiculous”, and to also sometimes result in follow-up legislation that was better able to address all of our concerns.

On various occasions I disagreed with Mayor Eagan, with Mayor Lowery, and probably with every council member with whom I ever served. That did not mean that I thereafter acted with ill will toward those individuals on all other matters. I believe that I became known for, among other things, my ability to work with them even when we did not agree, and without the exhibition of ongoing rancor and personal animosities. I believe that my record shows that I was able to put a disagreement about a particular issue behind me and to move forward with other matters in the best interests of the City.

Over the years, I gained respect for everyone involved, even those with whom I disagreed the most, because I came to understand that, like me, they wanted the best for the City, even if their views were, in my belief, sometimes misguided.

11. Politically speaking, who do you model yourself after?

I don’t really believe that I model myself after any politician that I can think of.

Especially in more recent history, I’m not sure that the populace would consider any politician particularly worthy of emulation.

I try to represent constituents, to look out for their interests, to provide straightforward info without a lot of BS, and to take responsibility for my actions.

To the extent that such actions may be reminiscent of Harry Truman, perhaps it could be said that, at least in some respects, I model myself after him.

12. Is there anything you want to accomplish in your first year?

I want to break the pattern of personal animus and ongoing rancor that has increasingly become a part of City politics in recent years.

I want to secure passage of fiscally responsible budget that maintains our core services, such as outstanding police services.

I want to BEGIN the re-population of vacant and foreclosed houses throughout the City and to maintain property values.

To the extent financially feasible, I want to CONTINUE street and infrastructure maintenance and improvement and other successful and popular City programs, including Senior Citizen services.

I want to continue the pursuit of, and hopefully ATTRACT, additional businesses with good paying jobs for City residents.

13. What do you think people should know about you?

That I’m well qualified and will look out for their interests.

In such regard, I would hope

that they would check out my qualifications and positions as reflected by the Qualifications & Positions presentation available on the Facebook page “Robert M. Garrett (for Mayor of Florissant)”, a copy of which presentation I have provided with these responses,

that they would watch the video of the Candidate’s Forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Greater North County Chamber of Commerce, as available for viewing at, and

that they would carefully review my responses to these questions.

14. The trash/recycling contact will expire during the next mayor’s term. Do you want to continue with a city wide contract\ or have it go back to being resident’s choice?

At this point in time I am open to either possibility, dependent upon the desires of Florissant residents.

I have heard various complaints from people who believe that the service that they receive is not as good as the service that they were getting when they could select their own trash service.

On the other hand, many residents seem to believe that the “price is right” for the current city-wide program, especially when one considers the recycling collection and the senior citizen discount.

My present impression is that most residents favor the present city-wide program with a single hauler, and I would anticipate that, unless there is an outcry against so doing, the City will solicit bids for a new contract.

Ultimately, the bid responses, including the prices quoted, may have some bearing upon how the City will want to proceed.

15. Walmart in Florissant, where do you stand and what are your thoughts?

While I am not enthralled with the idea of a Wal-Mart development within the City, Florissant would be obligated to treat Wal-Mart the same as any other business that might want to build a new development within the City, such as a new Schnucks, a new Sears, a new Walgreens, or a new neighborhood hardware store.

So long as Wal-Mart complies with all zoning and other ordinances of the City, Florissant would probably have no legal basis to prevent Wal-Mart from opening a store.

That being said, I believe that, in many instances, Wal-Mart has proven to be detrimental to many local businesses throughout the country, which is regrettable, and has a questionable record relative to treatment of its employees.

Although development of a new Wal-Mart store within Florissant might seemingly result in some favorable tax consequences for the City, that could be offset if the result is a loss of other City businesses.

Furthermore, if the new store is simply the “re-location” of a store from a nearby community, such “re‑location” could actually be detrimental to the region as a whole and could result in regional, including within Florissant, devaluation of property values, thereby undercutting any perceived advantages associated with the new development.

Furthermore, absent other exigent circumstances, I currently see no reason why Florissant would want to consider any TIF or community improvement taxing district for a Wal-Mart development.

So, there you have it. Robert Garrett ladies and gentlemen. Robert also asked that I include a letter that he has drafted on his qualifications and positions. I have agreed to include this document to allow everyone the chance to be fully informed. You can find that document HERE.

If any of the other candidates, in the course of responding to my questions, asks the same of me, I will do so in kind.


Anonymous said...

Well, I wouldn't say vindicated on the Cross Keys decision. It is pretty and busy, but the city is not financially benefiting from it.

In fact, we are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year paying off the TIFF bonds for it. They won't be paid off until 2024. That is when it will start bringing in money, it it isn't dilapidated like Northwest Plaza by then!

The vote on the final approval was 5-4. I wish our council hadn't allowed the plans to change so much in the developer's favor from the original proposal that was selected.

It morphed into just as bad a deal as the purchase of the golf course.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes you can be too brief. Other times you can be too long winded.
You can tell the man has a high intellect and that he is an attorney.
But there is also the key ability to reason about what you are thinking and expressing.
You have to read what you said and put yourself in the shoes of the reader.
I am an avid reader and I found his replies too cumbersome. I do not mind some related background information if it helps explain the reply. But I really don't think his wife's name and occupation is a "qualification". Nor is his kids names or the fact that he has ancestors that were mayors, or his grandkids names.
The man is clearly intelligent but he doesn't know how to sort relevant points from non-relevant points. That is a critical skill.